Canadians and American hockey fans often fret about the state of the NHL, particularly the financial health of the league’s Sun Belt franchises. If you watched any of the Olympic hockey tournament, you probably heard a commentator or interviewee talk at some point about how the Canada-U.S. gold medal game would be ‘good for the game,’ as though the sport was on the brink of irreversible obscurity and needed a 21st-century Summit Series or Miracle on Ice to get Americans to finally pay attention.
This narrative has taken hold in the media, and shapes how a lot of people think about the league; ‘Can the NHL survive?’ seems to be the eternal refrain, and existential angst – unlike the brash confidence of the NFL – is the NHL’s prevailing emotion. But is it warranted? Is hockey really an afterthought for most Americans, a sport undeserved of being considered, along with baseball, football and basketball, among the Big 4?
Turns out, not really. The American ratings for Sunday’s night gold medal game – measured at 17.6 – were through the roof, scoring higher than any hockey game since the aforementioned Miracle on Ice (1980). Moreover, aside from the NFL, the game was the second-highest rated sporting event of the year, behind only college football’s BCS championship game in January (18.2). Not too shabby.
Also compelling are recent NHL attendance figures. And while large crowds aren’t nearly as lucrative as national television deals, attendance figures are at least indicative of the local popularity of a franchise, which of course is key to its survival. According to ESPN, total NHL attendance so far this season is 15,506,836, or about 16,929 per game. In comparison, the NBA’s season-to-date attendance average is 17,048, while total attendance for the entire 2009 NFL season was 17,146,404.
By those metrics, the NHL is clearly healthy. It’s attracting basically as many fans as the NBA and is on pace to surpass the NFL, the continent’s dominant league. The real disparity between the NHL and the other major sports leagues – and the source of all this angst – is television coverage. And fortunately, that’s not critical to the league’s survival. Sure, it’d pad the owners’ wallets some more, but the NHL’s continued absence from American t.v. sets (Versus really doesn’t count) is hardly a threat to its well-being.
If Sunday’s epic gold medal game taught us anything, it’s that hockey is alive and well south of the border, and will continue to be well into the foreseeable future.