Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Take Back the Game

Yesterday, I was flipping through the Sears Christmas wish catalogue. I discovered this year, for a mere $70.83, you can get a plastic replica Habs goalie mask. For $69.99, you can own a statue of a depressed baby in a Habs sweater, wishing for a Stanley Cup. A Canadiens-logo scarf or dog dish will run you forty bucks, and if you want to keep your chilly toes toasty in Habs-themed slippers, it'll cost you fifty. If none of those Habby items rock your boat, the die-hard Canadiens fan can also shell out for sleeping bags, lighters, baby onesies, bikinis, playing cards, coins, t-shirts, long johns, curtains, socks, packages of tissues, toasters, air fresheners, clothespins, bar ware, lawn chairs or lunchboxes, all emblazoned with the proud CH. In short, if you can buy it, a manufacturer can slap a Habs logo on it and charge you double. Of course, all that lovely money runs directly into the NHL coffers, helping hockey-related revenue rise by an average of seven percent every year since the last lockout.

In the run-up to the current lockout, lots of angry fans have been threatening boycotts of everything from hockey itself to companies that sponsor NHL teams. They hope if they switch their internet from Bell to Rogers, it will worry Bell's brass enough to pressure owners for a CBA settlement. Less radical fans are saying they'll shut their wallets and not buy a new Colby Armstrong sweater or Habs-themed watch with Rocket Richard's goal-celebration arms marking the hours, in hope of making owners worry about loss of merchandise revenue. They threatened similar things eight years ago, when the last lockout began. In the end, after an entire year without the NHL, they rushed back to pro rinks in greater numbers than ever, paying higher ticket prices and shelling out 200 bucks a pop for their official replica Alex Kovalev jerseys.

It's a fine idea to say you won't go back to the Bell Centre when the lockout is over. Really, though, as the last work stoppage showed, you and the rest of the hockey-mad world probably won't be able to stick to that threat. We want our hockey, no matter how much we hate Gary Bettman and think the players and owners are all a bunch of greedy bastards. We also can swear to boycott NHL sponsor companies, but are we really going to change our cable provider or forgo our morning fix of Timmy's joe just for the principle of the thing? Probably not. Or at least, not enough of us will commit to a boycott to make a difference. One thing we can do, however, and in great numbers, is refuse to buy all that NHL-sanctioned swag. We can still have hockey; we just don't need to pay for a forty-dollar ball cap to wear while we watch it.

Fans, as we know, are the people who provide the money the NHL's players and owners are fighting over right now. Yet, when the cash leaves our hands and goes to Ticketmaster or the Habs merchandise shop, we lose our power.  The question is, how much influence do we really have if we choose to keep our money? Looking at the numbers, it turns out we could have quite a lot.

In the eight years since the last lockout, the NHL's hockey-related revenue has increased by nearly 50%. Last year, the league made a cool $3.3-billion. There's not a detailed breakdown of where all that cash originated that's publicly available, but with the numbers we can find, some of the picture begins to emerge. We know, for example, that the league takes in $355-million in TV revenue each year. We also know gate revenue last year amounted to $1.3-billion dollars. The league's largest sponsor, Molson-Coors, pays the NHL $53-million a year. Those three things account for $1.9-billion of the league's total revenue, leaving $1.4-billion for other sponsorship, including arena naming rights and dasher board ads, radio and internet rights and merchandise sales.

Last year, sales of all those team-logo-emblazoned goods went up by 15% over the previous season. In fact, they've risen every year since the last lockout. The league doesn't release specific numbers, but if merchandise accounts for even half of that $1.4-billion dollars, fans who buy NHL-approved stuff provide a very significant portion of the league's record revenue. If it accounts for even a third of the $1.4-billion, merchandise sales are worth more than all the TV rights CBC, TSN, NBC and RDS buy each year. That, friends, is big money, and money, as they say, talks.

I've never really considered how much Habs stuff I own, but after I thought about this, I took a look around. It turns out, I have four Habs sweaters, one of them game-worn and two pro replicas with names and numbers. I have four CH t-shirts of various patterns, three Canadiens ball caps, a keychain, gym wrist bands, a bottle opener, a water bottle, a subscription to the Habs team magazine, two fridge magnets, nine different books, videos and a DVD box set, coins, stamps, slippers, gloves, a framed 100th-anniversary print, a McFarlane figure of Patrick Roy, a calendar and a tiny model Escalade that sits on my desk at work, sporting the Habs logo. I don't know how much I or the people who gave me these things as gifts spent on the stuff, but I imagine it's well over a thousand bucks, and a portion of  that went right into the NHL owners' pockets. That's why I'm not going to buy anything else.

I'm angry this labour dispute is holding fans hostage, and I want to make a statement the owners will be forced to hear. I'm not willing to abandon hockey, but I will never buy another NHL-trademarked item again. And you know what? I won't miss it. I rarely wear my Habs gear, except during the playoffs, and the rest of it is just cute junk I've picked up over the years and never notice. I want my Habs hockey, but I'll be damned if I'll contribute to the many millions the NHL makes off merchandise sales and then fights about. Who's with me?

P.S. If all this makes you feel like crying, try this for a laugh.