NHL will always be a niche sport
No fan base can go from begging the masses to watch their sport to getting enraged at any news or mainstream attention like hockey fans. . Any discussion of hockey’s ratings and popularity always includes a similar set of reasons why it’s not more popular, along with a scowl among hockey fans about why no one is watching. Hockey fans get angry when it’s pointed out that it’s a niche sport, and then equally angry whenever it goes beyond that.
Here’s the tweet that kicked off the usual carnival ride yesterday:
However, like sport(terrible handsome!) Sean Gentille pointed out, these numbers are a bit faked some new ESPN schedules. In short as ESPN starts putting matches against Sunday Night Football, the match will obviously drop the ratings. Take those out of the equation and rank even higher than where they were last season on ESPN. TNT’s ratings are falling, but power outages in the area have occurred this year, and that’s had some effect.
Does that mean NHL ratings are great? Depends on how you define that. They will never approach the NBA. Those numbers put it behind the Premier League ranking on NBC’s list of channels, but that’s basically where hockey is. All that matters is what ESPN and TNT think.
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Action & Action
The fact that NHL ratings are in the same pool as the Premier League puts paid to one of the tired and lazy tropes about why hockey isn’t more popular, and that’s scoring. This is an argument that burns my ass royally, because what fans want isn’t scoring. They want action. And hockey has never had more action. Watch a game these days and you’ll see far more happen in a 3-2 game than you would in a 9-7 game in 1986. Hockey will never get back to that, and nor should it, because honestly, it was pretty shitty. The goalies are too good now. The NHL has done its best to scale down goalie equipment, but there’s only so much you can do while keeping goalies safe. They’re still maybe the most athletic players on the ice instead of the confused wildebeests they were in the 80s. The NHL isn’t going back.
But the game is fast and loud, and it’s as good as it’s been. It just doesn’t have 12 goals a game. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Yes, blocked shots and defensive outlooks from coaches are still something of a problem, but less of one than they were. Players are faster and more skilled than they’ve ever been, and the pace of games, even in the middle of the regular season, reach plaid more often than ever.
Marketing stars and expanding the audience
There was also the customary lament that hockey doesn’t know how to market its stars, though that leads to the question if these stars are even marketable. Have you ever heard Connor McDavid talk? You’re just waiting for him to get to the part about TPS Report. Most of these guys aren’t very different, and overexpose a bunch of guys who are only eight3rd grade education can go backwards in many ways. And while the blame is on the federation, the teams, or the marketing executives, hockey culture still rests on any player who is trying to get ahead of the team in any way. This may not be as wide a road as people think.
Of course, there’s a problem with the make-up of the playing staff and the fan base, and the sport don’t want to open up enough for a new crowd. That’s a problem, and hockey’s constant fear of angering rude white men is standing in their way. But it’s not uncommon that even if they could hit the right note on any of them, the ratings would then skyrocket.
Hockey, quite simply, is just not ingrained. While youth participation continues to grow, it still lags behind most other sports. had six million high school soccer players last year. had 42,000 hockey. If someone is still playing at the high school level, the sport has become entrenched. Maybe that’s not meant to be a hardcore fandom for life. But at least it means a casual game and certainly the possibility that the person will watch a big EPL game in their 20s and 30s. Hockey won’t reach that level.
But really… what’s the point? If you’re a hockey fan, you can watch every game with just an ESPN+ subscription, which is much cheaper than other league packages. The arena is filled. The only teams that don’t fill their buildings to at least 85% capacity are Buffalo, Chicago, Ottawa, and San Jose. All of these are strong hockey markets with only teams that are currently lousy or have been lousy for a decade, and all will be back to full capacity as soon as they’re up and running again.
Players may want to make more money, but they are free to bargain collectively to get there. Unless ESPN and TNT start whining about ratings and ad revenue, there really isn’t any danger. If you watch hockey and you have friends watching, why do you care how many other people there are?
Hockey is still where it was, it’s just that now people have more access to niche content. Ask football fans or wrestling fans. And that’s where it will stay.
And now let’s be silly