Contrary to popular opinion, the national opinion of hockey in the United States is indeed... popular.
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There is no need to look further than attendance numbers. The NHL's average attendance is virtually neck and neck with the NBA, with the NHL having a slight lead. When percentage of capacities is compared, the difference is greater, as the NHL is in the 93% range while the NBA is below 90%.
Without question, the NHL has always drawn good crowds. Even in the Original Six era, most arenas were sold out every night. At the same time, the NBA was struggling to gain a footing, often averaging no more than a few thousand fans per night in many cities.
No, it is not in arena attendance that has caused the media to think hockey is not popular in much of the United States. Instead, it is television ratings.
Nobody will dispute the NHL's TV ratings could be better, but there are several factors to consider. First and foremost, the reality is, hockey loses more than any other sport when translated from an in-person event to television.
Hockey is very different from most popular North American sports, sharing certain similarities with only soccer. In both hockey and soccer, the knowledgeable fan is not watching only the puck or the ball, but rather, is focusing more on watching the play develop.
This is why hockey fans prefer a variety of seats. Some prefer sitting high on the sides. Some prefer low on the ends. Others prefer anything in between.
Each fan sees the game differently from different perspectives, and their enjoyment is generally greatly increased or decreased based on their positioning.
On television, there is a great limitation placed on the viewer, as they are only able to watch what the camera shows them. On a good broadcast, especially those in high-definition, the camera angle is wide enough to show most of the players on the ice.
Increasingly, too many broadcasters -- especially U.S.-based broadcasters who are searching for a way to boost ratings -- are focusing in too much on the puck. If a team has a power play and the point man has the puck, but you cannot see the net at the same time, that is not good camera work.
When the puck wraps around the boards, the camera does not have to follow the puck's movement, first to the left and then to the right. The preferred method would be to zoom out so the viewer could see the status of the forecheck.
Camera work is absolutely essential, and many networks get this. HDNet, CBC, TSN, and Rogers Sportsnet generally have outstanding camera work. NBC and Versus can vary from game to game -- sometimes they are decent, but on some occasions, they zoom in to the point where the game is unwatchable. Local FSN broadcasts also vary wildly from game to game and market to market
In addition, when the camera zooms in more, there is more camera movement. On most new HD televisions, this is a serious issue. Even a plasma television, which has a significantly faster refresh rate than an LCD or DLP, has a much slower refresh rate than traditional tube televisions.
In plain English, this means more blurring on the television set. When the blurring becomes too strong, a game becomes nearly unwatchable -- even in HD.
To add to the problem, many announcing teams have quit doing a solid play-by-play, instead opting to tell distracting stories with the occasional break for play-by-play.
The time for stories is whistles and intermission -- the game needs a play-by-play. There are those who say you can already see what's happening, but this thought has several flaws.
First and foremost, the fan watching on TV is already struggling to follow the play as a whole because of previously mentioned issues. The fan's focus is typically to watch the play as a whole instead of looking for who is on the ice.
The play-by-play man is supposed to fill in those gaps, telling the fan who is on the ice and who has the puck. Even in person, many fans find it easier to watch the game with a play-by-play, explaining why so many fans traditionally bring portable radios to games.
The second issue -- if the play-by-play man never says the players' names, fans do not learn the players. Most fans do not spend hours online researching names and numbers, so the play-by-play man is their way of learning out-of-market teams.
This issue is especially accented with the current schedule, as fans in each conference have only seen teams from the other conference once in person since the lockout. It is pretty hard to learn teams that way.
Generally, traditional markets have better play-by-play teams. All Canadian teams, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Buffalo are among the best. Many non-traditional markets have gotten very bad in recent seasons, and generally, those are the teams with the lowest television ratings.
There are exceptions, of course. Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Phoenix have good broadcast teams, but there are others who would be best left telling their stories on the pre-game show.
Add it up, and hockey on television just does not compare to hockey in person. And perhaps that is why so many hockey fans choose to watch junior or minor league hockey instead of watching hockey on television.
Basketball is different -- most fans choose to watch the NBA on television instead of going to a minor league game.
Check the numbers -- the AHL is once again averaging over 5,000 fans per game. The ECHL averages more than 4,000. The Central Hockey League is a shade under 4,000, while the IHL draws more than 3,400 per game.
All three major junior leagues draw well with a traditional average attendance of more than 4,000 per game, while the USHL also draws more than 2,500 per game.
The most prevalent minor league basketball leagues, the NBA's developmental league and the modern version of the ABA, do not post attendance averages, and it is understandable why they do not. While some games draw better, many games draw significantly less than 1,000 fans, with some ABA teams playing games in high school gyms.
Factor in those numbers, and there are more hockey fans than the TV numbers indicate.
The fact is, a higher percent of hockey fans will choose developmental leagues in person over the top level of the game on television than in any other sport.
This does not help the TV networks, but the TV networks could help themselves. To get the die-hard fans to watch more on TV, the aforementioned improvements could be made to broadcasts.
It is no coincidence the TV ratings are better in many of the markets with better TV coverage. If the league could get every broadcast up to the level of Hockey Night in Canada, the ratings would unquestionably skyrocket.
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