Focus groups occur so often in the worlds of business and politics that the news media rarely takes note of them. But when a sports league conducted one recently, it became a story that drew a lot of attention. Earlier this week, the NHL made a lot of headlines when it was leaked to the media that they had hired high-profile Republican strategist Frank Luntz of Luntz Global to conduct a focus group about fan reaction to their ongoing lockout with the players.

The focus group story attracted a great deal of attention from sports bloggers and mainstream media commentators. Much of the commentary was negative, even mocking. Some saw the research as a sign of desperation and recognition by the NHL owners that they are losing the PR battle against the players’ union regarding the lockout. Another common criticism was that the NHL was spending money on focus groups while at the same time some team owners were complaining of financial struggles. Some raised eyebrows over the choice of Luntz who is known primarily as a political researcher, and one with an established party allegiance.

As a general rule, we discourage focus group participants from showing up at the session in face paint, but we might make an exception if the NHL ever hires us.

Our take here in The Bunker is that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a major sports league is conducting research to gauge fan opinion on a matter crucial to that league, any more than it should surprise them that organizations across the entire industry spectrum that rely upon the support of customers, constituents, end users, fans, voters, etc. do the same kind of research every day. In fact, we would argue, as others already have, that doing the focus group is evidence that the NHL understands that they must consider the fans to be important stakeholders in the future of their league. That’s a good thing.

Furthermore, while we don’t know what Luntz Global was paid to do the group, the general idea that the cost of one focus group project should even be a consideration in this story doesn’t hold water. Last season, the NHL grossed about $3.3 billion in revenues and the teams routinely sign individual players to multi-million dollar contracts. The cost of focus group research is a drop in the bucket in that context – not to mention the fact that if the findings from the groups are used to help avoid making moves that would alienate fans more than they already have been during this contentious labor dispute then the research will pay for itself many times over.

Finally, we are of the opinion that NHL should do more focus groups rather than fewer. For example, we’re quite sure that if fans had been asked their opinions on team uniform preferences beforehand, this never would have happened.

If you have any questions about focus groups or other ways to use research to engage your customers, please contact Sandy Baker at or by calling (315) 635-9802.