The NHL will always be a niche sport

Wayne Simmonds (24) of the Toronto Maple Leafs and AJ Greer (10) of the Boston Bruins battle during the third period, Feb. 1, 2023, in Toronto.

Wayne Simmonds (24) of the Toronto Maple Leafs and AJ Greer (10) of the Boston Bruins battle it out during the third period, Feb. 1, 2023. in Toronto.
Picture: AP

There is no fan base that can jump from inviting the masses to watch their sport to resenting any mainstream coverage or attention like hockey fans. Any discussion of hockey’s viewership and popularity always includes the same collection of reasons why it isn’t more popular, along with hockey fans scowling at why no one is watching. Hockey fans get furious when it’s pointed out that it’s a niche sport, and then equally outraged whenever it goes beyond that.

This is the tweet that started the usual carnival ride yesterday:

However, as The Athletic(handsome as hell!) Sean Gentille pointed out that these numbers are slightly rigged some new ESPN schedule. Long story short, ESPN has started putting games against Sunday Night Football, which is clearly going to crater the ratings. Take them out of the equation and the ratings are even ahead of last season’s on ESPN. TNT’s viewership is down, but this year there were regional blackouts and that had some effect.

Does that mean NHL viewership is great? It depends on how you define it. They will never come close to the NBA. That’s what those numbers say behind viewership in the Premier League on NBC’s sample channel, but there’s actually hockey. All that matters is what ESPN and TNT think.

Action & action

The fact that NHL ratings are in the same pool as The Premier League is paying attention to one of the tired and lazy tropes about why hockey isn’t more popular, which is dribbling. This is an argument that burns me royally, because what fans want is not scoring. They want action. And hockey has never had more action. Watch a game these days and you’ll see a lot more going on in a 3-2 game than a 9-7 game in 1986. Hockey will never go back to that, nor should it, because frankly, it was pretty shitty. Goalkeepers are too good now. The NHL has gone out of its way to cut back on goalie equipment, but there’s only so much you can do while keeping goalies safe. They are still perhaps the most athletic players on the ice instead of the confused wildebeests they were in the 80s. The NHL is not coming back.

But the game is fast and loud, and it’s good as it was. It’s just not 12 goals per game. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Yes, blocked shots and the coach’s defensive looks are still a problem, but less so than they used to be. Players are faster and more skilled than ever, and the pace of games, even in the middle of the regular season, reaches checkered more often than ever.

Marketing stars and audience expansion

There was also the usual lament that hockey doesn’t know how to market its stars, although this leads to the question of whether these stars are sellers at all. Have you ever heard Connor McDavid speak? You’re just waiting for him to get to the part about it TPS reports. Most of these types are not that different, and overexposing a lot of types with barely eightclassroom education can go backwards in many ways. And while the blame is placed on the league, or the teams, or marketing officials, hockey culture continues to put its foot down on any player who tries to elevate himself above the team in any way. This may not be as open an avenue as people think.

Of course, there is the problem of the composition of the playing staff and fans, and the sport reluctance to open up to a completely new audience. That’s the problem, and hockey players’ constant fear of angering their base of angry white men is getting in the way. But I’m not happy that even if they hit the right notes in any of that, the ratings would skyrocket.

Hockey, it’s just, it’s just not rooted. Although youth participation continues to grow, it still lags behind most other sports. There were six million high school football players last year. There were 42,000 hockey. If one is still playing at the high school level, the sport has taken root. Maybe it doesn’t mean lifelong, numbing fandom. But that probably means at least by chance, and certainly the possibility that that person would be involved in a big EPL match in their 20s and 30s. Hockey just won’t get to that level.

But really…what’s the problem? If you’re a hockey fan, you can watch every game easily with an ESPN+ subscription, which is far cheaper than other league pass packages. The arenas are filled. The only teams not filling their building to at least 85 percent capacity are Buffalo, Chicago, Ottawa and San Jose. These are all strong hockey markets that simply have teams that are bad right now or have been bad for a decade, and they’ll all be back to full capacity as soon as they’re good again, to be sure.

Players may want to make more money, but they are free to collectively bargain for it. Unless ESPN and TNT start grumbling about viewership and ad revenue, there’s really no danger. If you’re watching hockey and you have friends to watch with, why do you care how many other people are there?

Hockey is in the same place it’s always been, except now everyone has more access to niche stuff. Ask football or wrestling fans. And it will stay there.

Now let’s have fun

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