From the Basement | Why is hockey’s popularity falling?

Zach Brandwein, Staff Reporter

nhl popularity
Jada Roth

When you think of the North American “Big Four” sports leagues, what comes to mind? Traditionally, it is the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. Not anymore. Recently, soccer overtook hockey in American viewership

Personally, hockey is my favorite sport, so I will advocate for it until the day I die. I have been introducing my friends to the game as well, and they really enjoy it. It’s action packed with few stoppages, and it’s different from many other sports leagues when it comes to the fighting policy — which is not for everybody, a polarizing issue in the hockey community. 

This season especially has been the one to get into, as I feel it is the most entertaining season in a while. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs has had the first 50-goals-in-50-games season since Mario Lemieux in 95-96. Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks is a human highlight reel.

Last NHL season, only 19 of the top 50 scorers averaged a point per game. This season, that number jumped by more than 200%, as 42 of the top 50 scorers in the NHL are averaging a point per game. Why is the game of hockey not catching on?

Although the numbers may show that soccer is a bigger sport by U.S. viewership, soccer has many leagues, with a lot more games going on. One can be a fan of multiple teams in different countries, such as France, Spain, England and the United States. 

Hockey has leagues besides the NHL, such as the Kontinental Hockey League that includes Russia, China and other nations, Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany or the Swedish Hockey League. 

Most of the leagues outside the NHL are filled with ex-NHL players but also feature some of the up-and-coming prospects. Unlike college basketball and college football, these leagues do not have broadcasting deals with major national networks. 

Even the minor league for the NHL, the American Hockey League, only broadcasts on their own specific network, American Hockey League Television

 

As for why the sport itself is not catching on, there is no singular reason but rather a combination of many different ones. Violence is very polarizing, as people usually love it or want it gone from the game entirely. 

With all the news surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the past few years, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman adamantly dismissed the link between playing hockey and developing CTE. 

The NHL as a league makes less money than the MLB, NBA, NFL and Premier League. Due to this, the league’s salary cap is $82.5 million dollars. Across the other three “Big Four” sports leagues, only six teams have a lower payroll than the NHL salary cap. Five of these teams are in baseball with the other being in the NBA

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, probably the best player in the NHL right now, makes on average $12.5 million dollars per year, making him the NHL’s highest paid player. 

Looking at the MLB, NFL and NBA, the leading average annual value contract is greater than half of the NHL salary cap. Aaron Rodgers and Stephen Curry both make on average over $50 million dollars a year, while Max Scherzer makes on average $43 million dollars a year.

Since the NHL does not bring in as much money as other leagues, TV stations are more reluctant to broadcast NHL games, causing less exposure to the sport. The NHL is not blameless either, as they have not been marketing the game as well as possible. 

The NHL signed a seven-year deal with ESPN last year to broadcast hockey games starting the 2021-2022 season, which is great, but the NHL had not been on ESPN since 2003-2004

Another reason hockey is not very popular is that it costs a lot of money to buy the equipment. Pickup hockey can be played in a street with relatively cheaper equipment, but is still harder to play pickup than football, basketball or soccer. For football and soccer especially, the only thing you really need is a ball and enough people. End zones and goals can be marked off with cones, water bottles or other everyday objects. 

Even for professionals, hockey equipment is expensive, with players wearing up to $3,000 worth of pads, while goalies can have equipment valued at $10,000. Not only that, but one also needs to find a rink to play hockey in. As of 2010, Louisiana has two ice skating rinks. Many states only have one ice rink per 1 million people. 

Similar to the NFL, the NHL’s most glaring inconsistencies are regarding suspensions and the Department of Player Safety. 

Ryan Hartman, a member of the Minnesota Wild, was fined $4,250 for giving another player the middle finger. On Feb. 19 of this year, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn was fined $5,000 for squirting water at another player. Tom Wilson was fined $5,000 for “roughing” Pavel Buchnevich. Auston Matthews did something similar to Rasmus Dahlin, and was suspended for two games. 

These inconsistencies have annoyed longtime fans and alienated new fans.

All of these combinations have led to hockey’s decline in American viewership and the NHL must adapt to combat these changes.