The NHL lock-out of 2004-05 was the seventh labor dispute in the past 25 years to cost North American fans access to the games they love. And this incident was the biggest, leading to the cancellation of an entire season. People ask each time one of these events occur, will the fans come back? In the NBA and NFL, each time games were cancelled fewer fans came back, although the decline did not have statistical significance. The story in hockey is a bit different. In 1994-95 more than 40% of the season was lost to a labor dispute. The fans reacted in 1995-96 by setting a new attendance record. In 2005-06 history repeated itself. An entire season of games was lost and fans reacted by setting a new attendance record. This leads one to ask, does taking hockey away from NHL fans make these fans happier?
Not being much of a hockey fan, I do not know. What I do know has been detailed in The Wages of Wins and in the papers I published with Martin Schmidt. In essence, after seven disputes the data keeps telling the same story: fans do not hold a grudge when games are taken away. Of course, this is not the story the media tells. The media tells us that strikes and lockouts threaten the future of sports in North America. In fact, one could argue that the potential player strike in baseball in 2002 was avoided because both sides were convinced that a strike would threaten the survival of Major League Baseball.
We have now written a book that is bound to be read by perhaps dozens and dozens of people. In this book we argue that the story the media tells about labor disputes is not true. Although telling the truth is important, there may be a negative externality associated with our honesty. If labor and management in professional sports believe that strikes and lockouts do not threaten future attendance, will these events occur with even more frequency?
It is a frightening thought. Even more frightening is the thought that people might think future labor disputes that cancel games are our fault. So perhaps my mother was wrong. Maybe honesty is not always the best policy.