The Stanley Cup Final wrapped up this past week with the Chicago Blackhawks defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. The Blackhawks have now won three cups in six seasons, solidifying their status as a modern NHL dynasty. The series had two of the league's best teams, loaded with star power on each side and it showed as it was the second most watched NHL playoff series ever, with 5.6 million viewers. This number is a lot less impressive however when you look at the other major sports in the U.S.
Hockey is one of the four major sports in North America and yet still struggles to gain the same amount of popularity that the other three (NFL, MLB, NBA) have in the U.S. Some even believe the MLS will eventually surpass hockey in the big four. In Canada though, hockey is king and part of its national identity but in the U.S. it's often an afterthought in many markets. The NHL has been trying to expand its popularity for years and has seen some gains but still struggles in many of its markets. Many still remain divided on whether the expansion into the sun belt, in markets such as Anaheim, Arizona, Dallas, Florida were good for the game in terms of growth, or if the game would be better served by having more teams in traditional hockey markets.
Even in hockey's peak months of May and June, as we get closer to deciding the Stanley Cup winner, hockey coverage is constantly superseded in the U.S by NFL coverage, be it the draft fallout or offseason storylines, by the NBA playoffs and early season MLB stories all seem to push hockey aside.
Hockey is great; fast-paced, exciting, physical and it should be more popular in the U.S. Here are the top ten reasons hockey isn't hasn't been able to gain more popularity in the US.
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10 They're Not The Best At It
The U.S, more so that other nations, loves being the best at things, especially sports. While the U.S national hockey team always does fairly well in international competition, especially recently and the NHL is littered with outstanding American players, hockey is not a sport that the U.S. dominates. The biggest stars in the league are usually Canadian or European which can make the sport seem foreign even if it's played right in their hometown.
The U.S. have been playing better on international stages lately, finishing with the silver in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and 4th place in the 2014 games. These recent cup finals showcased two of the league's and USA's best players in Patrick Kane and Tyler Johnson. Most telling is the Cup has been won exclusively by American teams since the Habs' win in 1993. Again though, the Stanley Cups are won by teams in America, comprised mostly of Canadian and European players. If the U.S. can continue to close the gap on Canada and the rest of the world in its ability to develop talent, the sport's popularity will likely rise along with it.
9 Too Many Sports
The NHL faces steep competition in the U.S, especially with the popularity of sports like NASCAR or even sports entertainment like wrestling. In most countries, university and college athletics are not the enterprise that the NCAA is in the US. While the NHL may be one of the four major professional sports leagues, its popularity isn't in the top four because of the popularity of college sports. College football is a way of life in many areas of the U.S. and March Madness is one the most watched sporting events in the country every year. There is only so much time in a day and fans make have to make decisions about which games to watch. In the U.S. the NHL needs to distinguish itself from all its competition if it wants its popularity to rise.
8 Too Many Teams
There are currently 30 teams in the NHL, around the same number as the MLB, NBA and NFL, but it's unlikely the NHL should be trying to sustain this amount of teams. In its attempt to spread its popularity in new markets, the NHL put teams in places that don't seem interested, such as Phoenix, Carolina and South Florida. Many of these franchises are suffering, and it brings down the quality of the league as a whole. The owners of these teams are in a tough position, if no one comes to their games they don't have any revenue to go out and improve either their team or their arena, but if they don't improve those things, why would anyone come out to the games.? Many nostalgic NHL fans would love to go back to the days of the original six but while that's not going to happen anytime soon, the NHL is a league that would do better if they didn't have games in an empty arena in the dessert.
7 TV Watching Experience
This is a difficult concern to assess but many fans have complained about how the TV experience of watching hockey doesn't live up to the experience of seeing the game in person. The NFL has risen to staggering popularity in part because of the fact that sitting down on your couch to watch the games on Sunday might be more enjoyable that actually watching from the stands. Hockey is difficult for TV, as the puck is difficult to see at times and the overwhelming speed of the game doesn't translate as impressively to TV. Luckily for the NHL in came high definition which has drastically improved the clarity of watching hockey games. If the NHL can continue to improve the TV watching experience for hockey games, it'll benefit the game tremendously.
