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.