Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why the NBA is Still Killing the NHL

Let there be no doubt: The NHL is growing.

Boosted significantly by local Chicago numbers, the Stanley Cup Final did very well, relatively speaking. The numbers, including eight million-plus viewers for the clinching game on Monday, are even better when you consider the NHL has never done wonderfully in the ratings when "non-traditional" markets are involved. When it's an Original Six or a blue-blood (i.e. Pittsburgh), the league can pull some good numbers. But when Tampa Bay, San Jose, or that ilk play, the numbers tend to go down.

(Tampa pulled some really good local ratings this time around, which has to make the league happy. The buzz there was palpable, especially compared to past championship series involving teams like Los Angeles or Carolina.)

However, the NBA Finals -- featuring mid-size market teams with big-market superstars -- more than doubled the NHL's strong -- by its standards -- numbers. Game 6 Tuesday pulled over 23 million viewers, and Game 5 Sunday topped 20 million, too. Imagine if you replaced "Golden State vs Cleveland" with "L.A. Lakers vs Anyone."

So the NHL is growing. Any hockey fan will tell you they prefer many things about hockey to basketball, and even casual hockey fans will agree that the Stanley Cup Final is riveting television. The secondary ticket market was abuzz, and fans who attend are ridiculously into the games.

Why doesn't it translate to TV numbers that at least draw the gap closer?

(Keep in mind, too, that this is not a head-to-head comparison. The NHL and NBA do not contest their championship series games on the same night and haven't since 2009, when it happened once.)

Greg Wyshynski chimed in with an excellent piece on this before the Final started. It largely cites the lack of true superstars in the NHL, the guys fans care about no matter what team they're on. Yeah, there's Sidney Crosby, the most polarizing player in the game (think the John Cena of the NHL, or the LeBron of the NHL, because anyone who says they like hockey has an opinion on Crosby, good or bad). But no one else really moves the needle that way, no matter how hard we might try.

Greg also notes that the thought of watching hockey on a beautiful evening in June probably isn't something fans are big on unless they have a compelling reason to (or if they have a dog in the proverbial fight).

And he's right.

But the star power issue is worth revisiting, because I think I have an answer.

Turn on an NBA game, and the biggest names in the game are always accounted for. LeBron is always doing something, as are guys like Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, and so many others. Rare is the night where a big NBA name is rendered invisible by the opponent, or by their own ineffectiveness. Even when they're off, you know where they are.

In the NHL, star players are constantly checked tightly and largely rendered invisible in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews is a factor all the time, even when he isn't scoring. But the stories of the Cup Final were Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos because of what they weren't doing. There were long stretches of games where you would have struggled to find either of them with a searchlight.

It seems petty, because many of us who watch hockey do it because it's such a great team game. But we're not talking about hardcore fans. We're talking about those who only check in late in the playoffs, or only care about star power.

It's not that Chicago and Tampa don't have star players. And it's not even that the NHL does a poor job marketing individual stars, though it could be better in this area. So what's the problem? Guessing, but perhaps these casual fans turn on a game, hear about Antoine Vermette and Jason Garrison, then decide they don't know who those guys are and watch "Flip or Flop" instead.

And even if I'm right on this, I don't have the solution. I'd complain about all the obstruction and stick infractions that happen during playoff games, but it's clear by now the league (or the players, or a combination of the two) wants games called this way. Light on penalty stoppages and heavy on "turning the other cheek." Like it or not, and I don't, but the ship has sailed. The idea that star players should have to fight through this garbage is archaic. Things are happening that are against the rules. Call some damn penalties.

With that, we might have stumbled on something. Rarely do NBA officials hesitate to call fouls. Sometimes -- see "Shaq, Hack A" -- this leads to games dragging on and on. OK, not sometimes. Often.

Yet it doesn't drain the ratings. Why? Maybe fans like the idea that the rules are being enforced, even when the stakes get high.

So maybe that ship hasn't sailed, NHL. Your commissioner used to work for the NBA. He has to have a few connections still, right?

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