6 More Skill, Less Fighting......Maybe
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the NHL try remove fighting from hockey but you need to look no further than the NFL or NBA to see what promoting skill over physicality can do for popularity. While hockey fans enjoy a good fight what they do not enjoy is watching a bunch of goons that can't skate struggling to hold on to the puck. The NFL and NBA have drastically changed their rules to promote more focus on offense and supported a wide-open flowing game. Fans often note that Olympic hockey is drastically more entertaining, in part because of the amount of skill on every team but also because of the focus on more of an offensive, attacking style of play. It's the skill and speed of a Patrick Kane that will increase hockey's popularity, not two no-names throwing down.
5 Lack of Star Power
If you ask someone in the U.S. to name the biggest athletes in the world, it'll take a while for them to mention a hockey player. The NHL suffers from a lack of star power, not because they don't have star-level talent but because the league does not do a great job at promoting these stars. Hockey is in a difficult spot as players wear helmets and it cant be difficult to distinguish who is who on the rink. Players like LeBron, Peyton Manning or Bryce Harper are stars of their league and the public would be able to pick them out of line, which isn't likely the case for someone like Sidney Crosby.
Hockey also seems to be a sport stuck in a culture of being stoic, team-based and frowns on people who give strong opinions, or show any touch of flair. This holds the sport back from reaching out to a new audience and grabbing some attention.
Continuing to increase the profile of the league's stars, while enabling them to show off their personalities and play with flair will go along way to increasing the sport's popularity.
4 Cold Weather Sport
Hockey has its roots on the rink your dad built in the backyard when you were growing up, and for much of the U.S., they don't have the weather to even make a rink. For kids in much of the southern U.S, picking up a basketball with your friends and heading to the park is much easier than finding a rink to skate on. Hockey's immense popularity in Canada and northern European countries is largely because of this fact. Becoming a fan of a sport often happens during your youth and if hockey wants to increase its popularity it will need to find a way to get more kids skating in parts of the U.S. that aren't usually hot-beds for cold weather sports.
3 ESPN Coverage
ESPN is the biggest sports network in the world and unfortunately does not pay much attention to hockey. During the regular season you will be shocked if Sportscentre spends two minutes recapping the night's hockey action and this lack of exposure to the enormous ESPN audience hurts the league's popularity. Sports fans don't just like watching the games, they want to hear the debates surrounding them and this is where ESPN could help interject hockey into the national sports conversation. Unfortunately for the NHL they had their TV contract in place with NBC which does reach a large audience but isn't considered a sports channel in the same way that ESPN is. The popularity of the NHL would be well-served by getting a few commentators on ESPN discusses the league's action on a regular basis.
2 Lack of Diversity
The NHL is by far the least diverse of the four major sports and not surprising its fans represent that lack of diversity. During the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, viewership of the games was only 6-13% minorities. For comparison, the NBA Finals had an audience were minorities accounted for 55-61% of the viewers. The NHL has been slowly improving the diversity of its players which in turn should improve its popularity but it has a long way to go.
The U.S. is continually becoming a more diverse population and the league would be smart to support stars like P.K. Subban and Dustin Byfuglien. If the NHL can continue to make strides in the diversity of both its players and audience by broadening its reach to minority fans, the sport would have tons of rooms to grow in the U.S.
1 Too Expensive
It's a difficult task to try and convince parents to put their kids in hockey, a sport that can cost unbelievable amounts of money for families, instead of basketball or soccer where all you need is a ball and some shoes. The popularity of hockey will always be affected by the fact it is a sport that isn't really accessible for lower-income families. The cost to play the game is what leads to difficulties in attracting youth to play the sport when they are young, which is what will grow the league's popularity.
The NHL has often survived despite its weaker popularity in the US because its audience reflects the fact that this is a rich man's game, and advertisers are okay with the smaller viewership knowing that the audience of the Stanley Cup Final was the most affluent. If the NHL wants to increase its popularity it will need to take steps to make the sport more accessible to youth, especially lower-income families.
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