What Exactly Is Killing the NHL?

Hampton,

I disagree with you and Jake. No matter what happens with the current lockout, professional hockey will be fine. I mean, sure: If you measure the NHL's relevance by comparing it to the overall popularity of NFL, college football or Major League Baseball, then yes, the sport doesn't matter in America. Of course, by the same lofty standards no other sports matter: not NASCAR, not golf, not MMA, not college hoops, not MLS, not even the NBA.

Hockey needs the diehards. And if there's one thing past sports work stoppages have taught us, it's that diehard fans come back.

Last time I checked, all of those sports—plus Aqua Velva-and-suits-on-airplanes grandfather-class sports like horse racing and boxing—still had lots of fans. And were still making money, too.

Point is, pro hockey is niche sport. Just like every sport that isn't the NFL. And that's okay. From narrowcast cable channels to single-issue blogs and websites, we live in a media world that increasingly caters to niche audiences. Jake writes that non-hockey diehards could care less about the NHL lockout. He's correct. Thing is, those same casual fans don't particularly care about the league when it is playing, either. Yet hockey endures. It doesn't need those fans to survive. They're a luxury item. Hockey needs the diehards. And if there's one thing past sports work stoppages have taught us, it's that diehard fans come back. They always come back. Ultimately, they enjoy the product too much to stay away; heck, the whole idea of boycotting a sport because you're upset that the sport was temporarily and unexpectedly unavailable doesn't make sense in the first place.

(Think about it: if you're a big-time Batman fan, and director-studio wrangling pushes the theater date of The Dark Knight Begins Rising Again from 2014 to 2015, are you going to boycott the movie to prove some sort of petulant point? Or are you first in line at a midnight showing?)

Look, the NHL lockout isn't good for the sport. Everyone agrees that the much-loathed Bettman is no Pete Rozelle. The league likely has over-expanded into places like Phoenix, the way pro football keeps trying to gain a foothold across a globe that's passionately indifferent. Still, existential panic is uncalled for. The current work stoppage isn't about hockey's modest popularity, lack of crossover stars or—as you suggest—the unfavorable demographic and meteorological trends of Sun Belt migration and global warming. It's simply about money. The owners want a bigger piece of the revenue pie, largely because they don't feel like sharing with one another; the players, in the wise words of inimitable sports and politics writer Charlie Pierce, are acting like a labor union, and "doing so in a general social and cultural context in which seeing a union behave like an actual union is supposed to behave strikes everyone silly with shock and wonder." Sooner or later, the owners will snatch themselves another slice, or else the players will beat them back. The NHL will then return, and there's absolutely no way the league will contract to half its current size, not when the business of pro hockey is: (a) profitable when you make money; (b) profitable when you lose money, thanks to assorted tax shelters and other Sports Welfare. Hockey ain't Hostess.

That said, the sport does face a long-term existential threat. Brain trauma. And as we all know, that hardly makes hockey unique.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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