When it comes to the four major professional sports leagues in North America, it’s no secret which one has been firmly on the bottom of the totem pole for decades.
Everyone knows the NFL is king in the United States, and with the NBA’s increasing popularity over the years, the Association has become a major fixture for sports fans thanks in large part to its fan-friendliness in sharing videos on social media.
Major League Baseball has also witnessed an increase in popularity over the last decade, as sports fans in the U.S.A. have come back to the game after some dark years marred by a litany of steroid scandals.
That leaves the NHL lingering in the basement. Is there a way hockey can become more appealing to Americans, or is it doomed to be the “little brother” in the North American sports scene for good?
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NHL is Lacking in Level of U.S. Interest
The infographic above from Statista shows from its poll that a large number of responders – 60 percent, to be exact – consider themselves to not be a fan of the NHL.
Comparing it to the other leagues, 35 percent of people polled are not fans of the NFL, 50 percent were not fans of the NBA and 49 percent were not fans of MLB.
Despite being one of the four major North American pro sports leagues, hockey has been considered a “niche” sport to many Americans for decades. Unlike their diehard Canadian neighbors, for the average sports fan in the United States, the NHL has simply not been a focal point.
Sports pundits sometimes leave out the NHL altogether when discussing the pro sports leagues, instead calling the NFL, NBA and MLB the three major North American professional sports leagues.
Can the NHL Improve Its Popularity?
The simple answer is yes, for a variety of reasons. With fans slowly being allowed back in arenas as the country continues to ramp up vaccinations to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the atmosphere in games is steadily improving.
Hockey is one of the most entertaining sports to watch live due to its fast-paced action, and having raucous fans in the building cheering their teams on adds a lot to the game.
The biggest reason that hockey has been brushed aside in the U.S. is because it simply hasn’t been covered enough by the major television networks, but that’s about to change.
New ESPN Deal Gives the League a Bright Future
On March 10, the NHL announced it had reached a seven-year agreement with ESPN to start airing its games beginning in the 2021-22 season. It’s the first time since 2004 that ESPN has been the main broadcaster for the league.
Included will be 25 regular-season games on ESPN or ABC, early-round playoff series and one conference final each year, four Stanley Cup Final series on ABC and more than 1,000 games per season streaming on ESPN+. The deal also includes opening-night games, the NHL All-Star Game/Skills Challenge and other special events.
NHL TV rights in the U.S. had previously belonged to NBC, but there’s no question that the move to ESPN gives it an immediate boost to the casual American sports fan.
ESPN is the cream of the crop when it comes to cable sports networks, and it hasn’t helped that the network has been criticized by many American hockey fans for not giving the sport the attention it deserves. That’s about to change, as even Stephen A. Smith has jumped on the bandwagon.
Recent NHL Expansion Has Provided a Huge Boost
When the NHL announced it had chosen Las Vegas as the next city to receive an expansion team, it opened the floodgates for the extremely popular city to become a viable setting for pro sports teams. The NFL’s Oakland Raiders have since followed suit, moving from California to Sin City in 2020.
The NHL’s gamble on Las Vegas has undoubtedly paid off. The Vegas Golden Knights bucked the trend of expansion teams struggling out of the gate, as Vegas has achieved great success in its first three seasons as an expansion club.
The Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first year and have become a perennial contender in the Western Conference, making the postseason in all three seasons. Fan support for the Golden Knights has been fantastic, as the NHL has proven it can succeed in a non-traditional hockey market – an area where it’s failed many times in the past.
Seattle Is Up Next
With an uneven number of teams (31), the NHL has targeted Seattle as its next expansion franchise, with the Kraken getting chosen as the new team moniker. The expansion draft for the Kraken will be held this summer and the squad will begin its NHL run next season.
Seattle is a no-brainer market for the NHL to pursue. The city lost its beloved Supersonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 and since then has had only two major pro sports teams in town – MLB’s Mariners and the NFL’s Seahawks.
The absence of the NBA in a sports-hungry city gives Seattle an excellent opportunity to follow Vegas’s road to expansion-team success. Given its proximity to Canada, the Kraken already have a natural rival team in the Vancouver Canucks.
The ESPN TV deal and expansion franchises certainly won’t make the NHL eclipse the other three leagues in popularity among American sports fans any time soon. But it has the league trending in a very positive direction for years to come, which is not something that could always have been said about the NHL.