In the professional sports world there are 4 major leagues they are Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League. The NFL is top dog, MLB plays in the summer when the other leagues are in their off-seasons, that leaves the NBA and NHL battling for ratings from October-April. For those that aren’t aware the NBA is in the middle of a lockout that has already seen the cancellation of the season’s first two weeks, with a possible announcement of the first two months being cancelled coming soon. That leaves the door open for NHL ratings to take a huge leap forward (with the possibility of being the only game in town).
Last year’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins was the most watched hockey game in the United States since 1973, although game sevens are usually a ratings hit no matter the sport but this shows the potential the NHL has to attract new viewers. The thought of the NBA cancelling its season has to make Gary Bettman and the NHL extremely happy, they know all too well how a cancelled season can affect ticket sales and ratings not only for the cancelled season but for years after. After cancelling its 2004-2005 season the NHL returned for the 2005-2006 season and only began to see an increase in ratings for the 2007-2008 Stanley Cup Finals – Detroit Red Wings v.s. Pittsburgh Penguins. If the NBA cancels its season and follows the same trend the NHL followed their ratings would be down until the 2014-2015 season, the key difference is while the NHL was coming back from their lockout the NBA Finals ratings were trending downwards as well. Given the fact the NBA was around last Spring and NHL ratings still rose, they could be in for a huge increase these next several seasons and leave the NBA in the dust.
As for television, after the lockout the NHL went from having games broadcast on ABC/ESPN to NBC and Versus. This was considered a drop-off because many people couldn’t find Versus on their cable provider, partly due to Versus changing its name from the Outdoor Life Network in 2006. Since then Versus has merged with NBC Sports, added NCAA football games, and announced a 10 year extension to broadcast NHL games this past spring. Starting in 2012 the network will be called the NBC Sports Network, with the backing of a major network Versus seems poised for success which would greatly benefit their top attraction – the NHL.
With that being said, the NHL can’t just sit back and hope these trends continue, they need to hit the marketing scene hard these next few months. Sure it hurts that the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, hasn’t played a game since New Years, but the league needs to extend its marketing further than him and Alexander Ovechkin. With young stars such as Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Eric Staal playing on teams across the U.S., the NHL has a great opportunity to promote new faces. Back in the 1990’s the NHL branded itself “The Coolest Game on Earth”, as cheesy as it is (it’s cool cause they play on ice, get it) but it might still be that today, to me there isn’t a better sport to watch live.
Nowadays it seems when a person attends a sporting event they lose interest because games are drawn out and too many stoppages, leading many turning to their cell phones. With that in mind wouldn’t the sport with the two breaks in play for over 15 minutes hold a bigger advantage than the NBA and NFL with one, or the MLB with none. Throw in the fact that while the game is being played a person can’t help but watch as the puck moves from end to end quicker than they can even look at their cell phones. It would seem that the NHL has stumbled into the perfect recipe for a sporting event in the modern era, as many breaks as possible and only one timeout per team. Could that explain why before leveling off last season that the NHL saw overall attendance rise for four consecutive years. Another bump for NHL marketing, their NHL video game series for EA Sports is among the most popular giving them a way to reach out to a younger audience. If you walk into any dorm room across the country there’s a good chance it will be being played among a group of guys drinking soda.
With the potential of the NHL attracting newcomers it falls into the category of them being “fair-weather fans”, the NHL doesn’t care who is buying merchandise, attending, or watching games and I don’t think it should be an issue either. I say the more the merrier and maybe that’s because I’m an Islander fan where the team gets little or no media attention, but if you’re a fan of the game wouldn’t you want hockey to be discussed more on t.v. and talk-radio as opposed to less?
Who knows the NBA and players union could come to an agreement in a week and this article is irrelevant, but for now the opportunity for the NHL is there. Hopefully they take the bull by the horns and look to attract as many new viewers as possible.