The Downfall of the NHL? Hopefully Not!

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I grew up playing hockey, went to a high school that revolved around hockey and had two sheets of ice on campus, and I continue to play hockey to this day.  It wasn’t until I came to college that I realized that hockey wasn’t a popular as I had always thought.  With a more open perspective on the NHL and hockey in general I see the reality of the situation and the flaws and mistake that the NHL has made that’s led to the weakening of the league itself.

The long history of the NHL isn’t the longest standing major league sport in the US, that’s baseball, but it does have the longest standing championship game, and that is the Stanley Cup.  But that fact has long been lost on many Americans while the national baseball, basketball, and football leagues have continued to expand and succeed.  But why? What allowed a major league sport like hockey to fall as it has in the past decade?  Well basically it began with the NHL commissioner and team owners miscalculating the American fan base and their desire for more hockey.  In 1993 the first NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, with support of the team owner’s continued a team expansion program and relocation program started in 1991.  The owners hired Bettman to be the driving force behind the modernization of the NHL.  They all believed that the NHL fan base and general American/Canadian audience was strong enough to support expanding the sport to the South and to cities that didn’t have any history of hockey.  From 1991-2000 the league added 8 teams and went from 22 to 30 teams, but unfortunately, the NHL brain trust was wrong. The US market was not ready.  The expansion diluted the NHL fan base and slowly led the league into the financial red.

Bettman and team owners made a simple mistake in terms of economics.  They flooded a market with more supply than there was demand.  The NHL was in a strong position in 1993 especially with the MLB and NBA strikes around the corner, but the NHL marketplace was nearly over saturated in terms of demand for more teams.  The owners had overestimated potential demand from the large US sport market and over a 9 year stretch added 8 teams.  Over the next decade, leading up to the strike in 2004/2005 season, the NHL slowly lost momentum.  In 2005 during the strike Rupert Cornwell summed everything up pretty clearly when he said.

“But quantity [number of teams] has not meant quality, as the on-ice product for spectators has deteriorated. Despite an influx of European talent from behind the old Iron Curtain, no superstars have emerged to replace the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Defenses are stifling, goals have dried up, and the best fans could hope for was a good brawl.”

This combination of things brought teams to a grand total of $500 million in losses in the 2 seasons prior to the 2004/2005 NHL strike that would crippled the already injured league.  Even worse, prior to the strike ABC and ESPN refused to resign the NHL to a new contract for the coming season.  This left the NHL no choice but to sign a contract with a smaller network further excluding many fans from watching their favorite teams.  Now unlike strikes in other major league sports where the season is stopped early or resumes late in the season, this strike became the first time in the NHL colorful 88 year history that no hockey was played which meant no 2005 Stanley Cup.

Now since these hard times the NHL has refocused and has been regaining momentum.  Cornwell’s quote was from 2005 and since then we have seen the rise of Crosby and Ovechkin.  Their rivalry has increased interest in the NHL with the assistance of the shift in 2008 “toward using digital technology to market to fans to capitalize on” the half of their fan base that has been found to be rooting for teams outside of their local area.  In 2009 this strategy resulted in a record number of sponsors and television viewers for the NHL.

So the NHL seems it could finally be back on its feet, but can this growth continue?  What will it take to keep this growth trend?  Could it be Crosby and Ovechkin? Are Crosby and Ovechkin the new Gretzky and Lemieux?  And if they are can they help bring hockey back to its past glory?


22 Responses

  1. Mike,

    Good intuitive argument presented here. However, I will comment on the expansion in Florida.

    I have been to 5 games (3 in Tampa and 2 in Florida) since the lockout. Based on those two experiences I found that there is a market for hockey in both those cities. The reason I state this is that although tickets were in the cheaper range ($20-$50) per seat, the place was near capacity.

    The secondary and tertiary affects of these franchises on the community has been exponentially positive. Growing up playing hockey in Florida is an oxymoron. However, the grassroots started with street/roller hockey. Once these teams were established at their respective locations, the sport’s popularity grew. I do not have any quantitative data to back this up but the NHL might now see the long term effects of a expanding teams to communities that previously did not know what the hell hockey was. The long term effect might be that the younger generations of those communities latch onto the sports and continue to follow or play it throughout their lifetimes.

    I went to Game 5 of the 2004-05 Quarterfinal Game in Tampa (lightning vs Islanders) and it surprised the hell out of me how much support the lightning had. The place was packed, the overall atmosphere was literally through the roof, and the city was 100% behind the lightning. The game went into overtime and was won by Martin St. Louis with a blazing slap shot over DiPietro’s shoulder. The place erupted because this signified the glorious fourth win to advance to the next round.

    To further your point about Crosby and Ovechkin, I completely agree that they are the saviors of the NHL (among others like Toews, Kane, Miller, Stamkos). They will lead the NHL into another Golden Era. The reason I state this is because when I went to the games in Florida to see the Pens play(minus the playoff game), there were more Crosby jerseys that any other person on either team. Since Crosby has started playing with Pittsburgh they have sold out every game and thus allowing (due to stability of the franchise due to his presence) the new Consol Energy Arena to be built.

