I tweeted this out last night because I am genuinely perplexed as to why hockey and the NHL aren't able to capture the American sports fan in the way the NFL, NBA, and MLB have. I decided long ago that I wasn't going to be a "please like my sport" guy. I've always said that the league and sport have never been better or more accessible. I like hockey and you like hockey (I assume you do because you clicked on this blog), and that is genuinely enough for me. Having said that...the league is absolutely fantastic right now. We have SUPER stars in their prime playing on the games BIGGEST stage in the Western Conference Final. Eastern Conference Final features an Original 6 team in New York City with electric players throughout the lineup against a 2x defending Cup Champion. Insane matchups on channels everyone has in addition to having the best and biggest single sport focused podcast in Spittin Chiclets and a dedicated channel just for the NHL. I would argue that the game has never been better or more accessible and it doesn't seem like overwhelming majority of people even care.
That tweet above had a lot of "engagement", at least by my standards, so I figured this would make a good blog. I feel like historically hockey did indeed have some obstacles to overcome that the other, more popular sports do not, but that is no longer the case. So I want to talk about a couple of the responses, but I don't think I have any answers or solutions.
These were two of the more common objections to the sport. Obviously, playing organized hockey is WAY more expensive than youth soccer, football, baseball, or basketball on average. At least at entry levels of the sport. However, I don't think that is a good enough explanation for the seemingly lack of growth for the sport. People always say how all you need is a ball and a hoop and even less for soccer. Well, soccer, despite that, hasn't exactly exploded in the US so it has to be deeper than simply cost. We also played a lot of street hockey growing up which I feel like is similar to playing touch football or pick up basketball as a kid. The difference between touch football and legit varsity football is probably pretty comparable to street hockey and organized ice hockey. Participation rates of football are much higher, but everyone in America LOVES football regardless of whether or not they played high school football.
Cost of organized hockey is a "barrier" but I don't think there's evidence that it prevents new fans. UFC has absolutely EXPLODED in the last decade and I don't think any of their new fans grew up putting kids in arm bars and rolling around at jujitsu gyms.
As far as the "hard to follow the puck" thing...I don't know what to tell you. I think that was DEFINITELY an issue for newer fans in 1990s when I started watching hockey, but big HD flatscreen TVs have improved so much and are seemingly in every household across the US that I really can't see that being a problem anymore. If you can't follow the puck on a 45" HD TV then I think the problem might be with your eyes and not with hockey.
I do think this is true. I think hockey's biggest untapped resource are the players' personalities. Spittin Chiclets is proving that. Both with the hosts themselves, but also by getting the players to be comfortable, open up and tell stories. Keith Yandle has been in the league for like 15 years now and nobody would know he's absolutely HILARIOUS if Chiclets didn't give him a platform to showcase his personality and wit. More of this
I've gotten to know Patrick Sharp a little bit. He is legit funny. You'd never know it from what he was allowed to show as a studio analyst with NBC. Just a different vibe on TNT and it is great to see.
NBC was also very shortsighted in my opinion. They weren't interested in marketing and showcasing the best players or even the best teams to a national audience even though they were the NHL's national broadcast partner. That is why teams that were absolutely GARBAGE for the majority of the NBC contract like Buffalo and Detroit got a disproportionate amount of nationally televised games. It's obvious that NBC would rather get 100% of the Buffalo local audience that they could then sell to advertisers instead of pushing stars and storylines featuring the game's best players even if they were in non-traditional/growing markets.
Focusing on this guy's 3rd point because we addressed the first one and the 2nd point certainly isn't unique to hockey.
Hockey has traditionally been a "Northern" sport, but Gretzky going to LA changed the NHL map forever. Since he was traded the NHL added San Jose, Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado (southern team if you ask Biz), Dallas, Carolina, Las Vegas, Nashville, Tampa Bay, and Florida(South Florida). All non-traditional markets that have had varying levels of local success. I do think that the league was right to expand, but definitely should've been more diligent about which owners they awarded teams to. Nashville and the Florida Panthers are GREAT examples of how hockey can grow in markets that previously had no exposure to the game. Nashville was on the verge of bankruptcy and there were rumors that they'd be heading to Hamilton, Ontario. They finally stabilized their ownership, started winning, and now look at them. They're considered one of the best markets in the league and their fans actually care even though they're annoying as fuck on twitter. Florida is in the early stages of that same process. They finally got a real owner with Viola, he brought in a strong team, the on-ice product got good and people are showing up to the rink in Sunrise, FL for the first time in 20+ years. I think that is the #1 reason why it hasn't worked in AZ. They can't find the right owner so the team is always in shambles and rumored to move. Why would people in AZ invest in the Coyotes financially or emotionally if they're bad and there's the lingering fear that they'll move to Houston or Quebec or somewhere else? I can hardly blame them. This is a long way of saying that the southern market thing has been debunked because so many of those franchises have made it work.
This is a boomer objection. Nobody seems to care that Luka Doncic is from a place that 99% of Americans couldn't find on a map and he has two different accent marks over the Cs in his last name. Also, the best players in the league for the last several years have been guys named Crosby, McDavid, Kane, and MacKinnon. Even if you buy into some aversion to foreign sounding names being a problem, I don't think that justifies lower ratings for a league that has been lead by grandchildren of the British Isles.
This is a strange phenomena that doesn't seem to exist in the other sports. There's a TON of people who complain about hockey not being bigger and then shit on new fans on the internet with an insane amount of vitriol. It's real and it's a problem. I have a theory that these loud assholes on the internet never actually played the game and because hockey is niche they've been able to effectively be a big fish in a small internet pond. Not as many people truly follow and understand hockey the way they do in other sports so even if you know a little it feels like you're smarter and better than fans slightly newer than you. These people are DINKS who are more interested in preserving their little safe internet space where they feel big than growing the game. Those people SUCK. If you are experiencing this just know that they're losers and you just have to ignore them. They read deadspin and bleacher report.
Maybe I am too close to it to really see the reason why it doesn't seem to grow. In my mind there has never been a better time to be a fan. Perhaps it is as simple as marketing. The NHL is TERRIBLE at storytelling and showcasing their best asset. Perhaps they should look to outsource it more. More Amazon Prime behind the scenes shows. More Spittin Chiclets access and genuinely trying to lean on people like Spittin Chiclets who are WAYYYYY better at connecting fans to players than any organization has done locally or the League has done nationally. There is a great opportunity here for the NHL and I truly hope they can seize it because the game itself is spectacular.