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Thursday, July 7, 2011

NHL Ready to Become Popular Again

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Just slightly over 17 years ago Sports Illustrated ran a cover story that proclaimed the NHL was hot, while the NBA was not. Yes, at one point hockey was cool in a mainstream way.

The New York Rangers just won their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years. There were major stars in all the major American markets: Wayne Gretzky in LA, Mark Messier in New York, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh, Jeremy Roenick in Chicago, Steve Yzerman in Detroit, and Cam Neely in Boston. It was a good time for the NHL.

It was such a good time that newly appointed commissioner Gary Bettman continued aggressively expanding the NHL into non-traditional markets. It seemed like a good idea at the time (well, as long as you weren’t Canadian and violently opposed to such things).

What happened next was a decade of decline. 

During the mid-90s, the on-ice product turned lousy after years of clutch and grab trap garbage.

ABC/ESPN conceded that the five-year, $600 million TV deal they signed was an overpayment, which led them to low-ball the NHL with an offer to renew their TV rights in 2004; they then opted out of their deal after the lockout. This left the NHL without a cable partner and led to a deal with NBC that provided no rights fees (which was almost unheard of). Eventually Comcast paid $70 million for three years to play games on OLN (now Versus), which was an obscure channel people didn’t even realize they had (they probably didn't).

After years of slowly drowning, the lockout seemingly killed what remaining interest the NHL still held in the United States.

But now, after years of being the bastard stepchild among the four major North American sports, it seems like the NHL is poised to generate real, genuine interest in the United States. The NHL is on the brink of making a huge come back.

Most large American cities have strong, competitive teams, many built around marketable superstar players. Boston just won the Stanley Cup largely on the back of Tim Thomas; Chicago is just two years removed from winning their first championship since 1961 and are a young, exciting team with young stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; Philadelphia is a few seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Final berth and seem set to contend again; Detroit is a perennial powerhouse; Washington is built around Alexander Ovechkin; and Pittsburgh of course has Sidney Crosby.

Other major American cities boast up-and-coming teams: the New York Rangers have supplemented their young core with this year’s most sought after free agent, Brad Richards; Los Angeles are young and hungry and should take a great step forward in their development after acquiring Mike Richards; and Tampa Bay just made it to the Eastern Conference Final with a handful of superstars up front including Steven Stamkos.

There was an estimated one million at the Bruins’ championship parade, which was reportedly the highest attended Boston parade in over a decade. The Boston turnout was four times as many that watched the Dallas Mavericks’ championship parade. Clearly, some people are into hockey.

The most important reason for the NHL's recent success is the on-ice product, which is amazing. The clutch and grab era of the mid-90s is dead. Superstars are capable of displaying their world-beating talent without carrying an extra 2-3 players draped over their bodies and HD TV ensures it all looks stunningly beautiful, even without a glowing puck.

The TV ratings reflect this. In 2010, the Stanley Cup playoffs were generating the highest ratings through the first two rounds since 1997 and the Stanley Cup Final was averaging the highest ratings in eight years. This year’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final drew 8.54 million people in the U.S., which was the most watched NHL game in 38 years. It was also up 3% from 2010’s Stanley Cup clinching game 6 and was the fourth most watched Stanley Cup game in history

Due to the increase in TV numbers the NHL inked a record-setting (for the NHL) 10-year deal with NBC and Versus that will be worth $2 billion over the course of the contract. The $200 million per year will more than double the previous TV deal and should increase the league’s coverage across America.

One of the reasons for the TV deal, and possibly the successful playoff TV ratings as well, is the major success of the Winter Classic, held annually on New Year’s Day. The event proves a ratings boon in the U.S., which rivals that of the Stanley Cup. This year’s game between the Penguins and Capitals drew the highest ratings for a hockey game in 36 years (which was beat by this year's game 7 as previously mentioned). The event is so successful that Dan Shaughnessy of Sports Illustrated said that the NHL now owns New Year's Day in the same way that the MLB owns the fourth of July and the NFL owns Thanksgiving. It's nice to have your own day.

In addition, HBO’s riveting 24/7 show that led up to the Winter Classic was an engaging, inside look at two of the NHL’s most popular teams and generated interest from the casual fan as well as the die-hard. The series was so successful that HBO is planning to follow both the Flyers and the Rangers leading up to their match-up in the 2012 Winter Classic.

Now the NHL is stronger than ever. For the fifth straight year the league set a record for total revenue, which was projected to hit nearly $3 billion by the end of the playoffs. Sponsorship is at an all-time high and merchandise sales are up 15% over last year.

Finally, hockey might be the only option for the sports fan next season. Both the NFL and NBA are facing a labour dispute, which could potentially jeopardize their seasons. If that is the case, American networks will have to show hockey highlights, if for no other reason than the fact that audiences will quickly tire of hearing about rich people bickering about who should become even more obscenely rich.

Remember during the NHL lockout the sports networks in Canada started airing poker, which suddenly took off? Maybe the same thing will happen if either the NBA or NFL is unable to reach an agreement. Hockey will become America’s poker. But hopefully with a little more longevity and much more excitement.

There are reports the NFL labour dispute may be coming to an end soon, but the NBA has the potential for a much longer lockout because the owners are insisting on a hard salary cap to control costs. If the NBA loses an entire season the NHL will benefit tremendously. Both leagues operate at the same time for almost their entire seasons, so hockey will be the only major North American sport playing every night from November until April. People have to watch at that point, right? What else are they going to do? Read? Doubt it.

The game will always be strong in Canada, especially now that the Canadian dollar has surpassed the American, but for the game to really grow and prosper it must make major in-roads outside of Canada.

The NHL is ready. The game is just waiting to be embraced. I think finally the United States is ready to embrace it as well.

9 comments:

Eirhead said...

The clincher will be a perennial all-star studded Canadian team to give the sport legitimacy as a "Canadian Product". Fans who like to cheer for "the other team" or fans who simply like the cheer for their favorite players will soon have something to argue about!

Go Oilers go!

Idris_Arslanian said...

I think that one of the biggest points in hockey's favor is the rise of HDTV. Being able to see the puck, as well as look at the entire rink without the players appearing as indistinct blurs is huge. This has brought the disparity between going to a hockey game (which I would argue is the most exciting sport to watch live) and watching it at home closer together.

Matt Horner said...

I can't believe I ever watched sports in anything but HD.

chris said...

Good article, and I hope you're right.

Did want to point out though that while the NHL 'should' own New Years Day, if the NFL season does go on as scheduled, I believe the Winter Classic is being bumped to Jan 2nd due to NBC's agreement to air Sunday Night Football as NYD falls on a Sunday.

So much for owning it.

Matt Horner said...

Good point, Chris. I guess they're leasing it.

Anonymous said...

Well the Red Wings were big in getting hockey back on top where it belongs.They had the highest rated final in 2008.That was the highest rated final since the last time they were in it in 2002.So that tells you something right there.

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