Ice Hockey in the United States has consistently taken a backseat to the NFL, MLB, and NBA in ratings and popularity since its incorporation. Accordingly, the 2004-2005 NHL lockout widened the gap between the “big 3” by even larger margins. The disruption in the league for a full season even turned off some of the most die-hard NHL fans out there. How will the NHL take its next step to rise out of the US sports basement? With the recent decline in popularity of baseball, especially by millennials, is now the NHL’s best shot at gaining more face time?
One of the biggest successes recently for the NHL has been its “outdoor games”. Having regular season contests at the Big House in Michigan, Fenway Park, or Navy Memorial Stadium in rain, snow, or shine conditions has garnered much needed attention for the league since they decided to make it a regular occurrence starting with the 2013-2014 season. Consistently drawing capacity crowds, the NHL “Winter Classic” and “Stadium Series” games featuring marque, rivalry-infused matchups is a positive step taken by the league. That is so long as they do not oversaturate it into the season mix risking its allure and uniqueness.
The stellar rise of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first year has garnered the attention even by just casual sports fans. Having an expansion team remain competitive throughout the season and win their respective division in year one had been impossible and virtually unheard of. Against the behest of the current franchises, the new and more flexible NHL expansion draft rules were used much to Vegas’ advantage; the Golden Knights were able to dredge out the maximum amount of talent thought imaginable from it. The Cinderella story continues for Vegas as the newly ignited city and fan base finally received a major sport franchise and rises in popularity throughout North America.
Can NBC capitalize on this captivating storyline to boost its ratings for the NHL? Maybe not airing Stanley Cup Playoff series-clinching games on Golf Network or CNBC would be a good start. The chief broadcasting partner for the NHL has not supplied the league with the expanded exposure they had hoped when the $2 billion deal was put on paper. Furthermore, having NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) just become standard programming on cable sport package subscriptions the reach of the NHL coverage has continued to be lacking and virtually nonexistence.
Is NBC still the correct answer? Will a switch to the Fox Sports network or ESPN create more exposure? Will Ice Hockey and the NHL ever make that leap and be the #1 option in sports fans minds on any given day? These questions continue to bombard the headlines when it comes to the NHL and they never seem to be solved nor answered….The Goldens Knights may be the motor that jump starts their engines.