NHL lockout: League hires top GOP strategist to run public relations focus group, change perception

NHLLockoutIt turns out the NHL is concerned about the public relations battle, after all.

The league's owners, who find themselves mostly cast as the bad guys in this lockout, don't seem to like the label. During the previous lockout in 2004-05 that wiped out an entire season, it seemed like the majority of people were on their side. Everybody could see the sport needed something, and the salary cap seemed to be the answer.

Now the script has been flipped. While the last lockout did have a sense of necessity, this one seems to lack that sense. As a result, a lot of the backlash has been against the league while the players have been playing to the fans -- at least what few fans remain -- and garnering their support.

So what did the NHL do about this? The league commissioned a focus group, led by top GOP strategist Frank Luntz, to learn why owners lack support and to try to do something about it. But you can't run a focus group with a guy like Lutz these days and have it not get out. That's where the site Deadspin comes in.

Here is a taste of Deadspin's revelations about the 30-person focus group that Luntz presided over.

After being asked to rate how sympathetic they were to owners vs. players, the participants were given a packet to complete. Photographs of the entire packet can be found below. Here's some of what they were asking:

• "Which of the following statements about the owners and their position in the labor dispute makes you feel most negative about the owners?"

(Sample statements included "The owners designed the agreement that they are now forcing the players to change" and "NHL owners spent the summer signing star players to massive, career-long deals and now want to undo those contracts.")

Also included was an exercise in which group members were shown images and asked to pick the ones that they miss the most. Among those was a still shot of a fight and, wouldn't you know it, the late Derek Boogaard was featured in it. Well done, NHL. Well done, indeed.

There are other exercises that the subjects were asked to participate in. You can see them and the sometimes-laughable responses on the Deadspin link. Camera phones have come a long way, haven't they?

The NHL concluded fans really don't like commissioner Gary Bettman and don't support the owners in this case. Then again, that wasn't really a revelation; we pretty much all knew that. The key was to identify why fans feel that way and how owners can change that perception.

Perhaps the answer is "shared sacrifice," a phrase the NHL might begin spouting, or, now that news of the focus group has leaked, not use. We'll have to wait and see.

It's no surprise the NHL is trying to run a focus group to gauge the temperature of today's climate in the NHL. They could just check the mentions on the NHL's Twitter account and save the money, but it's still helpful. I don't think that's why the NHL is left with egg on its face here. As Bruce Arthur points out, it actually shows the NHL does care a bit about what the fans think. In a weird kind of way, that can be one of the takeaways.

The problem is this just seems to reek of desperation. Luntz's services don't come cheap, which opens the door even more to laugh at the league as it cries poor -- though I doubt the people who have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced find it funny that the NHL is investing a lot into a costly venture like this. We didn't really need a focus group to conclude that Bettman is not liked by the fans, did we? We could just watch any Stanley Cup presentation over the years to conclude that.

Oh, and that Boogaard gaffe? That's just an awful oversight. The irony is the damage that it does to the NHL's public relations perception when the entire goal of the focus group is to improve its public relations perception.

The real revelation is the NHL might be sweating it out a bit right now. Perhaps that's a leap; again, it's not necessarily surprising that one side would conduct a focus group. I would be surprised if the NHLPA has not conducted one of its own. But that the league hired the biggest name in the business and essentially did it like a shotgun wedding must say something. The tenor of the questions makes you wonder, too.

Earlier in this lockout mess, Bettman said he wasn't worried about the fans not returning because the NHL has the greatest fans in the world. Surprising to nobody, not even that flattery could keep the anger (or worse, apathy) down. Maybe the league is starting to hear and see the threats. At some point, hockey will return and the NHL must make sure the fans will return, too.

The best and easiest thing the NHL could do to fix its public relations image would be to get a deal done, or at least try to seem fair. What doesn't seem fair is owners signing those players to big deals in a spree this past summer and then immediately asking for some of it back. Honor the contracts, for starters, and then your image looks 10 times better immediately. That was one of the top responses the focus group came up with when talking about the tenor of the negotiations.

In the end, I'm not sure how much this affects the NHL in the lockout talks. Perhaps the union will try to find some way to use it to its advantage, but the PR effect does little. You'd like to have a positive perception, sure, but it won't really help get a deal done just the same as a bad perception will hinder one. But the NHL seems to be understanding this lockout damage could stretch into the ticket sales, so getting the image flipped is important.

Meanwhile, this episode probably won't help. It's usually best to keep focus group information within the group.

On the bright side, maybe this embarrassment will be enough to spur the NHL into action and perhaps get us closer to a deal. Hey, a guy can hope, right?

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