*As a native of New York City this spring marks the third time in the past few years that I have gotten interested in hockey. Of course my interest has gone along with the playoff runs of the New York Rangers.
And then when October comes back around I tell myself that this will be the year that I follow hockey all season. The Rangers have consistently been a team hockey analysts say have the potential to win the championship. And the team also has star power in the form of arguably the best goalie in the league: Henrik Lundqvist.
In fact the excitement of the Stanley Cup (tied with the Heisman for the best trophy in all of sports) Playoffs always makes me wonder why professional hockey isn’t more popular in general throughout the season. After all the NHL combines two elements that spectator sports rely on: fast pacing and physicality.
Hockey is a sport played at a breakneck pace up and down the ice. A team and player must transition from offense to defense and back to offense in split seconds. There are very few scheduled stoppages of play and depending on the philosophy of the team there may be none. In short, and unlike football and baseball, there are very few opportunities to stop watching the game when you aren’t risking missing something important.
In addition hockey players are just as big and strong and fast as football players – otherwise known as the men everyone thinks of as the biggest and strongest and fastest individuals in our society. Hockey players routinely crash into each other and a wall while skating at 20 mph. And they give full effort while they are on the ice; so much so that out of a 60 minute game in regulation the best players can only get 20 minutes of ice time. When was the last time the best football players played only a third of the game and it was OK?
But then I realize why hockey is a seasonal thing for me and most other fans of spectator sports, and why it will never get to be higher than the fourth most popular sport in the United States. In no particular order: there isn’t enough scoring, there is a geographic barrier, there is a financial barrier, it cannot/does not market its stars, it’s in direct competition with basketball.
The problem of scoring in hockey is the same as in soccer. Non fans turn into casual fans when there is a payoff (why I and many like me get energized when the Rangers start winning playoff series). On a game to game basis there isn’t enough of a payoff for all the action. The NHL realized this a few seasons ago when they eliminated the possibility of regular season ties and opted to decide games with a shootout after one overtime period.
Hockey is naturally a winter/cold weather sport. That may have been good for a professional league in the United States when population centers in the northern half of the country thrived with industry. But with the demographic shift in the country of jobs and people moving south, the league is automatically in a difficult position. Luckily there is a recent technology that allows for “ice” skating on a non-ice surface year round. This is good but it highlights another issue.
Hockey is a middle class sport. It takes a commitment of resources to equip someone to play hockey. Then once a person has all the equipment, they have to find another handful (I’m not sure – how many people is the least amount that can play a pickup game of hockey?) of people to play with them that are also fully outfitted. Then this group has to find a place to play. Altogether that’s a lot of obstacles to generating casual fans.
Ultimately if kids looked up to hockey stars and decided they wanted to be like those guys, some of these issues would naturally be overcome. But unfortunately it is difficult to market stars when at best you are playing 25 minutes maximum in the most important games. In addition there is the fact that the players are helmeted that adds another layer of anonymity to them.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle hockey faces is that its season runs basically alongside professional basketball. Most every casual sports fan in the United States has played or currently plays basketball. It is one of the first sports Americans learn, it takes almost not financial investment, and there are courts everywhere. There is a reason that the biggest basketball games (and even some second tier games) will get covered before the top tier hockey games on American sports shows.
Because of all of those reasons I don’t believe hockey can rise above fourth place in the American sporting landscape. Nevertheless, in a country like the United States fourth is a great place to be and the NHL should concentrate on solidifying its place – especially in the face of competition from soccer, tennis, and auto racing.
Because while fourth might be as high as the NHL can go, there’s nothing stopping it from dropping.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.