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The Future of the NHL: 8 Ways to Make Hockey More Popular in America

Mark JonesSenior Analyst IFebruary 3, 2012

The Future of the NHL: 8 Ways to Make Hockey More Popular in America

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    From the National Hockey League's inaugural season of 1917-1918, the NHL and the sport of ice hockey have continually struggled to gain solid footing in the world of American sports.

    Any respectable popularity gained over the years was soon lost to lockouts, exposure issues, economic downturns, national catastrophes or just plain ol' bad luck.

    While backyard sports like football and baseball quickly grew into some of most profitable enterprises in the country, a sport requiring excessive equipment, substantial skill and (strangest of all) real, physical ice never offered quite the same appeal to the average American.

    And so, amid an era when professional sports dominate everything from prime time television to the stock market, the NHL remains a distant last among the "Big Four" professional sports.

    Yes, indeed, the future of hockey is looking up. The NHL's massive 10-year contract with media titan NBC has only just begun. Attendance in the arenas and viewership outside of them has continued to rise. Promotional icons like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Tim Thomas have certainly created their fair share of publicity over the past year. Even SportsCenter now mentions hockey at least once every four days.

    However, last weekend's 2012 NHL All-Star Game—immediately deemed a success after drawing a 1.0 overnight TV Rating on NBC Sports Net—dealt the world of hockey a reality check.

    As Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski pointed out, the NBA's most recent all-star game received a 6.2 rating. The 2012 NFL Pro Bowl, also held last Sunday, got a "disappointing" 7.9 mark. Last summer's MLB All-Star Game was given a 6.9 rating...it's lowest ever.

    Heck, even the 2011 MLS All-Star Game managed to dribble out a 0.5 score last August on ESPN2.

    Clearly, despite a recent positive trend, popularity in America must still remain a key concern and focus for the National Hockey League in upcoming years. So half-baked or not, the following eight proposals to increase the fame of the NHL might actually be needed after all.

    Enjoy.

Abolish Fighting...

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    The most pressing controversy currently eating away at the NHL's reputation is, without a doubt, concussions.

    The second-biggest controversy, however, is fighting—and those two potentially harmful debates are tied to each other closely.

    Last month, a USA Today column re-sparked this decades-long argument by reporting that fights are down 25 percent this season compared to last (and, in fact, also on pace for the lowest total since '08-'09). The downward trend was not catalyzed whatsoever by new league rules; truthfully, it's the players themselves who are dueling less and less often.

    With the concussion and fighting disputes re-ignited, supporters continue to point to the fact that most concussions are not directly fighting-related. Conversely, though, fights remain a major contributor to concussions around the NHL and could easily be partial causes of an even greater number than scientifically proven.

    On the other hand, it's not just health concerns that darken the future of fighting in the NHL. For many lower-testosterone prospective fans, two bearded men heaving knuckle-laden punches at each other's skulls severely detracts from their spectating experience.

    There are certainly two sides to the debate (as we'll cover more in a second), but the list of cons to fighting is undeniably both substantial and significant.

...or Encourage Fighting?

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    Bob Probert. Terry O'Reilly. Tiger Williams. Dave Schultz.

    Everyone knows who these bullies were, what they did and why we still remember them today. And if you haven't heard of one or two, just type in the first few letters on YouTube and autofill will do the rest.

    They weren't famous for their impressive stick handling, pinpoint passing or cannon-like slapshots; no, they were famous for simply punching the [fill in the blank] out of every single opponent they could find.

    Fighting may be a touchy subject in the politically-correct world we live in today, but it has deep roots in the heart of hockey history and stardom. To remove it would be like getting rid of the field goal in football, the double play in baseball or the free throw in basketball.

    Can you imagine supporting those changes? No, neither can we.

    If abolishing fighting would attract a few more women and children supporters, it would also detach millions of old-school fanatics in the social group hockey really focuses on—men.

    And that really would hurt the NHL.

Relocate to Promising Cities

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    Gary Bettman's "Southern Experiment" of the 1990's was certainly interesting, at the very least. In the course of nine years, eight new franchises were either sprouted in or relocated to southern U.S. cities. 

    However, while some of those have been decent successes, most have proven utter disasters.

    The move of the Atlanta Thrashers back to Canada last summer is expected to soon set loose a tide of relocations. With the Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks each facing a mix-and-match portfolio of financial deficits, fan support problems, ownership instability and arena shortages, movement could soon overtake the NHL's true composition.

    Canada will certainly land a good number of those teams, but Bettman and the rest of the league must not forget that expanding American hockey is vital, too—and fortunately, a number of enticing relocation options with the United States do exist.

    Kansas City, Missouri offers an almost-unused yet state-of-the-art arena in their new Sprint Center (pictured); Seattle, Washington sports a plethora of interested ownership groups and a sports-enthusiastic audience; Hartford, Connecticut has a climate and history with clear roots in the sport.

    A jump-the-gun relocation to any one of those cities certainly poses significant risk, but expanding NHL hockey to other major metropolitan areas of the United States shouldn't be automatically labeled an instant mistake, either.

Overhaul Schedule

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    With major relocation would come a major schedule overhaul, and that's a step in reforming the league's composition that can't be overlooked.

    The four-conference alignment system that the NHL office revealed last December was an interesting idea, but the new system had both big winners and considerable losers. The NHL Players' Association recently shot down the deal.

    Intricate details aside, though, a schedule modification that would put every team in every arena during every year is drastically needed.

    Wouldn't a superstar-lacking fan in Florida love to see Pavel Datsyuk pull a few moves at least once a year? Wouldn't a goal-hungry fan in Minnesota yearn for a chance to see the high-flying offense of the Philadelphia Flyers? Wouldn't a lusty-for-a-good-goalie fan in Columbus be amazed at the mastery of Henrik Lundqvist?

