If you are reading this, you are definitely a fan of the NHL.
The chances are high that you are a diehard ice hockey fan. You love the game, you don’t only follow your favourite NHL team, you follow the rest of the league too. You also likely follow the World Juniors, junior hockey, college hockey, the AHL and more.
To you, hockey is the best sport in the world and frankly, I agree. There really isn’t a sport like it. (Well, maybe lacrosse, hurling and field hockey but those aren’t played on ice!) The athletes try their best to put a rubber disc into the net while ice skating at high speeds. There isn’t only that, there are bone-crunching body checks, the occasional fistfight (a debatable topic) and a plethora of skill.
In 2023, the league seems to be getting more and more exciting. The players look faster, we are seeing skill moves that look like video game cheat codes and in recent years, scoring has been up. At the time of this writing, the league average in goals is 3.16. In four of the last five seasons, the NHL scoring average has been over 3.00. The only exception was the 2020-21 season where teams could only play each other in the same division due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vancouver Canucks had to play only against other Canadian teams in the “Scotia North Division” that year.
There are plenty of star players that make fans jump out of their seats. Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews and Cale Makar come to mind.
However, the NHL is still fourth among the big four North American sports. The NFL, NBA and MLB still are more popular.
Yet despite the product getting better, hockey’s interest is declining.
It was reported by the Sports Business Journal that NHL viewership has been declining yearly most notably in the United States. The linked article reports a 22% decrease in NHL viewership on ESPN and TNT, the two major networks that show the games.
Back up here in Canada, it is more of the same. The National Post reported last August that the Leger survey for the Association of Canadian Studies showed that viewership and engagement for hockey in Canada especially in big markets such as Toronto and Montreal are on the decline, especially in the younger generation.
It is not surprising the NHL’s viewership is down and hockey’s interest is declining
Should we be surprised? Absolutely not.
There are many reasons why the NHL and hockey have many people losing interest and trying to find new fans.
First of all, hockey is dominated by white people, particularly white males. An October article by ESPN stated that 83.6% of NHL employees are white in the NHL’s comprehensive diversity and inclusion report.
The report also said that 61.86% of workers in the league are men and 36.81% are women. It also said four out of ten American NHL fans are female.
The NHL has had several women and people of colour work for the league as executives, in public relations, marketing, business and more. There also have been several players who are of colour breaking into the league past and present. PK Subban. Anson Carter, Wayne Simmonds, Darnell Nurse and Anthony Duclair come to mind.
But despite this, the NHL is dominated by white males.
There are also regional blackouts. If you want to watch a Maple Leafs or Jets game if you live in Vancouver for example, unless it is nationally televised, forget it. You are better off watching the game on a shady streaming service.
Regional blackouts suck, especially for fans who live outside of their favourite team’s market. NHL Live, NHL Centre Ice, ESPN +and the Sportsnet App cost a lot of money and fans have often complained they don’t work very well.
Don’t get me started on those digital ad boards they introduced this season. They are just so bad. I don’t mind ads on the boards but these digital boards are just awful. In fact, the digital ad boards have triggered seizures in a young fan and they likely do for other fans as well. So much for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the digital ad boards make the game “more watchable.” The boards are just annoying and they look so bad when they glitch.
I’m trying to watch a hockey game not enter the Matrix or something.
Speaking of unwatchable, the amount of betting content being forced down our throats by Sportsnet and the other networks is nauseating. The betting intermission segments are bad but the fact that betting content is being shown during the game is even worse.
The players and coaches have the personalities of rocks.
McDavid is the game’s biggest star but he talks like a robot. Flames head coach Darryl Suter for example just sounds like he is done with the media after every press conference, even a win.
Of course, there are a few NHL players and coaches that love to show off their personalities. For example, former Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau is well known for his happy and humorous personality and Canucks forward Andrei Kuzmenko is just a very happy guy and he loves to let everyone know how happy he is.
Another reason you might say is the lack of rivalries. Wrong. There are rivalries but they aren’t being showcased enough. For example, the Battle of Alberta only happened three times this season and all before New Year’s Eve! What’s the point of a rivalry if the two teams play each other three times? They need to play each other at least four or five times a season.
Rivalries are great for the game. They get people hooked. There is a lot to talk about. It is not a rivalry if the two teams rarely play each other.
Hockey is also an expensive sport to play. Parents spend thousands on equipment, registration fees, tournament fees and so much more for their kids to play hockey. Many kids want to play hockey but can’t because it is so expensive. (I was one of those kids.)
Football, soccer, basketball and baseball and even sports like Tennis are much cheaper.
But there is one reason why the NHL’s viewership is declining
Hockey’s culture problem
The big one. Hockey’s culture problem is very well known now and recent events have shown that.
