The Best Sport No One Watches

The first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals have averaged 2.4 million viewers.  While those numbers aren’t bad considering the games were aired on the Versus network, the very fact that they are on that channel to begin with speaks volumes.  The NBA, NFL and MLB championships all get airtime on one of the major networks. 


To put it in perspective, this year’s Super Bowl was watched by nearly 100 million people.  Granted, those numbers significantly dwarf even the NBA and MLB totals, but it helps give an indication of just how low the NHL sits on the totem pole in terms of viewership.


It’s a highly skilled sport, and its storied history still inspires.  So why is it struggling to win fans?


ESPN’s Colin Cowherd addressed this subject on his show on Monday, and he came up with two interesting observations.  First, there’s the culture issue.


Apart from the northern border states, and a few in the northeast, hockey just doesn’t have the pull that the other states do.  For example, it’s commonly said here in Atlanta that Georgia fans only time to follow two sports and Georgia football is always going to be one of them.  So that leaves the Braves, Hawks, Thrashers, and Georgia Tech to battle it out for the last spot.  I think that’s true in a lot of places.


Most American cities simple don’t feel the same passion about the NHL that you’ll find in Canada.  Even in Boston, where the Bruins are one of the Original Six in the NHL, the team is struggling to bring in the fans. They were last in attendance this year. 


The other issue Cowherd pointed out is that hockey simply doesn’t translate on TV.  It’s without a doubt one of the most exciting sports to watch in person.  But the excitement and energy just don’t seem to come through on TV. And everything happens in such a quick pace that the strategy and nuances of the game can be easily lost when you’re not watching in person. 


So is there any way to help pull hockey out of the ratings basement? Analysts are expecting the standardization of HD broadcasting to give the league a boost. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, as the higher definition will allow the viewer to keep up with the quick pace more easily.  But I think it’s going to take more.


As cliché as this may sound, I think the NHL is going to have to make a concerted effort to reach out to the youth in the country.  Most of the attention goes to the other three big sports, and it’s rare that you find a school that has a hockey team (at least in a majority of the country).  Unless a parent has raised their child with a love for hockey and encouraged them to play for a local youth league, then more often than not the child’s attention will eventually be drawn to the other sports.  Not to mention the fact that the NHL can’t offer the money or longevity that some of the other sports can offer. 

What can the league do? They can learn from the other leagues.  The NBA has “I love this game,” and the MLB has “I live for this.”  The NHL needs to instill that kind of passion in the younger generations to overcome the obstacles they’re facing.  If they can do that, that will be at least one step towards reminding viewers what a tremendous sport it is. 


4 Responses to “The Best Sport No One Watches”

  1. I think this is a fair analysis of why hockey isn’t catching in the US. Regarding the getting kids involved, it’s much more than marketing. Accessibility is huge. All you need for soccer, football, baseball or basketball is a free piece of turf/pavement and simple equipment. Learning how to skate (either on ice or on blades) isn’t easy but shooting, throwing, catching, kicking are, comparatively speaking.

    Some co-workers of mine were complaining about this very thing last week. There are no rinks in Bend. I believe it’s because there’ no demand. Creating this type of demand isn’t easy especially when the winters in most of the lower 48 are much shorter than Canada.

  2. twonateshow Says:

    I agree, they need to do a lot more than marketing. It’s one of the least accessible sports (in most areas) between a lack of rinks and expensive equipment. The NHL will have to pour a ton of money into those sorts of things to expand the sport, in my opinion.

  3. Wow. A column about the NHL? That’s amazing.

    I’ve been to a few Thrashers games, and you’re right about one thing – in person, hockey is a fantastic sport. Unfortunately, the price points to go to a game (like any of the other BIG sports) keep the average family from going (unless Chick-fil-A or some other corporate sponsor helps offer a discount ticket package). Not to mention the aforementioned point about the accessibility of the game in the “streets”.

    Those issues aside, I think the biggest inhibitor to NHL fanaticism is the average NHL fan. Not to be mean, but a lot of them have their DragonCon costumes hanging next to their Thrashers jersey in the closet. They seem a little TOO involved for my taste – and I graduated from a university where it’s not uncommon to see 73 year-old grandmothers get down on all fours and bark like a dog. If you can out creep that – and of the 4-5 trips I’ve made to Thrashers games, I’ve seen more than enough to beat the band – then you’re demographic itself isn’t one that will draw people in.

    Plus, the NBA practically begged hockey to take Gary Bettman. And they did…looking back, maybe not such a good move.

    Anyway – this post probably doesn’t make any sense, which is fine, since hockey doesn’t make any sense either. Still haven’t met anyone who can explain why icing the puck is such a no-no.

    Oh well – the RedWings have the cup and there’s no hockey for at least 2 weeks. Guess I’ll have to move on to baseball…

  4. Dave Weber Says:

    Make the goal bigger, the goalie pads smaller, and the puck as big as a baseball so we can see it on TV.

    -A man of few words

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