February 9, 2016

DENSON | The NHL is Dead

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Next time you’re at the cafeteria with the major American sports, the NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL, take a look at how refined the MLB is as an historic pastime. Relish in the NFL’s glory as the most popular sport. And gaze in awe at the NBA’s ability to pay its players the most of any athletes in the world. Then look at the NHL and how it’s … um … Canadian? The National Hockey League would be the out of place kid sitting by himself — alone, cold and Canadian. As most Northeastern sports fan can attest to, there isn’t anything quite as exhilarating as playoff hockey — so why does the NHL dwarf in comparison to its peers?

It is the most niche and regional of the Big 4 sports. The NHL has the smallest fan base, least television revenue, least sponsorships and the smallest overall league revenue of the four. ESPN’s decision to opt-out of its TV contract with the NHL after the 2005 lockout speaks for itself. The U.S.-based network did not see a high enough demand to justify broadcasting hockey on a national scale, leaving its entire hockey-broadcasting platform to a Canadian network that it partially owns, TSN. With no Canadian teams in the NHL playoff hunt as of today (and the subsequent panic of potentially ultra-low TV ratings) we can see just how much of an un-American sport hockey really is. Calling it, as is it, and I hate to disparage the beautiful sport of hockey, but the NHL is dead as an American sport.

If you’re Canadian then by all means embrace your national pastime with a Labatt blue and a slice of Canadian bacon.

Living in New Orleans for some time I quickly learned the regionalism of ice hockey. Blame the culture, poverty, lack of education or, most likely, the weather — whatever it may be, ice hockey is as niche as the readership of Emu Today and Tomorrow. The magazine serves the nation’s surprisingly vocal Emu-appreciator minority. But the Ostrich-wannabe bird is still alive and well in its home region of Australia — other places not so much — exactly like how hockey thrives in its native Canada but struggles in the U.S. compared to the other three major sports.

ILR alum Gary Bettman ’77, commissioner of the NHL, can be part of the blame. The problem with Bettman is twofold — he is notoriously anti-player in terms of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, resulting in three labor stoppages, or lockouts, during his tenure. And second, his goal of Americanizing the game has created a system where the top revenue-earning teams (all in Canada or the Northeast) are forced to financially support American teams with smaller fan bases. With the Nashville Predators as the one notable exception, the failed Atlanta Thrashers and the destitute Arizona (ex-Phoenix) Coyotes epitomize the failure of Bettman’s experiment.

In the long term we may see a surge in the sport’s popularity in Southern markets, but for the time being the situation doesn’t really seem to be improving. Since the NHL is as white as a Wes Anderson movie or mayonnaise, the lack of minority players doesn’t help broaden the appeal to the American public. There can only be so many P.K. Subban’s or (my personal favorite) Ray Emery’s in the league.

Stemming from its dearth of American support, the NHL simply lacks marketable athletes. Its players are unexciting off the ice. King Henrik Lundqvist may be the Sexiest Man Alive according to Esquire magazine, and Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin take up a small part of the American sports sponsorship market, but overall the league lacks the charismatic and exciting players that the other three sports leagues are full of.

Sure the NHL playoffs are better than the NBA finals; arguably because upsets are significantly more common in the NHL than in the Association. And sure, die-hard hockey fans can be found in pockets throughout the country. But hockey simply doesn’t have the appeal of other sports in the U.S. I love the beautiful sport, I really do. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t share this sentiment.

So where does the problem lie? Is it the sport’s Canadian roots? Its lack of minority players? Competition from other sports leagues? Or maybe its inept management. Whatever it may be the fact remains that the NHL has failed to capture the attention of the American sports world. This can change. In the meantime I’ll be searching ESPN in perpetuity for NHL coverage.

  • Mo

    the author of this is a complete moron. i have been following the nhl with a passion sin ce 87 and while i love bashing bettman this author is clueless. for me to expand why i would run out of room here but again, the author is clueless about the nhl. btw real canucks dont drink labatt they drink ‘Canadian’

  • ns_kid

    They also don’t eat “Canadian” bacon.

