I found out today that the NHL season starts tonight, which really caught me off guard. With everything else going on in the sports world - the baseball playoffs, the ever-present NFL - you could understand it being pushed a little to the backburner. But to me, the fact that I only realized on the day of that the regular season of a major sports league was starting, is the latest sign that hockey is nothing more than a niche sport in America now. Now, I consider myself to be pretty well kept up on happenings in the sports world; while I'm definitely not an avid hockey fan, I do pick up on the major headlines that are going on in the sport. And to not even know that the season is starting until the same day is pretty amazing.
This drop in the status of hockey in the hierarchy of the American sports landscape is a little bit startling to me. When I was a kid, there were the four major sports leagues- NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. The NHL was definitely a distant fourth, but to me, it seemed like it was firmly in that group of upper echelon sports leauges in terms of importance. Now, I think it'd be hard to make an argument that it comes anywhere close to touching that top tier group of leagues.
This got me thinking about what the rankings in popularity of sports leagues are now, in the year 2006. So, in that vein, here's my very unscientific list:
1. NFL (There is no doubt about this as the number one sports league. I can say with full confidence that this is the most popular sport in the country.)
2. Major League Baseball (Probably not America's Pastime anymore, but it will always be loved by people in this country.)
4. NASCAR (I almost put this in a tie with the NBA for third place. I bet if I did this list again in five years, this would be the #3 sport. It's amazing how mainstream this sport is becoming. And they do know how to market themselves well.)
5. PGA Tour (As long as Tiger Woods is playing at least....)
And this doesn't even include the NCAA. College football and basketball are more popular too - why else would their championship games be on major networks in prime time, while the Stanley Cup Finals toil away on some second-rate cable network? Oh, and fantasy football gets more coverage in the media than the NHL does...truly unbelievable.
I think that hockey's become a niche sport for a few reasons. One, there's no compelling, larger than life figure. There's no Wayne Gretzky, there's not even a Mario Lemieux around who can lift the league. Say what you will about the beauty of the game itself being the most important factor in a sport's popularity, but every single sport has relied on a lift from a legendary figure to carry it into that to that next level. Babe Ruth in baseball, Larry Bird/Magic Johnson in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf. Also, there's really a lack of a marquee team. Arguably, the marquee teams in hockey are the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens - both Canadian. So obviously, there's less of an appeal there for Americans. And of course there was the league's lockout from a couple of years ago. Yes, other sports have dealt with labor issues and work stoppages before, but they were able to recover for the most part because they were working from a position of strength. The NHL is not on the same radar screen as the NFL and MLB in terms of popularity. So to come back from a work stoppage means losing the borderline mainstream fan that you'll probably never get back.
From the little bit I do read about hockey, it seems like if you do choose to tune in nowadays, you'll be treated to a fun viewing experience. But getting through the cluttered sports landscape is the hard part.