The NHL and hockey in the United States: is it a lost cause?

I remember sitting in my hotel room, on vacation in Kentucky, waiting for ESPN’s Sport Center to begin. I patiently awaited the NHL highlights of my favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The show began, and the hosts went right into the night’s Major League Baseball games. Next came the night in the National Basketball Association. Then college basketball was covered.

After preview stories on the National Football League as well as other issues in the sports world aired, I began to get frustrated.

Eventually near the end of the show, came the NHL recap. I was ready to see how my team fared. Yet, much to my chagrin, the recap only consisted of a brief scoreboard.

I caught the game’s score and goal scorers. The Leafs lost. But video highlights, analysis, or outlook were nowhere to be found.

It would surprise most Canadians to hear that live poker, women’s golf, bull riding, eating competitions, and tractor pulls all rank higher than the NHL in terms of American TV ratings.

The sad truth is that hockey is a dying sport south of the border. NHL television ratings have dropped every year since the turn of the millennium, and they’ve hit a new low in 2008.

Most Americans don’t watch Canada’s game, so there’s no need for NHL highlights.

At one point, as Wayne Gretzky hit the peak of his popularity in the early 1990’s, the NHL could consider themselves one of the “Big Four” major sports leagues in North America, (along with the NBA, NFL, and MLB).

Now, however, according to Chris Zelkovich sports writer and NHL expert at the Toronto Star, “At best, the NHL is a fringe sport on [American] television.”

Of the major professional leagues, the NHL is by far the least valuable in terms of revenue, and while other traditionally American professional sports are booming when it comes to TV ratings, the NHL won’t survive with a mediocre fan base forever.

Zelkovich explains that “there was at time when [U.S] hockey ratings came close to those of the NBA, [but now], ratings now are about one-third of that.”

Ever since a 310-day lockout over the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) cancelled the 2004-2005 season, things have never been the same.

So why don’t Americans enjoy hockey? It has the potential to be the most exciting sport on the planet. It’s a game without many stoppages, speed, and it combines the violence of football, with the playmaking of basketball.

Zelkovich says the lack of popularity stems back to differences in culture, and climate. Simply put, Americans don’t like things that aren’t American.

“Only in some northern states (Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts) is there exposure to much hockey,” explains Zelkovich. “They can’t build outdoor rinks, so if you’ve never played the game, odds are you’ll have little interest in watching it.”

While hockey can work in the northern states, places that actually have a connection to the sport aided by Canada’s cultural runoff. The USA is a country dominated by warm climates.

Where there are iced ponds and lakes during the winter, it is easy for kids to get into hockey. It’s something to do at a young age. There are also plenty more arenas in the North.

Yet to play ice hockey in a warm climate you have to rent out a rink, and that’s if there’s even one nearby. You also need your own protective equipment, and last but not least, you must learn how to skate. Clearly, hockey is a much more costly and difficult sport to adapt to.

“NHL is rarely even mentioned in most American schools,” says Zelkovich. The closest most Americans might come to playing the sport is through games of floor hockey.

Other sports like baseball originated and flourished in America, and are played by mainly American players. Therefore these are the games that are instilled in American culture, and are being taught early on in life. It’s not the same for hockey. It is a foreign game, with foreign players.

Russ Hauge is a 48 year-old sports fan, and parent of three teenage boys. He lives Columbus, Ohio, USA.

“I was born and raised in Wisconsin and I remember there was a little interest in hockey, we had a team in high school,” says Hauge. “But ever since we moved here [Ohio], it’s all about MLB and college sports, football and basketball. The kids have never really asked me about the NHL.”

Hauge provides just a glimpse into the mind of the average American sports fan. He went on to explain in his interview that he has seen the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL playing on TV, but never has stopped and watched an entire game, or even thought about attending one.

While some Northern NHL teams can achieve decent local ratings in the USA, the lack of a large national audience, means few advertising dollars are gained by the NHL. The issue is attracting people to a game they don’t quite understand. One way of doing so is by using the players as humans they can relate to.

“I remember I watched some hockey here and there back when Gretzky played, just because he was the best, like Michael Jordan,” say Hauge.

His remarks display the need for the NHL to market a star player to Americans. The next phenomenon who can take over the league, and attract the world’s attention, as Michael Jordan did for the NBA in the 1990’s, could be the key.

