How the NHL can learn from the current NHL vs NBA debate

Looks like there's trouble brewing between the NHL and NBA, which all started when an NBA blogger for the team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics took a look at attendance trends from the NBA and NHL. I have no interest in joining the blog war for 2 reasons:
  1. Eric McErlain and Greg Wyshynski are more than capable of defending hockey (and when NBA bloggers bring the kind of logic that immediately makes me think of this movie scene, There's really no need to jump in.)
  2. There's something more interesting in these numbers than a pissing contest.
The real good news is that hockey attendance is on the uptick (I could care less about the NBA's attendance downtrend.) Instead of a petty fight with the NBA, hockey and hockey fans should be have a close examination of why is one sport trending up, while the other is trending down..

One thing touched on in one of the Wyshynski pieces is an "enthusiasm gap" between the NHL and NBA. I think this is an important factor in the current attendance trends. The NBA has spent the better part of the last decade going after the corporate dollar. To a large extent they have been successful, but I feel they have neglected the die-hard and normal fans. The NHL, completely by accident, has been forced to focus on their existing fans since the lockout and it is seeing the fruits of it's labor.

The NHL has focused on fans by improving the quality of play and the ability of the fan to access their league (even though I think more can be done.) (Let's not get to fancy and praise Betteman yet... this focus was purely accidental I assure you). When the lockout drove fans away in droves the NHL was forced to pay attention to the fans that were left and wanted to watch hockey. This manifested itself in many ways. One thing the NHL did, and did very well, was focus on their online content. With a bad TV deal soemone at NHL head offices knew that the best way to get hockey out to the people who wanted to see it was through the internet. As a result the hockey blogosphere thrives, NHL Gamecenter is a fantastic resource, and shows high quality highlights straight from their website. The NHL is light years ahead of other leagues in this regard, which has done nothing but help the league grow.

They also realized, and were forced to confront, the need to focus on their product on the ice. While not everyone likes all the rules changes, I think everyone recognizes that the NHL is spending a considerable amount of effort on making the main experience, the game, more enjoyable to the fan. They may not always succeed, but even if there's rules I don't like (the shootout) I can respect that their thought was for the fan. I can't comment on the quality of play of NBA players, because I don't watch enough games, but the reason I stopped watching was the NBA officiating. I don't feel the NBA has made any effort to make it any better (I stopped watching the Nuggets in about '99 mainly because of league officiating). Also they have kowtowed to TV too much and there are so many stoppages. How does 48 minutes of basketball take longer than 60 minutes of hockey?

But the NHL still has room for improvement. Where the NHL has struggled recently is attracting the so-called casual fan, a demographic as coveted as soccer moms in an election year, is that everyone treats the casual fan as the sport savior. But Casual fan is a euphamism for "Rich fans that don't care". Fans who don't go to a lot of games or only follow occasionally aren't casual, they are busy or have other interests, but if the team is winning they will come out. Not everyone is wired to watch 75-80 games a season, but that doesn't make them"casual. It makes them normal. Where the NHL can really make in-roads is by turning the "normal" fan into a hardcore fan. The best way to turn someone into a die-hard is to make their experience better, or create an emotional attachment. "Casual" fans are easy... just make the ticket popular, like sheep they will follow. If the tickets a dull ticket, they won't come, no matter how much Fallout Boy you play between puck drops.

So how to turn normals into die-hards? What creates that emotional attachment? By making hockey a great experience. This means finding a way to get normal fans into the lower bowl of games without making them take out a loan (which they can't do now anyways). Not just for the crappy games... for good games. Lower bowl hockey seats is one of the best experiences in sports, especially with a crowd that is iving and dying with every turnover. Promotions with the local cable company and electronics stores for HD TV's, and getting people to try hockey in HD. (Show your ticket to SEARS and get 10% of an HDTV purchase and 2 weeks of Center Ice free, etc). Ticket packages for lower bowl seats for families. A lower section devoted to fan-friendly pricing, and/or a full section of the lower bowl set aside for an Avs fan club. Making these elite seats hard to get means denying potential die-hards a great experience. Here's sopmething to think about NHL, I'm a young die-hard fan with a healthy disposible income, and I have never sat in the lower bowl of an NHL game. Partially because when I lived in Colorado the demand for them was so high (that's a good thing) but partially because they are too expensive (a very bad thing). For every fan like me, who is a die hard despite this, there's a100 that could be converted by a few trips to a game sitting near the ice.

The NHL is at a crossroads. It has been building a solid base for the last few years,but there's still some things to do to get the attention it deserves. Building the fan base, and not ignoring it as the NBA appears to have done, is the best way


  1. 1) Still wondering how anyone can sit through an NBA game. Even the playoffs are a bore , but we're biased probably.
    2) The biggest difference is the players in the NHL are far more identifiable to average fans than the typical thug NBA players of today. Seems they(NBA players)relish that rep for some reason.
    3) The NBA is also built upon star power. With a dearth of big names these days, fans are losing interest. (Ticket prices also aren't helping

  2. I think that building an emotional attachment also means keeping the same players around for more than a season. Hence why all Av's fans were giddy the night Adam Foote walked back through that door, or Peter Forsberg, or when Joe Sakic made his decision to return... I still think your idea of a tiered salary cap (where part of the player's salary doesn't get counted against the cap if they've been with a team for a certain length of time) is a terrific idea!