This came over a week after Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Ivan Proporov refused to wear a pride jersey in warmup. He stated he refused because of his Orthodox Christian beliefs.
Players have the right to believe and refuse to participate but their actions have consequences. The NHL has fans that are part of the LGBTQ + community. The NHL has also stated, “hockey is for everyone.” But is it when players refuse to show their support for the LGBTQ + community and their team does not give out consequences for their actions
Is hockey really for everyone? No, it isn’t.
Hockey is a sport marred with homophobia, racism, misogyny and sexual assault.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Hockey Canada have covered up the sexual assault for years. Many of the players and executives who covered it up are still involved in the game and deny it. Somehow Logan Mailloux got drafted despite him being fined for taking photos of a young woman while they were engaged in a sexual act without consent.
Oh yeah, Mitchell Miller was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes despite it being known he bullied a disabled black classmate. (and still hasn’t apologized to the victim or his family) It was even more baffling that the Boston Bruins wanted to sign him to an entry-level deal.
There are many, many examples.
The old boys club dominates hockey. They refuse to change things and want to do things the old-fashioned way.
Yes, other sports deal with these issues too, but they are miles ahead of hockey. Hockey and the NHL barely do anything about its culture problem and it persists to this day.
Hockey isn’t for everyone. It’s a great sport marred with an archaic culture that refuses to change and makes others feel welcome.
What the NHL can do to grow its game
I’ll admit it. I too am losing interest in hockey. Now I still love the game but the reasons above are why I don’t have the same passion for it as I did as a teenager and a child. I used to spend all day watching hockey, reading about hockey in books or on the internet or talking about hockey with my friends both online and in real life. I would spend hours reading about stats, trades, player backgrounds, arenas, jerseys, the game’s history and so much more. If you knew me when I was a child and a teen, you knew I just didn’t love hockey, I was obsessed. Now, I don’t do that stuff as much. I guess writing about a bad Canucks team for years also kind of does things to you.
All jokes aside, I don’t consider hockey to be my favourite sport anymore. Soccer has taken its place while hockey has moved to second.
It’s sad but I am always looking to ignite the same passion I had for hockey when I was younger.
As for the NHL, they have a long way to go if they want to get the ratings back. I wrote about ways the NHL can fix itself here but here are ways the NHL and hockey not only fix themselves, but can grow.
- Push for more diversity and teach the players why it is important. Show us why hockey is for everyone
- Let people in hockey get consequences for horrible things they have done. Anyone involved in allegations needs to be investigated. Also needs to be support for players and people involved in hockey who went through severe traumas.
- Teach children and teenagers playing hockey that they need to be good people off the ice because hockey players are often seen as role models for the community.
- Get rid of anthems and make the games start on time. No need for anthems, only during international games and the Stanley Cup Final because it is a major event.
- Get rid of the digital boards. Please!
- Cut down the gambling talk! Just mentioning the odds pre-game and the intermission is good enough, no need to cut away from a scrum to promote an Ontario sportsbook
- Have the broadcasts talk about hockey schematics. NFL broadcasts often talk about routes, stunts and all the football schemes. Why can’t the NHL broadcasters talk about the 1-3-1 power play formation, zone exit strategies and all that? I want to learn more about that stuff, not about getting pucks deep, plus/minus and a player’s junior career. (Exception to John Garret’s food talk because Cheech is the best.) The Seattle Kraken broadcast has talked about hockey strategies for example.
- Rivalry games should be heavily promoted and those rivals should play each other four or five times a year
- No more TV blackouts. I’m sure one day the NHL and other sports leagues will follow the MLS’ lead in a streaming service where all the games can be viewed without blackouts and restrictions. It feels inevitable with cable TV dying. For now, major networks should find a way to show more games as possible. No one wants to spend their evening watching plays of the month reruns or Blue Jays in 30 on repeat.
- More international games and players from the NHL should go to the Winter Olympics. The Global Series is great and more teams should participate in this. Imagine a regular season game in Australia! You’ll have to get up super early for it but the Australians may love what they see. Also, the Olympics are about the best athletes, the NHL is the best hockey league and the players need to go to the world stage.
- NHL teams and the league should support minor and women’s hockey. Instead of a gambling segment, why not feature women’s and minor hockey during the intermissions?
- Make hockey more affordable. Cut down the tournament and registration fees, that’s a start. One way is for the NHL to have programs that give back to families that can’t afford hockey. I’m sure there is something like this existing already (Could be wrong) and there needs to be more.
The NHL needs to be alarmed at how their ratings and interest are dropping. Times are changing as much as the game is. The dinosaurs in the NHL and in other parts of the hockey world need to see that.
If they want to attract new fans and win back former fans, it’s time to adapt.