In September 2004, the NHL locked out its players in a work stoppage. The lockout ended up lasting the entire 2004-2005 season.
It was the first time a major professional sports league in North America cancelled a complete season for a labor dispute. The Stanley Cup was not awarded for the first time since 1919.
It’s now 2010, five years later. The NHL still hasn’t gotten to where it was pre-lockout and has lost ground to other sports including NASCAR, MMA, and the big three (NFL, MLB, and the NBA).
The NHL has 30 teams. The NHL is represented in most of the major markets in the United States and Canada with multiple teams in certain areas.
The NHL has been around since 1917 and has a storied tradition with a wonderful history.
Fans of the NHL generally find themselves as a group of people who really know their sport and are extremely passionate.
The NHL has a large opportunity to expand its fan base and popularity.
The question remains, how does the NHL do it? How do they get people interested who haven’t been previously? What is the magic bullet they need to fire to get it done?
There is no simple answer to the question of how. Hockey is played on frozen ponds in Canada along with the Midwest and Northeast.
In the Southern and Western United States there aren’t a lot of places where lakes, rivers and ponds freeze. Kids can’t go meet up with their friends and play like they do in those places.
Most of the population didn’t grow up with hockey and in general don’t get it. The rules are different. There are three periods and not four quarters. There’s a puck and not a ball, etc.
It’s not that easy or cheap to see hockey when a person wants to. To generate interest in the casual fan is almost impossible, considering what’s available.
When the NHL came back from lockout, it didn’t have a TV deal in place to broadcast games. ESPN who formerly broadcast the NHL, passed on the opportunity. Instead the NHL has been broadcast nationally in the United States on the Versus network and for the past few years selectively on NBC affiliates.
This year that viewership was cut further when DirecTV customers were eliminated due to contract disputes between DirecTV and Versus. Versus is no longer available to DirecTV customers as a result.
What is left? Regional sports networks. Fox has Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West Two in the Los Angeles area. They broadcast a number of Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks games. Other markets have Fox, Comcast, or other regional type networks to show games.
The NHL launched its own network in 2007. It was set up to broadcast games and news about the NHL and other hockey-related topics. Examples of programming include the annual World Junior Tournament, the draft, college hockey games, etc. Other original programming has been pretty limited.
Five things that will help the NHL improve, in no particular order:
- Get ESPN back. Do what it takes to get back on the network the US looks to for its sports. Versus is nice and so is NBC. They are minnow in the sports program ocean and ESPN is the Blue Whale.
- Utilize the NHL Network. Get’s some original programming that people want to watch. It needs to be funny and watchable. Maybe a reality show or two with hockey as its focal point. MTV stands for Music Television. It’s watched because of its original programming, not music videos. There’s so much potential here. Hockey is a cool sport. It’s time to show its coolness off to people who don’t know about it.
- People don’t understand hockey. Help them. Hockey is less complicated then most sports. Football is the No. 1 fan sport in the United States and is the most complicated. Try explaining football to a 6-year-old. Then try explaining hockey to that same 6-year-old. Hockey is easier. Figure out ways to explain it to the masses.
- Once someone plays hockey, they quickly understand how unbelievably fun it is. Nobody watches golf that has not or does not play. The more people who play, the more fans will be created. Create programs that encourage all forms of hockey. If kids live in LA or in some other warm climate, get them playing ball hockey with tennis shoes. They don’t all need to place Ice with all the gear. Get them a stick and a ball. They will love it. Once they are hooked, they are in.
- Produce more hockey movies. In 1992 Disney made the Mighty Ducks and it was a huge hit. It made hockey so cool Disney decided to buy an NHL franchise. That same franchise won the Stanley Cup a few years back.
Internationally, Hockey isn’t soccer but it’s pretty big. The NHL is one of the more diverse leagues of any major sport. Some day they may have franchises on other continents because of this.
The 2010 Olympics are a few weeks off and Hockey will be just to the left of center stage next to figure skating. It will get a lot of TV time. The Olympics are in Canada so it won’t be tape delayed or on in the middle of the night.
It will help the league if the US has a strong showing as people get pretty patriotic about the Country's team. Everyone remembers the Miracle on Ice in 1980 whether they were alive or not. Capitalize on it.
As a fan of the NHL and Hockey, I can’t get enough. I have the NHL Center Ice Package that I paid $169 for. I am sold on it.
In an effort to see the product continue to get better I hope the NHL will figure things out and do some things that will put hockey back on the map instead of out in the fringe.
There is no time like the present to get the proverbial ball rolling.
The more time you wait, the more kids play other sports. I have a son who is 12 years old. In two weeks he begins Lacrosse practice. That may not sound that weird to some people but I live in California.
Lacrosse is a sport I never even heard of as a kid growing up in California. Now it’s easier to get my son on a Lacrosse team then it is a Hockey Team.
Why don’t I have him playing hockey, one might ask? None of his friends play.
There are no leagues or rinks within 30 miles of where we live. I did try though. I did it at $3.00 a gallon for fuel to. Sixty miles Round trip in a hybrid is still expensive.
I went into a sporting goods store the other day and there was not one item of hockey equipment.
It’s time the NHL and other governing hockey organizations step it up.