How close is NHL Hockey from breaking out in the US?
by Mark Neal
posted Apr 15 2014 10:56AM
It is seen as a pocketed, regional sport. It is seen as a sport in the north...and maybe they are right. But as the NHL Playoffs prepare to begin this week, I wonder how close the league is to breaking out in popularity in this country?
I will be the 1st to admit, I used to watch hockey...lots of it! I am part of the ESPN Generation, and when the NHL was on the ESPN family of networks, I caught many games. Lock outs and franchise moves, but mostly newer TV deals have slowed mine, and many others in their viewing habits.
It is a fun sport, maybe more fun in person, but a fun sport. Some sports are great on TV, football for one...but hockey is incredible in person. It doesn't necessarily lend itself to the average fan with the constant line changes and fast moving small puck, but if you can get used to it, chances are you will enjoy it.
When I was younger, the league was filled with players like Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, and of course Wayne Gretzky...players that transcended the sport. But most importantly, players even the passing fan knew. That is something that the sport lacks, not because of excitement, but promotion. The TV deal the NHL has now doesn't put it on the stage that it needs to be on, so many of us don't know the greats of today.
As the playoffs set to begin, exciting hockey, even for passing fans like me, is on the horizon. Almost nothing in the world of sports beats playoff hockey, especially those Game 7s. I will be watching, what I can, wishing throughout I had caught more games in the regular season.
It does make me think, how close the sport is to breaking out in popularity in the US...and I don't mean in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Minnesota, where the sport is already strong. I am talking about the West, the South, and large portions of the Midwest that see it as the sport going on during Basketball season. It might not be too far away.
The right TV deal, with a platform to promote the sport, like ESPN and ESPN Radio can provide, would be a huge step in the right direction. Whether you like it or not, ESPN is the Worldwide Leader, and people go to ESPN outlets in high volumes. It would have to share a crowded platform, but it is still a platform that would benefit the sport.
I look at Soccer, which was still trying to become big in the US back in 1994 when we were the host country. Since then, in 20 years, the sport has grown, and the popularity inside our borders has grown at an incredible rate. Sure, the influx of people from Soccer playing countries to the US can't be ignored, but never the less, Soccer is a real player now in this country within the sports landscape.
So, if you have time, take a few moments and check out some NHL playoffs...heck, the Columbus Blue Jackets made it in this year. How far away is the NHL from being something that you go from maybe watching, to can't miss TV?