NHL vs. NBA – Why Does Hockey Lag So Far Behind?

by Kent Sterling

Of all these happy hawks, I would recognize Toews and Kane on the street, and that's a problem with the NHL.

Of all these happy Hawks, I would recognize Toews and Kane on the street but none others, and that’s a big problem with the NHL.

Two sports with their championship series that occur almost simultaneously.  One thrives, and the other struggles.  One has stars, the other has players with similar talents who minus their numbers appear identical.

The differences between the NBA and NHL remind me of the difference between NASCAR and IndyCar.  When I watched the Iowa Corn 250 Sunday afternoon, the racing was thrilling.  The cars were so fact and nimble.  NASCAR races are slow and plodding, yet many times more people watch NASCAR than IndyCar.

Why?  Recognition, and our desire to know what and who we see on our TVs.

The climactic Game Six last night between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins was incredible.  The final two minutes of the game were ‘can’t sit down’ exciting for fans of both teams.  The last two minutes of virtually every NBA game are filled with so many interruptions that any momentum is thwarted.

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The NBA hasn’t always dominated the NHL in popularity.  Back in the 1970s, hockey was a bigger draw than basketball.  So what happened?

  • The population drift to the south and west has made native ice available to fewer people, and that makes hockey less relatable to the masses.
  • Helmets.  Obviously helmets are a positive development in safety for hockey players, but they make it much more difficult to immediately recognize players.  In basketball, we see the hair, faces, tattoos, grimaces, and smiles.  We saw Magic’s smile, Michael’s tongue, and Larry’s stoicism.  At NHL games, we need to see the numbers to tell one player from another.  Because of that, there are fewer stars.  That’s similar to the NASCAR/IndyCar difference.  I watch a lot of IndyCar races, but the small chassis in IndyCar make it tough to tell one car from another.  NASCAR’s paint schemes and numbers are clearly different.  IndyCar is better about this than it used to be with teammates running virtually identical cars.
  • Management.  From the fans’ perspective, Gary Bettman has been a train wreck as a commissioner.  Two very long lockouts in the last decade have corrupted any attempt at building momentum among passive fans.  Over the past 22 seasons, the NHL has lost one entire season (2004-2005), missed 30 games due to a strike (1992), and had two seasons shortened to 48 games (1994-1995 and 2012-2013).  Completely unacceptable to allow the players and owners to avoid common ground and penalize fans.  Ignore what’s in the best interest of fans, and eventually they will ignore you right back.

The management of the NBA hasn’t been without blemishes, but David Stern has been smart enough to ride the wave of popularity created by stars like Jordan, Bird, Magic, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, and now LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant.

Basketball is a more TV friendly event than hockey because the orange ball is significantly larger than the little black puck.  HDTV has helped people identify the puck without the nutty red or blue trail that Fox tried to force on viewers, but it’s still slightly more difficult to see.

There is hope for hockey because the games can be incredibly exciting, and NBC does a hell of a good job in producing its Stanley Cup Finals telecasts (is there a better play-by-play guy working today in any sport – minus Vin Scully – than Doc Emrick?), which are the only portals to the sport for the marginal/former fans, but hockey needs visionary leadership that will put the fans first.

The one piece of the NHL that the NBA could afford to adopt is the lack of timeouts down the stretch of a game.  The last 1:30 of a game can take as long as 15 minutes.  There are practical advantages to the timeouts in the NBA – like the windows for commercial content that they allow, and the perversion of the officials moving the ball 3/4 of the way up the court to make under three seconds left in the game enough time to change the outcome.

But it all comes down to the NBA being a star machine, and the NHL not being a star machine.  People watch what they recognize, and the NHL rosters are not populated with players that excite fans.

I enjoyed watching the Hawks win last night – jumping up, pumping my fist, and yelling loudly enough that my wife came running to see what the hell was going on – but if Duncan Keith knocked on my front door this morning, I would probably think he was a Jehovah’s Witness.  If Luol Deng or Paul George came by, I would easily recognize either.

11 thoughts on “NHL vs. NBA – Why Does Hockey Lag So Far Behind?

  1. Danny Solomon

    You can say the same thing about the NFL and their visual limitations with their helmets yet the sport is more popular than either the NBA or the NHL.

    Bottom line, the NBA is a bunch of showboating, attention grabbing pussies whose star players sit out because they are not “mentally” prepared to take the rigors of a playoff series because it might hurt their brand.

    NHLers play without regard to life or limb because that’s what they do. The NHL deserves much more respect and attention from the fans for their workman like attitude but unfortunately we live in a TMZ society where it is more interesting to the masses who a Capri pant wearing D-Wade is banging than the fact that several players suffered major injuries during the Cup run that would have sidelined the average NBAer for months.

    1. Pauly Balst

      I understand what you are saying Kent, it’s true. I was going to respond with the same point Mr Soloman made re the NFL, but add you can see MLB players faces and I honestly don’t think I’d recognize a Cub outside Jeff Szamardjala’s hair. MLB seems to be losing popularity to me, I dont know if it’s factual. NASCAR drivers aren’t seen yet they are rock stars to their followers.

      1. kentsterling Post author

        The cars are the stars in NASCAR, or at least they allow the drivers to be recognized. The NFL is a different game entirely – on a different level completely. The difference is that where there were no helmets in hockey, the NHL was the winter king – rivaling the NFL and easily besting the NBA. Helmets came, and the erosion came. It’s also true that Between’s greed driven lockouts were a huge issue as well.

      2. kentsterling Post author

        Baseball is losing ground for a variety of reasons. By the way, you would like Mr. Solomon – good guy who went to IU just a year or two after we did. The fact that the guy in charge is a 79 year-old dinosaur without any clue as to how 18-34 year-old men consume media is a contributor.

        The game is stuck in a time warp where dogma is now physics. Individual at bats can take five minutes, and that pace is not consistent with the ADD lives we lead. Where tradition determines the path to the future, death ensues. It’ll take a generation or two, but there is erosion despite what MLB cites as evidence to the contrary.

  2. Bradley Combs

    Some of this is market specific as well. For instance, here in Cincinnati NBA stands for NoBody Asked. Why? No team here, and no self respecting Cincinnatian would support anything in Cleveland. On the other hand, the MLB Reds own this town.

    Also, interest in the game in our society has an impact. Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) puts equipment and fields in the neighborhoods where childhood memories are made. Basketball is relatively inexpensive to play, hence that is a factor in urban centers. Hockey has a disadvantage in terms of needed equipment cost and availability, but efforts with street hockey has started to make inroads in NHL markets.

    The game will grow as Americans become more familiar with it. I fell in love with hockey as a 10 year old boy listening to the game in my parents Northwest Indiana home. Childhood memories determine what we watch as adults, and a lot of memories were made last night.

    Finally, how can the NHL possibly fail? Doc Emrick is a native Hoosier!

    Brad Combs, Cincinnati


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