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"Don't EVER play 'Lady of Spain' AGAIN!!!!"
I get that a lot. • United States • 42 Years Old • Male
Despite the US having 24 of 30 NHL teams, countless minor league franchises, and a few hotbeds of college and even high school hockey, the popularity of the game below the 49th parallel is severely lacking, keeping it a so-called "niche sport". From my position as an American hockey fan, I hope to shed some light on this unfortunate phenomenon.

In the abstract, hockey seems to have all the ingredients for wild success in the US: speed, hard physical contact, beauty, plenty of hard-working, blue-collar-type players, and a rich history. Yet, it still flounders below not only other team sports, but also major "motorsports", on the nationwide radar.

Cutting to the chase, I'll tell you this: Yes, Americans like it loud, fast, and violent. However, they also like it simple.

The average American sports fan craves the Happy Meal approach to sports: the ability to encapsulate the essence of a game into a series of highlights, with the snappy patter of the talking head du jour. The touchdown, homerun, and slamdunk are the McNuggets that keep them coming back. The special sauce is the "personalities" that perform these feats.

The broadening appeal of NASCAR is living proof of this model. The basic function, driving a car, is something any American of age can identify with, and they can latch on to the face/number of the individual driver. Here, then is a "niche sport" that has made good by being the perfect mix for the drive-thru that is SportsCenter.

Where hockey suffers (as does soccer, in fact) is that, to the unsophisticated viewer, all the highlights look the same: "a guy scored a goal." The nature of the free-flowing team aspect of the game is lost on the armchair consumer. As hockey fans can tell you (and colo(u)r commentators often do): "a big save at one end of the ice often leads to a great chance at the other end" or "that won't show up on the scoresheet, but he made that goal possible". Such a sequence of events--a mere two of about a zillion possible permutations in any given hockey game--can't be summed up for the casual observer. It requires an amount of awareness of how one event relates to another in the flow of the game.

There are those who might counter that there is a great deal of complexity which leads to scoring in baseball and football. I would counter that there is, however: in baseball, the pace of the game allows you plenty of time to figure out every possible angle; and in football, I doubt many casual fans could adequately explain the intricacies of effective blocking schemes. What gets latched onto is the individual who makes things happen: the quarterback, running back, or receiver; or the homerun hitter; or the high-flying slamdunk artiste. So, then, another huge component to success with the American fan is the ability to single out individuals to adore.

This has been an ongoing argument: the NHL needs to better market its individual stars to the American audience. I'd say it can be universally agreed that this has not happened. Case in point: arguably the biggest star in the game today is Sidney Crosby. Word is, he an his Penguins will begin next season overseas. If the NHL schedules two European games, as they did in London, that will mean that Crosby will have played more regular season games in Prague than in each of the following NHL venues:

Los Angeles
St. Louis
San Jose

That's 15 out of 30, folks. For a league with a serious problem with lack of exposure in North America, that's simply inexcusable.

Beyond the marketing ineptitude of the NHL, a major stumbling block with American audiences is the international makeup of the game. It's highly unlikely that a broad cross-section of the potential American fanbase is going to latch onto a player named Kovalchuk or Jokinen--or even a Brind'Amour or Lecavalier--when there are plenty of Johnsons or Gordons to be had.

Which leads directly into the twin topics of infrastructure and demographics. Hockey simply does not have the footholds shared by baseball, football, and basketball in the most fertile ground for broad sporting appeal in the US: the inner city. A significant number of high-profile performers in those three sports emerge from these areas of the US, thanks in no small part to easy access to these sports at the youth level. All you need: football, a ball and open space; baseball, a bat and ball and open space; basketball, a ball and a hoop on some open space. For ice hockey, you only need a puck, 10-12 sticks, 10-12 sets of skates and a safe sheet of ice. Yes, street hockey is also a possibility, but that still requires the multiple sticks... and good luck finding brave souls to be padless goaltenders. A large section of the fanbase, then, can more easily identify with someone who could play their sport with what the fans have on hand, rather than someone who arrives for each game wearing thousands of dollars worth of armor. That's even before you factor in the differences in terms of ethnic participation between the professional sports.

