Has Hockey Fallen Out of the Four Major Sports in North America?

I was recently a guest of the Sports Bash with Mike Gill on 97.3 ESPN Radio and the classic debate arose: What are the four major sports in North America?  I was shocked to hear his response; “Hockey is definitely the fifth major sport… possibly even sixth behind NASCAR.”

As a lifelong fan of the National Hockey League, I was saddened by Mr. Gill’s outlook, which was supported by many of the listeners calling/texting/tweeting into the show. Although the National Basketball Association has risen to prominence above hockey, I argued that the NHL still belongs amongst the top four. The sport hosts some of the best athletic talent throughout the world with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux from Canada; Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk from Russia; Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Lundqvist and the Sedin twins from Sweden; and Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane from the U.S.A.

The league has the ultimate parity between its teams, as there are a new batch of teams making the playoffs from year to year. To even earn a spot takes a stellar record–unlike the NBA East for instance. A major network (NBC/NBCSN) carries 100+ games to a national audience. Yet based on the numbers we see below, hockey does seem to be the low man on the totem pole.

Attendance*

League Teams Recent Average Attendance Team games per year
NFL 32 67,604 16
MLB 30 30,514 162
CFL 9 28,193 18
MLS 19 18,807 34
NHL 30 17,695 82
NBA 30 17,408 82

TV Exposure and Revenues in the U.S.* (Leagues ranked in order of TV ratings)

League    Ratings/Viewers TV Revenue
NFL 10 / 16.6m (aggregate) $5.0 billion
NBA 2.3 / 3.6m (ABC, 15 games) 1.3 / 1.9m (TNT, 43 games) 1.1 / 1.7m (ESPN, 71 games) $930 million
MLB 1.6 / 2.4m (Fox/FS1, 55 games) 0.8 / 1.2m (ESPN, 16 games) 0.2 / 0.4m (TBS, 13 games) $1.5 billion
NHL 1.0 / 1.7m (NBC, 13 games) 0.2 / 0.3m (NBCSN, 88 games) $200 million

*All information tabulated and gathered from Wikipedia

What has happened to make this great sport fall in the eyes of the viewing public?

The 2004-05 Season Lockout

The 2004–05 NHL lockout caused the cancellation of the 88th season of the NHL. It was the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919, the first time a major professional sports league in North America canceled a complete season because of a labor dispute, and the second time after the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike that the playoffs of a major professional sports league in North America were cancelled. This did not sit well with many hockey fans and it is obvious some never returned to their fandom. The lockout lasted 10 months and 6 days starting September 16, 2004, the day after the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) that resolved the 1994–95 lockout expired. With such a long layover, many laymen sports fans turned towards the NBA and never looked back. The negotiating teams finally reached an agreement on July 13, 2005, and the lockout officially ended 9 days later on July 22, after both the NHL owners and the NHLPA ratified the CBA. However, the damage was done.

ESPN drops the NHL

During the layoff, the cable sports giant opted not to pick up NHL games for the 2005-06 season. Some of this had to do with the upheaval going on in the league at the time, plus the lack of security that there would even be a season in the fall. The real reason hockey died on ESPN is still up for debate. The World Series of Poker boom served as the Grim Reaper. ESPN was making boat-loads of money airing this annual event from Las Vegas in place of the normally scheduled NHL season. When the sport returned, they scoffed at bringing back hockey.

The NHL turned towards a new up-and-coming cable channel, Versus (later to be bought by NBC and converted to NBC Sports Network). The NHL does owe this network a debt of gratitude for rescuing the league. Gary Bettman honored this debt when ESPN came calling in 2011 to work out a new deal. On top of being dropped, Bettman did not like the level of coverage that was offered prior to the lockout.

“While the games themselves were first-rate, production-wise, and ESPN had a group of dedicated broadcasters who loved the game, it was when things went back to the studio for SportsCenter that the game was treated like a red-headed stepchild, always way down on the pecking order of sports highlights. The NHL almost never led off the SportsCenter broadcast – unless there was some horrible disciplinary incident – and usually found itself somewhere between bowling and poker highlights on the countdown,” Adrian Dater, The Denver Post, April, 2011.

Expansion

Many feel the league has expanded too far, leaving the competition way too thin. Obviously, I am not one of these naysayers based on my previous argument of league parity. The NHL has had several rounds of expansion and other organizational changes during its nearly 100-year history. The league now sits at thirty teams: twenty-three in the U.S. and seven in Canada. With the most recent wave of expansion, teams arose in Florida, California, and Arizona (typically non-winter sports areas). Some say these non-traditional hockey markets drag down the entire league, but let’s look at one in particular–the Los Angeles Kings. They are now the proud recipient of the Stanley Cup twice in the past three seasons. Their home games are always sold out. The team’s broadcasts pull tremendous ratings in the Los Angeles market (even with the likes of the Dodgers and Lakers).

Clear Cut Representative

Here is one argument that does bear some weight: The NHL currently does not have that one clear cut representative from each team that fans can look up to and admire. The National Football League has Peyton Manning; Major League Baseball has Derek Jeter and Mike Trout and the NBA has LeBron James. The closest the NHL has is Sidney Crosby, but his poor attitude and demeanor soil his tremendous talent. During its hay-day, the NHL had Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as representatives. These two men were the epitome of excellence on and off the ice.

Until the league finds a new figurehead, it will lag behind the other leagues. As co-host of a hockey show and an overall advocate of the sport, I feel it is my civic duty to raise the overall fanfare of the sport I know and love. With each year, I am confident hockey will grow and flourish, once again climbing back towards the top of the four major sports.

Thank you for reading. Please take a moment to follow me on Twitter – @Robbybltz and on The Hockey Happy Hour. Support LWOS by following us on Twitter – @LastWordOnSport and @LWOSworld – and “liking” our Facebook page. For the latest in sports injury news, check out our friends at Sports Injury Alert.