    I’ve often puzzled why ice hockey, a fast, exciting game by any standard, has always struggled to find a mass audience in the US. It’s true that hockey thrives most in nordic countries where ice is a fact of life — not just Canada but throughout northern Europe — and has long had a foothold in the US northeast. But I’ve often thought it’s deeper than that. Sports like baseball and football reflect a regimented, almost militaristic structure that aligns well with the American cultural worldview. In contrast, hockey seems anarchic and chaotic, and following it requires a high level of concentration. To that end, the historic tolerance of fighting and cheap shots has given hockey a long-standing goon image and undermined its credibility as a serious sport for many of the uninitiated.

    • Leetch

      There are multiple reasons as to why hockey isn’t a popular as it could be. A part of it comes from a poor effort by the NHL and USA Hockey to target a wider range of people. By “wider range of people” I’m specifically referring to minorities and people who don’t come from well-off households. Here in New York for example, it’s obvious that the majority of people that play hockey come are doing well for themselves (or happen to be in the NYPD/FDNY).

      Related to that, there’s also the expense of equipment, ice time, and clinics which don’t help most people either. And hockey is a sport that requires a base level of practice and fitness to be any good at. It’s a sport where starting young gives a person a huge advantage later on over others who start playing later.

      • Bart

        I agree, Leetch. As a long-time hockey parent, I can attest to the exorbitant expenses associated with youth and high school hockey. The team dues alone, which mostly cover ice time for practices and games, are prohibitive; no other youth sport even comes close. Ditto the equipment. And don’t get me started on equipment costs and travel expenses for tournaments, as well as the necessary parental time commitment. It’s no wonder that hockey is a far less socioeconomically diverse sport than any of the other three mentioned; hence, it’s more limited fan base.

  • Abe ’14

    I can’t go into everything, but hockey has grown exponentially since Bettman took over as commissioner. No, none of the fans enjoyed the lockouts, but the guy has made some great business decisions for the good of the game.

    NHL fans were rated as being the smartest fans of any of the Big 4. In addition, the league has recently, uh, wait a second — I literally just can’t type out a full post that details why this article is a joke.

    Have you considered trying out for the Opinion section?

  • Emily

    “the NHL simply lacks marketable athletes. Its players are unexciting off the ice.” This is the most ridiculous article I have read here. The author can say this only a few weeks after the entire John Scott fiasco? I’d be surprised if this author has ever watched an entire game of hockey in his life. Also, calling it “ice hockey”? Guy clearly knows nothing about this subject. Horrible article.

  • Ben

    What in god’s name is this article. You have finally exposed that hockey, a sport founded on frozen ponds on Canada, is not popular in the south. Brilliant.

  • NHL lover

    Lol what is this article..

  • Rob

    I don’t get the hate for this article. He’s pretty accurate in his assessment. The NHL’s southern strategy has been a miserable failure. Americans are no more interested in hockey than they were in the 80s.

    And with all 8 Canadian teams currently out of the playoffs, Rogers big bet on hockey has been an absolute disaster.

    • Leetch

      7 teams. Québec hasn’t gotten its team back yet. 😀

  • Jay

    It’s not just hockey bud. The last 5 World Series were the least watched in all of history. Most NFL teams don’t pan the camera up for punts anymore because their upper decks are empty of fans. Outside of urban markets the NBA dies off faster than a fish on land, the MLS is a regional joke, and, well, there’s nothing else. Sports are a shadow of what they were, most under 40 don’t have a favourite team in any league, and have never seen a live game of any kind. When it’s too expensive to see it live, you lose the connection. It’s not YOUR team, just A team. I’ve seen 100’s of games live, but they were $20 tickets then. No one will spend two months pay on one game. And then sports dies…………………without the TV money, all five sports would fail as businesses in one year. Which means they have no fans, just corporate backers that prop them up. Dead leagues.