It's a quarter of the way into the NHL season—do you know where your local hockey team stands?
Well, don't feel so bad—apparently you're not alone.
Hockey is on the decline. Once one of the “Big Four” American pro leagues, the NHL now finds itself on the outside looking in—and looking up at NASCAR.
And like so many other executives who find their companies floundering, Gary Bettman and Co. have no one to blame but themselves.
Well, I'm not a rabbit and you're not a frog—so let's not jump to conclusions.
Instead, let’s start by looking at some of the most pressing issues facing the league—issues that need to be resolved if the NHL wants to get itself back on the national radar.
A work stoppage is never good for a sport—but the lockout that canceled the 2004-2005 season was especially crippling for the NHL.
In hockey’s absence, many fans turned to college and pro basketball to get their spectating fix. And while hardcore fans welcomed the NHL back at the start of the 2005-2006 season, the more casual fans never returned.
Although the league has announced that attendance is at record levels, in a recent interview with this writer former NHL goalie and current Phoenix Coyotes television analyst Darren Pang says hockey is still suffering.
“The lockout has absolutely halted any momentum that we had,” Pang said. “For one full year people chose other things to watch. They spent money in different avenues. There's a certain amount of bitterness that people will have, especially a fringe sport like hockey when you take that away.”
Lost in Translation
Any hockey fan will tell you that, unlike football and basketball, hockey isn’t fun to watch on TV.
The irony is that hockey is by far the best sport to see live. Unfortunately, not many people are going to fork over their hard-earned money to watch in person what they can’t stand to watch on the tube.
Last year's Stanley Cup Finals made the dilemma all too clear, as Game Three got the lowest prime-time ratings NBC has ever seen.
But poor ratings weren’t always the rule for hockey.
Pang cites the game’s excellent ratings during the 2002 Olympics and before the lockout as proof of what could be.
“The ratings for our ABC and ESPN games let's say five years ago were double the ratings they're getting right now,” Pang says. “The ratings were there and were competitive.”
So what gives?
The answer starts with the NHL’s next problem...
Where Has the Mullet Gone?
When the NHL returned from the lockout, the league decided not to renew its TV contract with ESPN.
Without the Game of the Week and the nightly insight of Barry “The Mullet” Melrose, the league’s exposure plunged dramatically.
The NHL cast its lot with the little-known network OLN, which later became Versus. Not only do not all cable customers have access to Versus—most don’t even know it exists.
“Nothing against Versus or OLN, but no one knew where it was,” Pang says about the switch. “I said this before—you can't come from a lockout where you shut fans out for a whole year and then ask them to look real hard for your game. I don't know about you, but I say uncle.”
Pang isn’t the only one saying “uncle,” as the average ratings for NHL games on the Versus network are down 22 percent from 2006.
Affirmative Action, Anyone?
Let's be honest—outside of a Klan rally, there isn't a worse ratio of whites to blacks than the one in the NHL.
The lack of black players means the NHL doesn’t get the same recognition from the hip-hop community that other sports receive.
You won't find many hockey jerseys in the latest rap video. You also won't find the hottest artists in the stands at NHL game.
That indifference trickles down to the millions of hip-hop fans around the country.
“That's an awful lot of eyeballs that aren't interested in hockey as a casual fan, and they've maybe never had the opportunity to pick up a hockey stick and experience it,” Pang explains.
Diversity is likely to be an ongoing problem for the league, as there's not exactly a big push in the African-American community to send children to hockey camp.
Which brings us to the league’s most fundamental problem...
Give It to Me Cheap
Hockey is expensive. You need skates, sticks, and pads—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Unless you have relatives who can give you hand-me-down equipment—like Pang did—you'd better start taking out some loans.
“Especially in the South and Southwest, it's not like you're going to put on an old pair of skates that your uncle handed down or your older brother and get on an outdoor rink,” Pang says.
And oh yeah—about that outdoor rink. Unless you live somewhere cold, you can wind up paying $350 an hour to get on a piece of indoor ice.
“It's not the same as picking up a baseball and throwing the ball in backyard with Dad and your brother or even picking up a lacrosse stick and throwing back and forth or a basketball or a volleyball,” Pang says. “That you just grab it and you go.”
All told, Pang says the lack of accessibility is the chief reason most American kids never get turned on to hockey.
So there you have it—some but certainly not all of the problems plaguing the NHL.
The good news is that the solutions are many, and to its credit the league finally seems ready to start fixing what’s broken.
First on the agenda is the new scheduling system, which will ensure that each team makes a complete circuit of the league every season. This will help the NHL market marquee players like Sidney Crosby, who wasn’t seen on the West Coast under the old scheduling format.
If the league continues to think creatively, there’s no reason it can’t reestablish its old popularity.
And if you're reading this, Gary Bettman—give me a call if you need some help.
I could use a raise.