Hockey, Canada’s game. Well not according to Gary Bettman. The commissioner of over 20 years of the National Hockey League (NHL) has spent his career trying to grow the game in the US market. Over his tenure, he has seen the NHL enter eight net new markets in the US: Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Raleigh and coming next year, Las Vegas. Some may look to the Stanley Cup wins of the Stars, Avalanche and Hurricanes as validation of this strategy. Others look to the bankruptcy of the Coyotes and the eventual relocation of the Thrashers as its failure.
What no one can argue, is that the NHL has sunk its way to the bottom of the big four professional leagues in North America. As of 2016, the NHL earned $3.7B in annual revenue, a quarter of what the NFL makes. And while the NBA thrives on a lucrative major market TV deal, the NHL still struggles to make network television during primetime slots. Can the NHL ever make it to the dinner table conversation? Here is the first in a three-part series looking to take the NHL out of the doghouse and onto the front page of the world’s largest outlets.
Income Inequality Works in Sports
Parity is overrated. No, maybe it’s underrated in the real world, but in sports, parity amongst teams often is used hand-in-hand with excitement. But that’s not always the case. Let’s take the NBA as an example. There are probably 3 teams with a realistic shot at a championship, and it’s been this way for the past few years. While some (especially those cheering for the other franchises) complain, the NBA has seen an era of impressive growth. When thinking of the most popular athletes, names like LeBron James and Steph Curry are always at the top of the list.
Hockey doesn’t work this way, partly because of the style of sport. It’s a fluid game that’s often decided by only 1 goal. That means a lucky bounce here or there, or an unexpected mistake could result in the favorite going home in defeat. Hockey needs dynasties. They need rivalries. Most of all, they need superstars.
Let’s take golf as an example. Most of us think of golf as a fringe sport, something where you may watch the big tournament, but most likely it’s just something you see towards the end of SportsCenter. Along came Tiger Woods in the mid-90s and things changed. The majors became must-see TV while the Tiger brand grew into a behemoth all while introducing a generation of viewers to the younger stars. Tennis has seen a similar phenomenon with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (although that’s caused problems of their own).
But how do you create superstars? Don’t you just have to hope for a few to bubble up to the top? Tennis in Canada is a great example of how you can systematically create top tier talent and use that to generate trickle down support for the lesser known player. Think of it as the Reaganomics of sports. In 2005, Tennis Canada, an organization struggling to capture the audience of their nation with players of their own, set out a new strategy. The idea was to redistribute the limited amount of funding it received, towards the top-tier of young players they had.
Rather than spreading the funds thin, supporting too many players across the tennis ranks, the board decided to revamp the program and begin targeting players that showed the most promise, and the fiercest dedication. And it needed to consolidate those players in one spot, so they could practice and play together, which spawned the National Tennis Centre in Montreal
The result was the two top-tier superstars within 10 years; Milos Raonic and Genie Bouchard. The sport is booming in Canada now with Raonic contending with the best in the world. And while Genie has struggled as of late, she still draws large crowds when playing on home soil.
Rogers Cup excited about Raonic boost | Tennis | Sports | Toronto Sun https://t.co/zWDzY5Pbgl
— Ian Shantz (@IanShantz) July 11, 2016
Hockey could do the same, but it would have to take some hard decisions. The good news is, the personnel are already in place. Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, and Auston Matthews have taken over the league, at least statistically. The problem is we rarely see them on TV, in the news or anywhere for that matter (unless you live in Canada). The Arizona-raised 1st overall pick playing for one of the most well-known franchises ever? Well, his first game in the league lived up to all the hype, scoring 4 goals in an overtime thriller against a rival. But did anyone outside of Canada see it?
Auston Matthews: 28th goal of season, moves back into tie with Winnipeg's Patrik Laine for the most among rookies this season.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 20, 2017
What if the league decided to stream the game live on Youtube or partner with NBC to make sure Americans could see the likely best player ever from south of the 49th. Rivalries are sometimes naturally born, but most times they take a little nudging. Perhaps the next Winter Classic needs to feature the top Canadian McDavid vs. the top American Matthews? Maybe every NBC weekend game features at least one of the three future (and current) superstars? Now it doesn’t help that all three play on Canadian teams, but if we can all get behind a football team from Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’m pretty sure we can get behind a team from the fourth largest city in North America.