It is human nature to want to share what you love with others. Whether it’s a new car or maybe telling everyone you know that the girl of you dreams said yes when you “popped the question,” we are always looking for someone with whom to share in our joy.
Hockey fans are no different. They know that their game is one of the greatest in the world. They have tried, for years, to get everyone interested in the game that they love with so much vigor. Still, the game can never seem to break into the North American “In Crowd” that is football, baseball, and basketball. It is not so much that fourth place is even a bad thing. The gap between the NHL and the other three sports behemoths is wide. Despite his efforts, bumbling as they may be, Commissioner, Gary Bettman, has seemingly managed to have Hockey only fall further behind in the ratings race. That is, except for the niche following which will seek out NHL games no matter how difficult they are to locate.
The NHL has made their online presence second to none. Videos, highlights, live games (for a fee) and in-depth stats are all at the touch of a button. However, the only people that seem to notice are the people who already love the game. Part of the issue is that hockey doesn’t relate we’ll to TV likes it’s counterparts, especially football. Any fan will tell you that it will only take one trip to an NHL Rink to get you hooked, but even that doesn’t seem to work. The NHL has enjoyed near capacity attendance in the majority of its cities, even after two greedy and unnecessary lockouts in the past seven years. It’s just that the attendees are sports fans who already have an allegiance to the game.
There were extended television runs on major sports networks like ESPN and FOX, but the NHL was never able to get a foot in the door with new or “casual” fan. Thereby, never generating the revenue of their big brothers. After the most recent work stoppage, the NHL left the big name players and took its sport to a smaller network. It seemed like a ridiculous move at the time. Coming off yet another lockout, the league needed more exposure and new revenue. All accounts of the situation showed that the league was going the other way.
Here’s where the change happened. Perhaps it was aided by the technology boom, which allowed fans to interact while watching games on TV, but the NHL found a home on the obscure sports network Versus (OLN when the deal was struck). Hockey fans didn’t seem to care that the games were on a channel just north of the television wastelands. They had more games on a network than had been on TV in a long time. Once cable giant, Comcast, and Network Superpower, NBC took over, it seemed that hockey finally had a place on the sports map.
Over time, executives continued to try and grow the game by showcasing it’s star athletes. The problem is that hockey doesn’t relate like other sports. Superstars can’t be singled out for in-game showcasing. Shifts are short, a minute at most. Marquee match ups might not have the required competing athletes on the ice at the same time. Unlike an at bat in baseball, or being able to focus on a basketball star on the court for long periods of time, hockey needs to be viewed in a broader perspective.
The NHL continues to struggle to get noticed, that is, except for the fans who know exactly where to go to find the games. Those fans have decided, it’s just how they like it. ESPN can snub the league because fans can now get their fix with the NHL Network or with online sites and apps. Hockey fans don’t care whether or not the sport is popular in Nashville or Phoenix (where, by the way, the team is bankrupt). They will point out how a team failed in Atlanta, twice; and how both incarnations of those teams now reside north of the border. The second of which is a franchise returning to its roots in Winnipeg. Hockey fans are just as excited to watch the great rivalry in Alberta which, despite not being big market places, is almost as great a rivalry as Boston/ Montreal.
The beginning of the season is now just a few weeks away. Coming off of a lockout shortened season, hockey will surely begin the year in relative sports obscurity. However, hockey fans know that it’s the beginning of a nine month party that will culminate with the best tournament in sports, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hockey fans will ask you to join them if you like. They will promise that you won’t be disappointed. If you choose not to, they won’t be offended. After all, it’s your loss.