NHL Is Its Own Worst Enemy
Sports do not exist in a vacuum. There are always social reasons for a sport’s popularity, and the most important reason is usually introduction to a sport as a young man or woman.
Baseball is the most obvious example in this country because it’s the sport that has been around the longest. For generations, fathers have taken their sons, and sometimes daughters, to games; when they became parents, they took their own children, so there is a link through many generations.
Neither hockey nor soccer have this link.
In many countries around the world, soccer is the No. 1 sport by a large margin. Youngsters play the game on playgrounds or in the streets. Few of them ever become good enough to play professionally, just as very few American youths playing baseball become major league players, but they grow up to be fanatical fans.
There has been a serious attempt to establish soccer as a major sport in this country since 1967, when two professional leagues began. I was there, covering the Oakland Clippers for two seasons for The Chronicle and later doing radio-TV commentary on both indoor and outdoor soccer for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Because I was so close to the game, I was convinced that it would grow into a major sport, with those in the youth tennis programs becoming the professional players and fans in years to come.
It never happened, because it was an artificial implant. In this country, soccer is a suburban, mostly white sport. Kids don’t play because they want to. They play because “soccer moms” drive their kids to the games and drive them home. When these young soccer players get into high school, they gravitate to football, basketball and baseball, the more traditional sports. By the time they’re in their 20s, they’re watching those sports, not soccer.
HOCKEY HAS a similar problem. It’s huge in Canada because everybody plays it growing up, on playgrounds which are frozen over for a good part of the year. The same is true in the northern tier of American cities which were part of the original National Hockey League – New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago.
Elsewhere, though, it’s an artificial sport. The San Jose Sharks have done well, but in the Bay Area, hockey is a cult, not a sport.
An executive involved in the operation of the arena which houses the Sharks told me that the Sharks fan base was basically about 40,000. As a comparison, a baseball team which has a season attendance of two million can figure that between 300,000 and 400,000 different people buy tickets during the season.
The NHL probably should have stayed with its mix of Canadian and northern U.S. cities but it was lured by the large American sports market, and those in charge – like those pushing soccer in the U.S. – are true believers, convinced that their sport is so attractive that it was certain to soon rank with the top American sports.
LIKE SOCCER, hockey lacks one essential for success as an American sport: the ability to televise well.
In soccer, the problem is the continuous action, which is a no-no for TV executives, who want those scheduled breaks for advertising. In hockey, the problem is that casual viewers can’t follow the damn puck. When the red light goes on and spectators jump up cheering, viewers are left to wonder what just happened.
Television is a great selling tool, because it can introduce viewers to a sport and it usually increases interest in those watching.
Not with hockey, though. Any casual fan turning on a hockey game is likely to watch for a few minutes and lose interest, never to return.
That’s why ESPN made no effort to renew when its contract with the NHL expired, and why the NHL could make a two-year deal with NBC only by agreeing to a revenue-sharing model, without the network paying right fees.
It is also why Fox Sports Bay Area (FSBA) executives were just as happy the Sharks weren't playing this year. As dismal as the Warriors have been, they still have a larger audience.
WHEN A baseball labor dispute cancelled the 1994 World Series, it took four years – and a great home run record battle by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – for attendance levels to return to pre-1994 levels.
That was with a sport firmly entrenched in the American psyche. The NHL was never more than a blip on the radar of most American sports fans, and it’s not even that now, with the cancellation of the season.
There will certainly be some franchises which will fold – Pittsburgh, Nashville, Carolina and Phoenix are thought to be the highest on the endangered list – and the league as a whole will rank somewhere around a Class A baseball league on the interest level for most American sports fans.
And all because they were looking at the wrong model.
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