To sum up, the American sports fan at large prefers the 3-chord heavy metal of football; the hip-hop beats of basketball; the power ballads of baseball; or the up-tempo bluegrass of NASCAR; to the intricate symphony of hockey, crashing cymbals and all.

With that said, it's a credit to the great game of hockey that it continues to do well despite this seemingly massive and natural obstacle. For it to continue to do so, and thrive, as well, it's up to the NHL to do a better job of reaching out for new fans--not trying to cater to them.
Filed Under:   NASCAR   NBA   MLB   NFL   Crosby   hockey   USA   NHL  
October 8, 2007 11:16 AM ET | Delete
I really think the main problem is its a just not part of life in the Statesits just a regional game not a national game.
October 8, 2007 11:21 AM ET | Delete
Great read!
October 8, 2007 11:27 AM ET | Delete
Fantastic read.
October 8, 2007 12:01 PM ET | Delete
Fantastic! You hit every point that I ever thought of and more. All put together in a coherent and interesting fashion not to mention the high level of writing. Possibly the best blog I have read here. Keep on writing!
October 8, 2007 1:41 PM ET | Delete
Great introspective look N23. Excellent analysis. (See also DuckFan07's MHB post from last night with similar points regarding high barriers to entry.) I still believe that there is room for vast improvements in the marketing of hockey, from hi-def and viewable camera angles which would afford the casual fans to actually "see" the slam dunk along with the passes that set it up to more attempts at broadening the fan base by marketing the many positives the sport can bring to anyone with a halfway open mind.
October 8, 2007 1:46 PM ET | Delete
Excellent read 23!
October 8, 2007 2:19 PM ET | Delete
I have a 5 year old playing hockey and a 3 year old in a learn to skate program .Not only are there a large number of children involved and learning the game but they are recieving full size sid the kid growth charts and other awards but having fun also. So before you can say anything about usa fans you have to realize usa hockey is growing fans for the future and you cannot base everything about sports on ESPN ratings.
October 8, 2007 2:23 PM ET | Delete
23 - I love the Reg Dunlop quote. Keep it up.
October 8, 2007 2:28 PM ET | Delete
mandrinhawk1, I have no doubt about the hockey programs in upstate NY (so near the Canadian border that you can spit across). I'm speaking (as an American) about the *current* state of the game in the US at large... where the grassroots/future growth support of hockey pales in comparison to your area. Without footholds in urban and rural areas (the staple markets of the NBA and NASCAR, respectively), significant growth can't be expected.
October 8, 2007 3:28 PM ET | Delete
That was great, thank you for taking time compiling that info for the blog.Bettman doesn't get, he never will.
October 8, 2007 3:53 PM ET | Delete
Excellent blog, man. All the keys were there. The problem is what can the NHL do about it? Football has Pop Warner leagues for kids; Baseball has Little League and PAL; I know in Western NY wse have lots of hockey for kids, but maybe the league needs to sponsor something to enable children to play, without breaking mom and dad's bank account.
October 8, 2007 4:15 PM ET | Delete
Certainly a good idea, jtswinehart. But, sadly, until the NHL can get its own house in order and running on all cylinders from a marketing perspective, I doubt it would have the wherewithal to embark on something so (for the NHL, anyway) progressive.
October 8, 2007 10:22 PM ET | Delete
good stuff
October 9, 2007 7:51 AM ET | Delete
WOW! You've really done your homework on this one 23. I think you should be this weeks guest blogger and this should appear in the centre column of the home page. Perhaps Mr. Bettman's brother, the Count from Sesame Street, should take over NHL operations. In Canada we are brought up on hockey and as we grow older it becomes a way of life for us. Perhaps if the youth of America were introduced to the sport at a younger age the popularity will increase. I've often heard that most Americans can't follow the puck, but that's an excuse because everyone knows that you have to follow the flow of the game and if you blink you may have lost your concentration. I believe that mostly you have to have anticipation of the play as to where it is going. This is very impressive. Keep it coming 23, it is truly a remarkable post. Thank you.
October 9, 2007 9:04 AM ET | Delete
