NHL Unable to Attract New Fans for Numerous Reasons

Anonymity of Players Contributes to Lack of Fan Base

Sometimes I wonder why more people aren’t hockey fans. Sports in the United States are built around four major leagues: the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League. Sure, more people watch NASCAR than any other sport in the country; Major League Soccer has tried its best to make people to pay attention to a sport whose popularity directly correlates to the quality of the U.S. National Team; and the only thing the average person on the street knows about Major League Lacrosse is that its acronym is MLL. But for some reason, people haven’t kicked the NHL out of that group yet.

For some time now, the NHL has struggled to draw more fans to the game. The league has altered its rules to try to shorten the games and boost scoring. It has changed scheduling to try to give fans more must-see games against rival teams. It has claimed attendance records for the past few seasons, with the implication that “more people must like the game.”

Perhaps the league is right. Perhaps it’s not that interest in hockey has waned over the past decade, but just that other sports have started becoming more popular on television and in society.

Here are six reasons why the NHL doesn’t have fans:

1. Most people have never played the game. It’s easy to get into basketball: as a kid, we can go out onto our driveways or our local courts and shoot hoops, even by ourselves. Almost every child growing up in the suburbs with any athletic interest plays Little League Baseball, which gives us exposure to the game, even if we never end up liking it. But for hockey, the barrier to playing the game is seemingly insurmountable for the average kid. We need skates, sticks, pucks, pads, a rink, a net, etc. It’s simply not as easy as taking a ball out to play catch.

Never having played the sport, it makes it difficult for people to truly connect with the game as a fan. There’s valuable insight and appreciation that comes with learning how to play a sport, which most fans miss by never even putting on a pair of skates.

Note that this argument fails when we consider soccer. Youth soccer is probably more popular than Little League Baseball, but MLS just doesn’t compare to MLB.

2. Most people can’t differentiate between good plays and bad plays. Or, to phrase it better, most people don’t understand the strategy behind plays. When a winger makes a great play to stay onsides, the average fan doesn’t appreciate it. How can we gasp at Sidney Crosby’s skill the same way we admire LeBron James’ impressive dunks? On top of that, too often it seems like most of the goals scored are by luck. (“They can’t really control where deflections go, can they?”) Unfortunately, it’s just hard to see and appreciate greatness.

3. Most people don’t know the players. It’s hard to build hype around a player if we don’t see him or her develop, and without a more prominent minor league system, players burst into the league virtually unknown. The American Hockey League may serve as a stepping stone to the NHL as far as training young players, but media coverage just doesn’t compare to that of college football or basketball. Even minor league baseball is big enough that the average Red Sox fan knew who Jacoby Ellsbury was before he played his first major league game.

4. The game is too fast for most people. The league has made rule changes over the past decade to help cut down whistles and shorten the length of the games, but the game itself is too fast to follow. It’s not like football or baseball, where the plays are short and spectators can catch their breaths. If we look away for even a few seconds, we can easily miss a goal.

Note that an easy counterexample to this is basketball, but at least in basketball there’s more of a variation of pace. Plus, it takes forever for some teams to get down the court these days.

5. The game is brutal. Women (and many men too) tend to dislike brutality, but there’s really no way to limit the hitting and still call it hockey. Even without the fighting, hockey has more contact than any other major sport, and I could see why some people would tend more towards the peaceful baseball.

6. Games are broadcast on Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network). After the NHL eliminated the 2004-05 season because of a labor dispute, ESPN decided not to continue broadcasting NHL games when they returned in 2005, claiming that the programming they replaced it with did better than the NHL. The move was a win-win situation for ESPN and Versus, but a big loss for the fans. Not only do the ESPN networks reach more people than Versus, broadcasting hockey on ESPN allowed people to stumble across the sport when they weren’t expecting it. I doubt Versus, along with the few games NBC picks up, is as powerful.

Game Three of the Stanley Cup Finals last year on NBC was the lowest-rated prime time program ever (not just counting sporting events). It doesn’t matter what the NHL says about its attendance; clearly something’s wrong.

So, how can these problems be fixed? I have no idea, but lucky for me, I’m not getting paid to do so.

What I can do, though, is encourage people to try it out. If you’re not a fan, give it a try (if you’ve read this far, you must be curious). Check out the NHL All-Star game this Sunday night at 6 p.m. … if you can find a television with Versus. If the stars can’t impress you, no one will.