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CA • United States • 2009 Years Old • Male
Contrary to popular opinion, the national opinion of hockey in the United States is indeed... popular.

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.
Filed Under:   TV   NHL  
April 3, 2008 8:22 AM ET | Delete
Attendance has never been the problem, you're right about that. I also agree with the fact that play-by-play announcers need to do a better job calling the action. In other sports, it's required that you let the 'TV' do the talking; you can't do this in hockey because it's tough for the TV to accurately capture what's happening on the ice. If we have a great play-by-play guy describing the action (like Dave Strader out in Phoenix, I love how he calls a game), the casual fan can have a greater appreciation for what's happening out there on the ice. And oh yeah, it would be nice to have ESPN too. ;)
April 3, 2008 9:11 AM ET | Delete
Fantastic post. Couldn't have said it better, and exactly what I've thouht all along. Living in Buffalo, I am spoiled with our tv broadcast. Not only are all home games shown in HD (thanks Time Warner, for once!), but Rick Jenarette is one of the best play-by-play guys around. Harry Neale has done a solid job replacing Jim Lorentz; early in the year you could sense them still getting used to each other. But anyone who watches HNIC knows Harry Neale is one of the best. Their call of the game is not only the tv broadcast, but also the radio one as well, which I think explains why Rick is so good at ensuring the listener/viewing can follow the action. I wonder what other cities this is the case as well. I fully hold Bettman accountable for the lack of increased broadcast standards throughout all local markets; there is way too much gimmicktry and story telling on NBC and Versus.
April 3, 2008 9:52 AM ET | Delete
I've always questioned the notion that TV ratings for hockey are hurt by the fact that the game is so good live. If you're a hockey fan and can't get to the game, what are you going to do, listen to the radio?
April 3, 2008 10:24 AM ET | Delete
Also, take into consideration that for U.S. tv ratings, Canadian viewers are excluded. Think of the Canadians near the border watching American broadcasts. There is no question as to hockey's popularity in Canada, both in attendance and their tv ratings. In the U.S., while the attendance is ok in most cities (some are still struggling), the bigger problem is tv. Locally some markets are ok, but nationally, with only Versus, and NBC to a lesser extent, broadcasting games, there is just not enough exposure. The casual or new fan, if not able to attend their own games, has very little opportunity to see the rest of the league.
April 3, 2008 11:59 AM ET | Delete
Good blog. I think a good broadcast team is way more important than people realize. I have CenterIce and there have been numerous times I have change games or quit watching because the broadcast was so bad. I understand that it is the job of home announcers to favor the home team. But it has gotten to the point of ridiculous. Call the dang game honestly. I love watching HNIC and Buffalo does a good job too...but I disagree about Chicago...they are terrible, IMO. Kelly is a joke.Another problem I see is not having every game televised. The Blues only televise roughly 65 games. They normally lift the CenterIce blackout, but there have been numerous times neither team has broadcasted the game....leaving only the radio. How is it that in 2008, not all games are on TV?? We've had divisional games where neither team broadcasted the game. When we played Ottawa, they were one of the most exciting teams to watch, yet FSN didn't play the game. That doesn't help with bringing in new fans. Not every casual fan has CenterIce, usually just the diehards. But it's not the diehards that are the problem. If a casual STL sports fan was watching FSN and saw an exciting Blues/Ottawa game, they just might tune in for the next one...if it is on TV of course.
April 3, 2008 12:45 PM ET | Delete
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe in Canada, they televise games on TSN (their version of ESPN), and CBC (one of their networks). I'd like to see the big U.S. cable companies negotiate a deal to carry TSN as part of a sports tier or something. Here in Buffalo Time Warner offers a sports tier for an extra $4/month, which includes the NHL Channel. That's a lot less than the Center Ice package, and you'd see alot of games just on TSN alone. Add in Versus, NBC, and your local games, and that is a good start for most casual fans, and even those of us who don't or can't sit home watching hockey 6 hours a night 7 days a week.
April 3, 2008 1:10 PM ET | Delete
Nice job Grapes. Well written and well thought out. And the older I get (wiser), the more I realize that Basketball sucks.
April 3, 2008 1:17 PM ET | Delete
I think the announcing teams are the biggest factor in the lack of TV popularity. It seems the networks all want to adopt the "Monday Night Football" format and apply it to hockey. John Madden gets to ramble on for 30 seconds or so between every play, so people are used to hearing the "color" analyst constantly. This doesn't translate to hockey at all. Combine that with the fact that a lot of the "color" commentators think they get paid by the word and you end up with way too many stories being interrupted buy one of those pesky goals.The other highly annoying factor in watching the US networks cover hockey is that the play by play guys think they have to "create" excitement with their voice and treat every shot and routine save as if it was spectacular. I used to like Doc Emrick, but he's contracted the "Gary Thorne Syndrome", the symptoms of which include screaming excitedly at anything that resembles a scoring chance and constantly fawning over the "star" players.If they really want to improve the quality of the announcing teams, have them serve a 2 year appenticeship simulcasting the games on both TV and radio. The incessant babble doesn't translate well to radio. The play by play guy has to actually describe the game (GASP!!!!)....and the color guy has to make succinct, salient points.
April 3, 2008 3:43 PM ET | Delete
Yet again, the fans seem to understand how this should work, but the NHL either hasn't a clue, has been late to the party, or is just woefully ineffective at helping develop the local broadcast teams and tv coverage. While on occasion watching Center Ice, I can see how bland some of these games are. Shame really.
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