Thanks for a thoughtful piece. The point of marketing individual stars is well taken and I believe the league is about to change the scheduling philosophy. As a season ticket holder in Nashville I will be thrilled to see Eastern Conference teams and their stars and see how our team stacks up. I have also complained on many occasions locally that our teams' marketing department is failing to use the star making machinery that is the country music industry to make local stars of the Nashville Predators most compellingpersonalities. Wake up y'all, we have a great sport and more people should be enjoying it!!
October 9, 2007 11:05 AM ET | Delete
Well done, that was a great read!
October 9, 2007 12:14 PM ET | Delete
excellent research...at the same time, i think the niche fanbase for hockey is neccessarily a good thing, as the fans who are attracted by hockey, tend to become die-hard. It has amazed me, especially after the last couple of years, to find brilliant hockey communities in buffalo and philadelphia...fans know so much about the game, it was shocking to someone like me coming from Montreal of all places. I never considered however, the nature of there not being a homerun, or touchdown situation in hockey. And of course the impact of that fact on the sport's ability to attract a proper following in a country that should by all accounts enjoy something with speed, excitement, discipline and violence...kinda very harmonious with core American/Republican values...Hence the onus has been placed on Gary Bettman and his failures at marketing the sport...there are obviously other factors at play here....and you have touched on them 23...
October 9, 2007 12:16 PM ET | Delete
Great read, 23, and being that we have discussed this, you know I agree pretty much 100%...LOL
October 9, 2007 1:05 PM ET | Delete
As a American/Republican I agree with EE that there is much to market the NHL in the US that has not been done. 23 - what a fantastic and insightful blog - did your wife write it? Seriously though, I love what you wrote. We 'mericans crave nonstop action AND scoring - which is what you alluded to in your hockey and soccer comments. I love that we fans might be a little more "sophisticated" about our viewing of the game than someone watching basketball (ban). Our niche is our own and I like it that way. That being said, the league does not do a good job at going after the kids who are not already fans - therein lies the challenge. How does the NHL grab the passing sports consumer and make him/her take a second look. Bettman has done very poorly in that regard. Great blog 23! SYF
October 9, 2007 4:47 PM ET | Delete
People keep saying that the NHL needs to market their star players. IMO, that's not the right approach and the past has proven that. They've tried marketing the individuals but a few problems get in the way. First, the average hockey player has no personality. Second, star forwards play 20 minutes a game. Third, unless you know the sport well, those star players don't stand out in a game to the average viewer. This is exactly why the NHL has taken the correct approach since the lockout... to market the game itself. The point of the unbalanced schedule was to build rivalries because in hockey's heyday, that's what make the league great. Blues/Blackhawks games did more to fill up the St. Louis Arena than Wayne Gretzky ever did.
April 4, 2008 12:11 PM ET | Delete
Great blog and interesting points to think about. However, I think you left something out... As a new-ish hockey fan living in the South, I am constantly being told that somehow, we don't deserve a team because it gets hot in the summer. That it's somehow "wrong" (because so many NHL games are played outside up north?). How am I supposed to learn about this sport when the people who already know it... treat me like an inferior because of where I live? It makes me not want to try. So I'd say that at least some of the reason that hockey isn't really flourishing in the warmer climates is the unwillingness for you guys up in the colder regions to really accept those of us in the South. We like hockey. In Dallas, we support our Stars 100% and the Stars are building ice rink after ice rink after ice rink to foster more leagues and youth participation, which I think is fantastic. But I can never talk about it with other fans because I always get some jerkface remark about it.
May 15, 2008 12:49 PM ET | Delete
I've always been a big believer in taking care of your core and not diluting your product in the hopes that, maybe, it will attract new fans.
January 15, 2009 1:05 PM ET | Delete
I've read this quite a few times now but will at last leave a comment. Any market that has to make their PA Announcer say, "Fans, icing is when..." probably shouldn't have a team.
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