    The NHL need to harbor this rivalry (even though the players state there is not one). I read an article about a month ago saying the NHL was thinking about having the Winter Classic 2011 at Heinz field where the Penguins would take on the Ovechkin’s Capitals.

    The next step is to either get VS to cover more games (i.e. get VS to expand their channels like ESPN) or have the networks and ESPN to pick up more games.

    The NHL is on the up and thus far has not disappointed its fans in the first round of the playoffs.

  2. The NHL will never reach the likes of MLB, NBA or NFL. The facts are simple, the barrier to entry for becoming a hockey player or fan in the United States are too high.

    Parents tend to pass on the games they grew up or things that are easy to do like, tossing around the football, putting up a basketball hoop in the backyard. Hockey is far too expensive of a sport to just start picking up, parents have to be driven (by their own passion for the game) to bring their children into the hockey family.

    As for the rest of the population who might pick up hockey later in life, the rule book is far too dense. Someone would have to invest time to understand a game they didn’t grow up with. Further, the quickness of the game makes understanding and analyzing play far too difficult for even the modern sportscaster. Look at ESPN, they have to bring in Melrose anytime they want to talk hockey.

    Bottom line, hockey will never reach the conscious of the American public unless more people start investing their more time in teaching the game to their friends. The NHL would be better served to throw out a few teams and cut down the season length.

    • I must agree that with the American culture leaning toward the other three major league sports it will be a long time, maybe never, before hockey surpasses one of them. But in there situation dropping teams and cutting down the season would only make the NHL bad dream of constantly being in the red to full blown nightmare. Hockey traditionalists are already upset about new rules and regulations that can be attributed to helping speed games up and increase goals scored, but dropping teams and cutting season length would see violent reaction that the NHL couldn’t handle.

      I also have to agree with what one of the other comments pointed out. The expansion of the league may have been plagued with financial issues resulting from lack of fan support, but it was a necessary risk if they wanted to grow the game. They might have even predicted the low attendance and millions of dollars in losses, but saw it as long-term benefit for the league and the sport. I’m excited to see if that true. Maybe in the next 5 years we’ve a steady increase in hockey viewers as a result of hockey exposure to the younger generation of America.

      Here’s a question for everyone, would a new NHL commissioner help or hurt the league? Because presently the position has only been filled by one person, Gery Bettman, since it’s creation in 1992. And from a players pole taken in a April ESPN magazine, players don’t think of him that highly. Maybe it’s time for NHL Commissioner 2.0.

      • Wagner,

        Be careful of the grass is always greener on the other side complex. Although, a new commissioner might be beneficial, it could also drive the league into ruins.

        With the advent of the KHL, the Russian League becoming more and more popular (i.e. Jagr) the NHL has to be careful on making rash and unpredictable outcomes to include naming a new commissioner.

        I think it will take a marketing genius to revive the NHL to the level of even MLB and keep traditional hockey alive. I believe if the commissioner really wanted to stir things up, I believe he would team up with Versus to create THE hockey network. If they were able to make Versus a common channel on cable packages and throw in an extra channel or two to show multiple games at once I believe that Versus could ride the coattails of the NHL to new revenues or the other way around.

        Another area that Mr. Bettman and the NHL should look at is FREE streaming video content so people can watch their favorite team online and with the advent of HDMI and laptops can watch it on their big screen with surround sound. I looked up the price the other day and it was $19.99 to watch 1 game, ridiculous.

  3. good points, but crosby sucks

  4. where is my comment making fun of the professional diver crosby?

  5. ahh I have to have a name…

    good points in the article, but crosby sucks

    • Ya well all I have to say is Stanley Cup Champs and repeat year! Oh and by the way, if Crosby’s so bad who’s your favorite player and team?

      • Are you a pens fan mike?

        • Ya. When I was growing up in Cleveland the nearest team was the Penguins. Plus, I was a huge Lemieux and Jagr fan. I occasionally root for the Red Wings, but I’m a solid Penguins and Crosby fan.

  6. seriously, did you see his the ref signaling crosby’s goal on the sens the other night? I thought his arm was going to breakoff he was swinging it with so mcuh excitement

  7. The rule changes that were instituted after the lockout really did help to bring some higher scoring into the games. Traditionalists have been disappointed by the changes, however the essence of the game has remained the same and the excitement has really gone up. This has translated to more interest from fans and TV networks.

