First blog on here, but have been following HockeyBuzz/Eklund's site since almost day one. I admit though, that I do not follow MyHockeyBuzz, so I hope I'm not stepping on the toes of other writers with these points.
I've been following hockey since I can remember (possibly even while in the womb), and I love it for millions of reasons. I love the sport side of it, the fan side of it, the business side of it, and the legal side of it (those lovely player transfer agreements and international law...).
I live in an area where hockey is big, but most people do not follow the sport outside of the local teams (a friend who is a sports fan recently admitted to me that he didn't know who Chris Pronger was). So, I spend a lot of time discussing the merits of the sport and defending its stars, teams, and recently low TV numbers.
The TV numbers here in the US are abysmal. I don't think that's news, nor can anyone really hide it (or put that much of a positive spin on it, despite best efforts). I'm pretty sure I heard somewhere that Game 3 of the Finals was the lowest rate event on NBC primetime history (at least share-wise). There are a number of reasons that many people often discuss about why this is the case, some coming from sheer marketing, focus on non-traditional markets, etc. However, the production quality is strong. The announcers are good. Versus's problem is that it may be hard to find or is unavailable to many, but there is more hockey coverage in the US than there ever has been before for the people that have it. Having lived in three cities recently that have it, I wouldn't trade it for ESPN. (Brief aside - the problem with not being on ESPN is how hockey gets ignored by PTI, Around the Horn, SportsCenter, etc., despite ESPN The Mag and ESPN.com's fairly strong coverage).
I have been thinking about the heyday of popularity for modern hockey compared to today. I think some perspective is in order. First, a majority of TV viewers are sure to come from the cities/areas where the finals teams are playing. I think this is true in all four top team sports as well as college football and basketball. The Super Bowl is probably the least susceptible to this, followed by the college sports. No surprise of course that gambling on these events is quite popular (another fun legal issue and aside...). NASCAR, golf, and tennis face no similar hurdles. Hockey's heyday arguably was 1994 - New York wins the Cup, with a western Canadian team in the final, Gretzky in LA, Lindros in Philly, etc. etc. Though I will not sit here and blame small or nontraditional markets for low numbers, there has been a trend for the NHL of ONLY having such markets. I think one must take into account for UNITED STATES TV numbers, the teams and cities representing the four major sports over the past four years:
NHL - Calgary, Tampa Bay, none, none, Edmonton, Carolina, Ottawa, Anaheim
NFL - New England (Boston), Carolina, New England (Boston), Philly (top 6 in US), Pittsburgh, Seattle, Chicago (top 6 in US), Indianapolis
NBA - LA (#2 in US), Detroit, San Antonio, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Cleveland
MLB - Florida (Miami), New York (#1 in US), Boston, St. Louis, Chicago (top 6 in US), Houston (top 6 in US), St. Louis, Detroit
So...over four years...3 American cities for the Stanley Cup Finals versus 8 for the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. Anyone want to do the math for how much larger the total population of those 8 cities in other sports are compared to the combined population of Tampa Bay, Carolina area, and Anaheim? 25:1 maybe?
Is this the only factor? Of course not. But to ignore it is to also ignore an understanding of where hockey fits in to the overall sports landscape and how to answer questions regarding its recent futility on the national US TV market. There are six Canadian teams in the NHL who generally can and will do well. Instantly, we are five or more US cities behind the other three sports. There are 2 in the other three sports combined. US fans will watch non-US teams less. Think of how poorly soccer and MLS have done here, despite its popularity both at the youth level and worldwide. Again, just some perspective.
One inevitable result of the lockout that was heavily pro-player is the younger unrestricted free agent age. As we have seen in the other three sports, this results in some star players moving to markets with money and/or passionate fans and atmospheres while they're in their primes, not in their twilights. Any benefits this leads to down the road will not be seen until 3-4 years down the road still. But they're coming.
Also, just came out that game 1 of the NBA Finals (with LeBRON JAMES!!!) was the lowest-rated primetime NBA finals game for the league. Looks like the reality of other sporting and TV options coupled with football's dominance and baseball's resurgence is having effects all over the place. I can only imagine what numbers will be opposite the Sopranos series finale tomorrow night.
Again, no excuses. Hockey can and has done better here in the US. But I do think perspective is pretty darn important in truly tackling any problem.