“The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky, already saved the NHL once at the height of his career, as a trade to Los Angeles brought American interest in hockey to an all-time high around 1992.

“The Next One”, 20 year-old Sidney Crosby, is taking the NHL by storm. He is slowly becoming a household name, and has potential to do the same for the league.

“Gretzky was a proven superstar by the time he arrived in L.A.,” explains Zelkovich. “If Crosby can match what he did, it will probably take another 5 years or so.”

While Crosby can’t immediately turn things around, he definitely has potential. NBC currently holds one weekend game a week broadcasted nationally in the United States. At the end of last season, one of their games featured Crosby, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the same time, on ABC, an NBA game was being played. More people tuned in to watch the NHL game, and “Sid the kid”.

If Crosby is to become the next hero for hockey fans across North America, it will take more of this widespread coverage. The NHL’s games that don’t make NBC’s weekly selection in the U.S are televised on cable TV’s Versus network. The rather unproven sports network was chosen as a replacement as ESPN, America’s sports leader dumped NHL hockey in August 2005.

The problem is that Versus is a specialty channel not available to all members of the American public. If the NHL ever expects to bring back viewers, it must start with a new broadcaster that is available to all Americans. Canadian cable broadcasters TSN, and Sportsnet, have found success with around-the-clock national hockey coverage.

However, the NHL does not have to go crying back to a similar sports focused network, similar to an ESPN or TSN. One possibility would be the USA network, which is well-watched across America, and has successfully supported the WWE in recent years. Even a reunion with FOX, who carried NHL games in the 1990’s, could be an improvement.

Another television opportunity for the league creating buzz among sports media is the outdoor Winter Classic game, which took place January in Buffalo. NBC had an overnight rating of 2.2 (or 3.8 million viewers) for the outdoor telecast. It was the highest watched NHL game since Fox’s 2.2 rating, for Wayne Gretzky’s final game on April 18, 1999.

The spectacle was held in the Buffalo Bill’s NFL stadium, and added a whole new feel for fans. It allowed more people to attend, and even brought about tailgate parties, typical of an NFL game. Regular outdoor affairs such as this in the future could re-invent hockey culture, and add American influences to Canada’s game.

Another televised outdoor game is scheduled for next season, at Yankee Stadium in New York City. It is scheduled to be the last sport ever played at the historic stadium before it closes, and should be just as successful as the Buffalo version of the Winter Classic.

“The best thing about the outdoor game wasn’t the ratings,” says Zelkovich. Rather, “what it did was put hockey on sportscasts across the U.S.”

The sports writer went on to outline the importance of simply having more unique NHL highlights entering people’s homes. One way this could be established is by improving the level of play, and increasing the offense in the game, to produce more highlight-reel goals.

While the league has addressed the issue of offense by implementing rule changes that promote speed, and more harshly punish player obstruction. Another, more effective way to increase skill level, and improve the overall level of play, is by eliminating some of the NHL’s teams. By reducing the number of franchises, the league’s talent pool will become larger, as fewer of what Zelkovich calls “fringe players”, will be needed.

Not only will the increased competitiveness, and intensity attract more viewers, this strategy can also help eliminate the NHL’s unproven, warm-weathered markets. In comparison to markets in the northern USA, in these southern cities, there is not enough knowledge of hockey, and simply too much competition from other sports for NHL franchises to survive long-term.

Currently the Buffalo Sabres are a profitable American team, and as displayed by the city’s Winter Classic, they have one of the better attendance records in the league. Partially this can be explained by the city’s close proximity with Canada, and Buffalo’s somewhat Canadian qualities.

To compare, struggling markets such as Nashville, Phoenix, Washington, Columbus, Carolina, Atlanta, and Florida all finish in the bottom ten of the NHL when it comes to attendance and yearly revenues. The sad part is that many of these club’s are still championship contenders.

Most Canadians would jump at the idea of reducing the league, and would love to eventually have new Canadian teams as replacements for these contenders.

However, before expansion, the NHL must work on reducing the problems it already has. Some changes or sacrifices are definitely needed. The NHL cannot rely solely on the second coming of Gretzky to carry the league to salvation.

It seems a new business leader could take charge and bring the league in a new direction. Current NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has watched the popularity of Canada’s game sink lower and lower during his tenure. But in order to ever see Mats Sundin on a TV screen in Kentucky, perhaps a change will be needed.