The NHL is an extremely exciting league in terms of on the ice performance. Hockey will always be a fun game, but does the NHL need to market their players better if they want to compete with the other top professional sports leagues in North America?
Out of the four major North American sports leagues (NBA,NFL,NHL,MLB) the National Hockey League is the least watched. It isn’t a surprise that the likes of the NFL or MLB outranks the NHL in terms of viewership or fan support.
Football is the most popular sport in America, baseball has been huge in the states as well as around the globe for decades. The NBA has seen surges in viewership since the Jordan era and looks like it won’t be slowing down any time soon. There is no question that the popularity of the NHL has increased over the last twenty years, especially in nontraditional hockey markets like the southern US states.
If you look at the average viewership of the 2007 and 2019 Stanley Cup Finals for Game 1, there were nearly four million more viewers in 2019 than 2007. The game has continued to grow and become more mainstream over the past decade in the United States. More kids have started to play organized hockey in the states and the quality of players from the US keeps getting better.
While the NBA and NHL seem to be getting more viewers for their championship series, the MLB has declined immensely. In 1981, over 41 million viewers tuned into the World Series while in 2019 that number was just under 14 million.
Twenty years ago, it would have seemed that the NHL would have no chance to compete with the MLB in terms of viewership, however, at the rate the NHL is growing in terms of viewership, the next ten years could see a shift in the popularity of the sport.
But what will take the NHL to the next level?
Player and League Popularity
I believe the reason why the NBA has done very well is because of their players. Not just the on-court performances, but personalities in general. Millions around the world know Lebron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. These three players combined have over 100 million followers on Instagram. Fans from countries across the world care about these players; they buy their shoes or jerseys, watch their commercials and cheer for their teams. The NHL on the other hand doesn’t have too many personalities.
As a sport, basketball is played all over the world. Countries in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia are all producing NBA talent. The NHL market is strictly in North America and Europe, but the league has put in efforts to expand the game into the Chinese market and beyond.
Hockey as a sport won’t get as big as basketball, the same way basketball or American football don’t stand a chance of becoming more popular than soccer; certain sports work better in certain conditions and ice hockey in Argentina isn’t too common.
Even though hockey won’t become the world’s most popular sport, the NHL as a league can increase their viewership and ratings in a few different ways.
The Bettman Effect
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has had his fair share of critics. Until the day he steps down from his position, the booing will rain down every time he steps foot into a stadium. Whether you like him or not, Bettman has made the game grow.
During the 2012 playoffs, Bettman made sure that every game was televised on national TV, according to The Hockey Writers. The TV contract with NBC has made ratings for the NHL skyrocket compared to when the league had declining viewership in the early 2000’s with ESPN and ABC.
Despite having a lockout in 2004, the NHL has become a more entertaining game today as a result of the lost season. Prior to the lockout, the league did not have a salary cap, meaning teams with rich owners could dominate the league. In today’s NHL each team has to spend at least a certain amount of money (cap floor) and you can’t go over the cap.
Bettman and the NHL have made the game more competitive, exciting, marketable and global. Hockey has become more popular not only in North America but worldwide as well. The NHL’s Global Series has brought hockey to fans across Europe and Asia. The World Cup of Hockey was broadcasted on ESPN in 2016. NHL documentary series like NHL Road to the Winter Classic and NHL 36 brings you behind the scenes of the players' lives. These steps have been huge in the growth of the game, but they need more to reach the next level.
What can the NHL do?
The NHL needs to become more marketable. As a game hockey is one of the most entertaining sports on the planet. From the hard hits to the storied rivalries, hockey doesn’t need to change; but the league's marketing does.
The NHL needs to capitalize on the effects of the internet and social media. More people have access to the internet than ever before and this means the NHL can market their league through that. The league has already started to do this using social media outlets like Tik Tok, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter by posting highlight clips and funny moments.
I personally believe that people like seeing characters. They want to relate to someone or be like their favourite athlete. Shaquille O’Neal is one of the most marketable people in the world. Not only was he possibly the greatest big man to play in the NBA but he was the most recognizable character in the league. Shaq was dominant on the court but he would also show his personality in front of the cameras, which made him such a likeable person.
If the NHL focused more on capturing moments from the players who showed a unique personality, I think the league would gain a larger following.
When an NHL player shows a lot of personality like an Ovechkin or Subban, more people are drawn into the game. A bit of flair is needed in every sport and the NHL has some guys who can bring the energy on and off the ice.
When fans get little spurts of emotion from players like when Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin screamed “We’re not going to be fucking suck this year,” at the Caps Stanley Cup parade, they went wild. Seeing Ovi do keg stands from the Stanley Cup and basically be drunk for a month straight made me even more excited to see him try and win it again next year.
Ilya Bryzgalov was a good NHL player, but he was a better entertainer. His scrums and snippets from Road to the Winter Classic made him an even bigger internet personality than a hockey player.
Living in Toronto, it’s hard for me to root for Brad Marchand but this guy is hilarious off the ice. He will chirp anybody who comes after him on twitter. Marchand basically called a guy a beer league beauty after the dude took a run at him on Twitter.
Seeing guys like PK Subban, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews do videos with GQ Sports brings more attention to the league and shows that NHL players can be social stars like athletes from the other major sports leagues.
A Work in Progress
The NHL has done a good job in making the game of hockey bigger around the world and I think they have begun to try and market their league and players more each year to keep up with the more marketable NFL and NBA.
I think as a team sport, nothing comes close to hockey. Everyone has one goal and that is to win. Nobody is chasing titles or records, it's a team sport and that is what makes it great. The NHL won’t throw out what has made the game so exciting over the last hundred years, which they shouldn’t. Tradition is always important in sports and hockey will never lose its roots.
I think the NHL has a long way to go before they fully capitalise on marketing their league to a larger audience, but they are on the right track.