Cheer up, Gary Bettman, the NHL is a niche sport, and that’s a good thing

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The outdoor game between the Blackhawks and the Penguins at Soldier Field was part of the NHL's big year. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The game between the Blackhawks and Penguins at Soldier Field was part of hockey’s big year. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

By Jack Dickey

The cover of Sports Illustrated this week announces the NHL’s return to that most coveted of all states: hotness. The league has reached this scorching status for, presumably, the first time since 1994, when the cover on which this week’s issue riffs — WHY THE NHL’S HOT AND THE NBA’S NOT — originally ran. That June a brutal NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Rockets had basketball fans missing the dominant Bulls. But then, as now, Broadway’s own (er, Seventh and Eighth Avenue’s own) Rangers were in the Stanley Cup Final; then, as now, the NHL was in the midst of kvelling about its lively postseason and the triumph of its Sun Belt expansion strategy. SI reasoned that the NBA’s stature would continue to shrink in Michael Jordan’s absence while a generation of fans nursed on Gretzky, NHL ’94, and the Mighty Ducks movies would grow up loving hockey and not basketball.

Well, it ain’t so bad to bat .500. The NBA’s cultural footprint has indeed shrunk from its early-90s heights, at least by the crude measure of Nielsen ratings for the finals — the league has never again sniffed the boffo TV numbers drawn by Jordan’s first three-peat in 1993. But what of the fans who were to make hockey join hunting and hot chicken in the Southern pantheon? The kids who would turn NFL-less L.A. into a roller-rink paradise? The shifting cultural priorities that would make the NHL’s logos inescapable on clothing and tchotchkes? Sure, the league’s ratings perked up a bit in the mid-90s, but only because they could hardly have been any smaller to begin with. They dipped back down later in the decade, and then again in the next one. Hockey remains a niche sport. (Don’t say this to commissioner Gary Bettman’s face, though, or he will become cross.)

Cover of Sports IllustratedSo how, then, does this ostensibly responsible magazine land on “hot,” and for both leagues, too? What sort of thermometer is SI playing with? Michael Farber’s piece mentions strings of sellouts and record revenues under Bettman, with labor peace on the immediate horizon after back-to-back routs by ownership in the last two lockouts.

These are indeed big reasons, but the crucial difference between now and then — and one reason Bettman really ought to lighten up — is that there’s no longer anything wrong with being a niche sport. Look around you, NHL. The Big Four of yore has given way to the Big One, and the NFL will relinquish control of the American consciousness only when enough of its players’ cold, dead brains land in researchers’ hands. Basketball is a niche sport, too. Yet somebody just offered $2 billion for one of its historically wretched franchises, one tainted by a racist owner and years of losing. Soccer, at least in the U.S., is a niche sport, but coverage of the World Cup is presently threatening to smother us even before the tournament begins. College football, with its confounding tribal affinities and guaranteed absence from many major media capitals, is unquestionably a niche sport, perhaps the niche-iest of them all. And still it might be the nation’s second biggest sport.

Hell, big-league baseball, that behemoth, with revenues reportedly in excess of $8 billion in 2013, is itself now a niche sport, with World Series ratings recently topped by those of the NBA Finals, the very same annual series whose shortcomings occasioned the 1994 SI piece.

All of which brings us back to the present state of the NHL, where there’s a lot to be happy about. The league put on six outdoor games — even one in L.A. — in 2013-14. (I attended one of those games, at Soldier Field, replete with freezing temperatures, high winds and heavy snow, and marveled, as my extremities went numb, at how happy the fans were to be there.) The league’s players provide the Winter Olympics the Games’ signature highlight. In 2011, the NHL signed a 10-year TV deal with NBC that will pay it $2 billion in rights fees; in 2013, the league signed a 12-year Canadian TV deal that will pay it $4.9 billion (USD) in rights fees.

It seems North American TV programmers have caught wind of the challenges faced by any legacy-media shop in this era of atomized taste and infinitesimal attention spans. Live sporting events can’t be seen on Netflix and they can’t be recorded with DVR. (With more and more marquee events making their way to cable, good luck to all courageous cord-cutters.) That the NHL has negotiated such lucrative broadcast contracts signifies that it knows the strength of its bargaining position.

Surely strength is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the league’s historical relationship with big broadcasters. For years sports-TV pundits either teased the NHL or prayed for it. As it lost its relationship with ESPN — the sole entity possessing enough power to tell sports fans what to like and how to think, to dictate their tastes (such as they are) rather than follow them — hockey lost its footing in the sports mainstream. And ESPN seemed to bury the league out of spite. Lamentably, First Take will never take up Toews vs. Crosby, will never start a Winnipeg sub-site and Thomas Vanek will never sit down with Jim Gray to announce where he plans to sign.

It’s hard not to notice, though, that the NHL made its new bones by following the same blueprint that ESPN once used, albeit in a different business. The Worldwide Leader, which will clear an estimated $9 billion in revenue for 2014, came to best a field of broad networks at a game they had once dominated by owning a niche. The plan is perfectly logical: Make yourself utterly indispensable to a group of people, even a small one, and you can win. The big-tent days have probably passed. But here in our little igloo, it’s only getting hotter.