    With a more balanced schedule in place, those dreams could be fulfilled. Every season.

    A more balanced schedule doesn't have to mean major changes, either. With two games against each out-of-conference team—a total of 30 games—three games against each in-conference, out-of-division foe—another total of 30 games—and five games against each in-division opponent—a total of 20 games—the schedule would equate perfectly into a sensible 80-game regular season.

    Converting local fans into supporters of the league as a whole creates a circular effect that, in the long run, increases hockey's popularity on every level. There's no better way to accomplish that goal than by giving every hometown die-hard the opportunity to watch every single player on every single team in the NHL.

Support Youth and College Hockey

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    Truth be told, college hockey in America is a pretty sad scene.

    The NCAA's hockey department does their best to imitate the colossal success of collegiate basketball, advertising exciting rivalry games throughout the winter and then holding their own NCAA Tournament (complete with two final rounds called the "Frozen Four") in the spring.

    But there are just 16 total teams in this tournament—less than one-fourth of what "March Madness" brings to the big screen in its annual showcase.

    Why?

    Well, because there are a mere 59 college squads in all of Division I college hockey. That's less than  the aforementioned NCAA Tournament of Basketball, less than the number of four-year colleges in 17 U.S. states and less than the amount of calories Alexander Ovechkin consumes in his morning cereal bowl.

    Yes, you heard that right. 59.

    Unless more attention is given to college hockey in America and the youth hockey programs that feed it, the United States will continue to be a relatively minor producer of the players that populate its own teams.

    Unless more attention is given to college hockey in America and the youth hockey programs that feed it, many a sports fan will continue to be turned away baffled when their hometown hockey star's name has 17 incomprehensible syllables—and just one vowel.

    Unless more attention is given to college hockey in America and the youth hockey programs that feed it, the NHL won't have even earned the right to be considered a major American sport...because, among those who play it, it isn't.

Keep the Salary Cap Low

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    When the salary cap was first implemented into the NHL in the '05-'06 season, it stood at $39 million US dollars. Today, that number has skyrocketed all the way to $64.3 million.

    We're pretty sure the inflation rate hasn't been quite that high.

    The reason for the rise in the salary cap can be attributed to a number of factors, the most prevalent being the a currency rate explanation that translates into complete gibberish for most of us.

    There's a reason why, though—the large majority of which is completely unrelated to the exchange rate increase of the Canadian dollar. The real reason can be almost solely credited to a cast of money-dealing billionaire franchise owners.

    The logic is simple: the very people who have enough cash to "lobby" the NHL into raising the cap are the same folks whose teams will benefit from the increase.

    As financially-frugal teams like Carolina, Colorado and Phoenix only pay what's necessary to be competitive, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington—and quite a few others—deal out front-end-loaded $60-million contracts like they're water. And that equates into a similar disparity in the standings.

    While it might not delight Red Wings, Flyers or Penguins enthusiasts, competition is unquestionably the best possible thing for the National Hockey League.

    A lower salary cap equals competition.

    And no currency exchange rate can change that fact.

Focus on NBC Sports Network...

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    Since the '04-'05 NHL lockout terminated the league's television contract with ESPN, hockey has been plagued by the laughable reputation of Versus and the miserable exposure it provided. Only Sundays provided a little relief, as NBC aired their single "Game of the Week" (albeit in the middle of the afternoon).

    That all changed for the better last year.

    On April 17, the NHL signed a 10-year contract with Comcast, which owns NBC, to extend nationwide hockey coverage on the well-known channel through the 2020-2021 season. Then on August 8, Comcast announced a shocking new plan to change the face of the NHL on television.

    Versus was purchased by Comcast and, on this past January 2, changed names to "NBC Sports Network." Hockey coverage moved up to three or four evenings a week, and every single postseason game is scheduled to be available across the country.

    Furthermore, although the numbers are not yet in, it was expected that the new "Sports Net" would be expanded to reach the entire audience that it's new father channel, NBC, does.

    As of December 2010, Versus only reached an estimated 75 million homes, compared to 83 million for the Golf Channel (another Comcast-owned network), 100 million for ESPN and 126 million for NBC. If Versus's poor showing is improved to equal NBC's impressive total, it could potentially bring a 168 percent increase in the NHL's TV exposure.

    Establishing a reputable and solid media base in the NBC Sports Net would then allow the league to pursue coverage on other major channels and media valves.

...and Expand Exposure on All Channels

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    A steady home base on NBC Sports Net gives the NHL starting ground to re-establish themselves in the world on sports on TV. However, the league won't get much more attention if it stays isolated on its own channels—continuing to get their brand "out there" is just as critical.

    There's nowhere where an exposure increase is needed more than on ESPN. The giant sports epicenter offers millions of dedicated viewers, a boatload of sub-channels and Internet streams and even a partnership with ABC.

    However, their feature show, SportsCenter, has become an everyday joke in the hockey world for its repeated ignorance toward the sport played on ice. Until March or so, the NHL has barely even heard a one-sentence mention on the daily, multi-hour morning staple, much less enough coverage to really interest some viewers.

    That needs to change.

    The NHL needs to reclaim their old hunting grounds on ESPN, as well as on FOX and several other mainstream networks, if they want to continue to captivate possible new fans that remain interested in other sports, too.

    So let NBC Sports Net revolve around hockey—yes, that is step one—but establish an identity on another couple hundred channels that aren't so NHL-centric, as well. Until that recipe can be concocted, most efforts to reach out to new supporters will be essentially futile.

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