  8. Good article, and while I do think there might be too many teams in the NHL, I don’t think cutting them will do anything to help the league. Yes it might save the NHL money considering some particular teams are in the red as far as profits go, but the only way the league can try to grow its fan base is if they market teams to places where hockey has potential. It might be costing them money now, but when those teams start picking up talented players and making the playoffs, the fans will start coming to games. It may take awhile, but it will be worth it. The NHL gains nothing by keeping hockey in places where it already has fans. In my opinion, the NHL has to sit on the teams it has. Eventually, the investment will be worth it.
    And please can we not turn this into another Crosby vs Ovie debate? They’re both incredible talented hockey players and they both are bringing life back to hockey. It doesn’t matter how many blogs you post on talking about how much the guy you don’t like blows. It’s not going to make your team win any more games. If you’re so insecure as to attack the other player at every turn you really have some anger issues you need to work out. So read the article and appreciate it for what it is worth without using at as a chance to shout out your unrelated feelings you annoying fucks. Honestly you’re like 12 year-olds.

  9. We share the same views, the nhl, just like in its hockey operations with the rest of the league, alwasy finds a way to screw people, the person to blame is Gary Bettman, we as fans are always paying the price through higher tikcets costs and blackouts. Nice work here

  10. Mike,
    Good solid market theory. Hockey fans are smart, passionate,dedicated and will spend significant dollars to stay in touch with their favorite sport. The NHL needs to pay attention to its fan base and expand the potential broadcast audience not continue to restrict it.
    Let’s hope the NHL leadership wakes up before its too late and they lose a generation of hockey fans forever.

  11. While I feel that the teams that were added with the southern expansion in the early to mid 90’s might have been a risky move for a young NHL Commissioner to make, I feel it was one that had great intent, not only for those cities that would be economically effected, but for the face of the league to be marketed as a true American sport. As mentioned, Baseball and Basketball seem to be the face of this country’s athletic market. However, where these sports perhaps succeeded, the NHL and Gary Bettman failed continuously until the lockout in 2004, and possibly are continuing the trend of mediocre status quo.

    On paper, the southern expansion and city relocation project has produced stanley cups from four of the expansion teams, and stanley cup finals appearances by another four. Where the NHL has continually failed in their attempts to revitalize the league can be seen in a pure marketing sense, starting with the expansion years and continuing through 3 years ago. Some would even argue that its marketing efforts are still well under par. If Gary Bettman and the NHL were smart, they would have heavily marketed the expansion and relocation of teams in the early stages (first three years), and then gone into heavy marketing for the league as a whole once teams started to make impressions (i.e. winning the stanley cup).

    To make an impact with the American sports market share, the NHL would have needed to fight for their spot in the country’s eyes as one of the elite games that requires sincere talent that produces excitement for its fans. These days, marketing for American sports can be easily expedited for success by anything that stations such as ESPN and ABC say about that sport, their teams and the players involved. Because the NHL’s marketing lapse over time has not made a sincere and effective attempt to revitalize its sport for audiences that are susceptible for attraction, they will soon fall into a categorical anomaly. The expansion of the teams would seem to be a good idea on paper for new, better competition for teams and the league, but without promoting your product and new members of the sport, the American market will (and did) lose interest by having to put energy into following and researching the NHL’s every move.

  12. What do fans want to see? More HR’s in baseball, TD’s in football, and more GOALS in Hockey.

    Figure out a way to score more goals in hockey and you will increase the fan base. That’s what the fans want to see!

  13. the nhl will never be as popular in the states as the other pro sports, but i think its popularity is increasing…the strike caused the nhl to lose mainstream cable station coverage (espn)…and they were beat out by poker!!..

  14. Good comments. You mention many of the challenges the NHL has faced over the past decade. I’d add the challenge for Canadian teams to pay player salaries in $US dollars was another big factor in team movement from the great white north to the US over the past few years. As the value of $US dollar has gone down, Canadian cities like Quebec or another Toronto team is under consideration.

    While I’m a big hockey fan and can’t quite understand how its not more popular compared to the NBA, MLB, and the NFL, I think it will always be #4 in the major league sports landscape. As its so tough/expensive for kids to play hockey it compared to basketball or baseball, it becomes a regional sport in traditional cold weather hockey towns.

    The NHL’s rules to open up the game have worked and the profile of the game has risen with higher scoring, the Olympics, and young stars like Crosby, Ovechkin, and more. There are still too many things for the league to compete with to get a higher standing in the sports community. Being #4 with a passionate fan base isn’t a bad thing though and the NHL and players should realize its position and do anything/everything they can to leverage what they have.

    There is nothing better than playoff hockey!

  15. I think the best thing the NHL can do right now is to drop Versus when their contract expires (2011?) and try to get back on ESPN. I feel like the league’s popularity has been going up since the lockout and it is putting out a better product but without the exposure of a major television network its growth is definitely limited. Even if Bettman has to take less money to get the league back on ESPN it would be worth it. ESPN does a great job in marketing all sports, particularly the ones that are regularly shown on its channels. If this does not happen, the NHL will continue to be a league that has a group of diehard fans in certain cities and casual fans in the rest of the country.

  16. The first round of the playoffs drew big TV numbers:

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