“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – the text of an old silk-screened panel that was given to me as a kid and is now lost in a box somewhere
I was really ticked about the whole Farrell-to-Boston episode the other day. This was surprising as I almost never get angry about sports anymore. I don’t know whether it’s a sign of maturity or fatigue, but I just can’t get that worked up about something that’s basically a hobby and doesn’t directly impact my quality of life.
It could just be that the teams in this market have collectively been so bad for so long that if one were to get mad about poor performance and general stupidity, one would never stop being mad – and that’s just unhealthy.
It clearly isn’t just me, though.
I’ve said it before, but the thing that strikes me the most about this current edition of the NHL lockout (part three of an unnumbered, potentially never-ending series) is how little people seem to care. There was a spark of interest when the NHL released an offer that sounded somewhat plausible, but when it landed with a thud and the league then summarily rejected three PA offers, there was a collective “meh” from the fan base and everyone has gone back to their business. Contrast this to 2004, where fans had Opinions (capital “O”) and argued passionately about them for months. It just isn’t happening.
I’m trying to decide what’s the more dangerous scenario – the fan base that is furious or the fan base that simply doesn’t care any longer. The latter is certainly harder to read – is it patience (we’ll come back when you’re ready) or apathy (we can’t be bothered with this nonsense anymore)? The league is counting on the fact that fans came back in droves last time around and thus should do so again. Have they misread this?
I do wonder, though, what would happen if the fan base as a whole responded with anger rather than silence. When baseball was headed for a potential labour stoppage in 2006(?), fans were livid. Fan anger was on the radio. It was on TV. People remembered 1994 and were not about to put up with it again. In the last games before what was supposed to be the strike date, fans showed up with signs telling the players that if they walked out, they could stay out and that this would be the last MLB game they’d ever attend. Baseball, unlike hockey, had the memory of the fallout of the 1994 strike and while it’s purely anecdotal, it appears that both parties were struck enough by the reaction that a deal was hammered out shortly thereafter and the strike never materialized.
What would happen in hockey? Is this a situation where the fans could actually have an impact? Could properly-mobilized anger bring enough pressure to bear that both sides abandon the song-and-dance routine and begin negotiating?
This is where I find the Kotter card apt. Last time out, I assigned the role of the fan base to Mr. Woodman and the role of Bettman to Epstein. Barbarino takes over from Freddie Washington as the NHLPA. Woodman is obviously ticked and he’s making it known. Barbarino, who is closer and more directly exposed to his wrath – such as it is – is a little more taken aback than Epstein. Epstein is sheltered both by Barbarino – who is more in the line of fire – and his position, which offers him distance and thus some form of protection. He maintains the smirk he had in dealing with Woodman in #7.
So is Woodman’s anger effective? In this case, it appears not. Barbarino reacts more to it because he has more exposure to it, but Epstein is unmoved, even amused by the whole thing. Ultimately, the anger does no good because his position and authority aren’t being respected. If there’s a threat behind the anger, neither of the other two particularly care about it. Barbarino might be more prepared to act, but Epstein? No chance.
Ultimately, the reaction I see Woodman getting is the reaction I see us getting as fans. Fan action in baseball in 2006 worked for two reasons – fans actually did punish the sport after 1994, and the ’06 strike was going to be player-initiated. Players are closer to the fans (or at least more directly-exposed to them) and perhaps more vulnerable to pressure. In hockey, there was no pain to the sport after 2004 – quite the opposite. The sport lost a season and returned to good crowds and record revenue. Note, too, that this is a lockout rather than a strike. The league – not the players (unless they concede to everything, which really isn’t an exercise of power) – has the power to stop and start play. The league is comfortable in shutting everything down because it ultimately has no respect for the fan base. We’ve grumbled and moaned before, but always came back. We’ve always spent. The power we have – that of the pocketbook – is something we’ve never shown an inclination to use and they’re comfortable with that.
So we can be mad all that we want, but it won’t change a thing unless both parties think we’ll back it up with action and neither of them really do. They play PR games with the fans, hoping pressure might land on the other guy but never feeling any of it themselves. They’re both just following a script they set out some time ago and our part in it is basically passive.
So if we’re seeing fan indifference instead of anger, what does that mean?
It’s probably reasonable to think that a lot fans have decided not to waste their energy getting mad when it won’t affect the overall progress of the lockout (this could be conscious or unconscious). Indifference takes a lot less energy and is vastly superior in terms of stress management. It’s also a much tougher nut for the NHL to crack – if it holds once the lockout is over. It’s one thing to woo fans who are angry, because at some level they still care. It’s another thing entirely to woo fans who have abandoned you. Ask the Blue Jays or the Montreal Expos about that. If fan indifference holds, the next set of CBA negotiations will look very different.
I guess the thing that I’m finding find most frustrating is that lockouts seem to have become the norm in pro sports. It’s no longer the last resort. It’s the plan right from the outset. It’s telling that Bettman references the NFL and NBA when talking about trends in CBA negotiations. If there’s no price to pay for doing this, then the second this lockout is finished, the clock starts ticking on the next one. There’s just no good reason for it not to happen and that’s incredibly tiresome. We deserve better.