The 2022 Men’s NHL All-Star Game had a conspicuously low TV audience. Less than one million people watched the game, a significant drop compared to 2021. In general, the NHL has been losing fans over the years and now ranks below the MLS in overall countrywide popularity.
What went wrong? Why is the NHL’s popularity reducing? What can the league do in 2023 to improve its popularity and ratings?
Keep up with trends and social networks
The NHL is actively using digital media to grow its brand locally and internationally. Last year, the league sent 50 content creators to Europe to help create entertaining content for its social media fans.
This took place during the 2022 Global Series, which saw the league organize hockey games in Switzerland, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic. The league’s efforts led to a 34% increase in its social media engagement.
Beyond social media, the NHL has an active website that publishes 50 pieces of content in multiple languages. This is a huge increase from the 10 stories the site used to publish when it first launched in 2011.
Another strategy the NHL is using to keep up with its tech-savvy fans is by embracing trends like crypto, NFTs, viral videos and pop culture. For example, the San Jose Sharks now accept crypto from fans buying seasonal tickets.
By contrast, crypto exchange crypto.com sponsors the arena used by the Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the arena is now known as the Crypto.com Arena.
By participating in trends and endorsing new industries like crypto, the NHL will attract more millennials and Generation Z fans. Additionally, it might attract Bitcoin Casino sites as sponsors now that betting companies are aggressively seeking endorsement deals in both the US and Canada.
Relocate franchises to promising cities
There was a time the NHL struggled to find great cities for its franchises. Those days are gone. With the tremendous success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL has proven that changing cities works.
Las Vegas isn’t the only city with a new NHL franchise, though. The city of Seattle welcomed a new team in 2021—the Seattle Kraken. Before that, Winnipeg got an NHL franchise after the Thrashers moved away from Atlanta in 2011.
There are talks to expand NHL teams in other major cities in Canada and the US. The only question is, which city deserves an NHL franchise the most? In the US, Houston, and Kansas lead the race to get an NHL team.
On the other hand, Canadian hockey fans believe their country deserves one or two more NHL franchises. Those who want a new NHL team in Canada propose Quebec, Hamilton or the Greater Toronto area as potential destinations.
Hunt for better sponsorship deals
Corporate sponsorships are a major reason for the NHL’s growth to its current state. In 2021, the league crossed the $1 billion mark by partnering with alcohol and financial companies.
Although $1 billion is an impressive figure, the NHL lags behind the NFL, which generates up to $2 billion from a handful of sponsors every season. The NBA earns over $1.5 billion while the MLB collects more than $1.2 billion from sponsors every season.
More money in the NHL can greatly improve its ability to expand globally. For starters, it can play more games in Europe—a region the league commissioner says is a major focus.
The NHL can also help franchises scout and nurture skilled youngsters. The money can aid in paying staff, increasing salaries and in research how to better grow the league.
Of course, the league won’t attract any high-profile brands without improving its ratings. If the league can’t find ways to attract viewers regularly, it can forget about growing its sponsorship revenues.
Invest in college hockey
Hockey does its best to support youth and college hockey. Through the NCAA, hockey fans get to witness an annual March-Madness-like showdown that culminates in two final rounds known as the Frozen Four.
Sadly, NCAA hockey games are far from attracting the kind of attention March Madness attracts. There’s a perfect explanation. Only 60 colleges feature ice hockey teams in Division I.
Compare that with the 352 teams that make up Division I basketball teams and you’ll realize the NHL needs to invest more in college hockey. Little investment in youth competitions means the big teams will continue to rely on foreign talent to perform well.
Although foreign players often make the NHL competitive, they reduce the number of casual fans who watch hockey to cheer homegrown players.
Some hockey fans say fighting is an essential part of the league’s culture and should be encouraged. However, there’s an even larger fanbase that believes fighting is bad for the league.
Not everyone wants to take their family to watch a sport where bearded men keep punching one another every 10 minutes. Interestingly, the NHL often defends violence among players.
When pushed to abolish the rampant behaviour, the league once said fighting deters and does not encourage violence. According to an article published in Forbes, fighting in the NHL encourages players to be undisciplined and more violent towards one another.
The worst-case scenario is that fighting can lead to serious brain injuries. And considering more concussions occur in the NHL than in any other major league; it’s time the league puts an end to the fighting.
Partner with major sports networks only
The NHL’s popularity has increased significantly since ending its TV broadcasting rights with NBC Sports and getting back to ESPN. Additionally, the league got a better payday for its seven-year partnership.
NBC Sports almost made America forget hockey. Sure, the average NHL fan would watch their favourite team play religiously. But people who are not big fans of hockey had no exposure to the sport.
Partnering with ESPN in 2021 ensures hockey won’t just be available to avid fans. Casual fans can also get a taste of the sport. And if they’re impressed, they can become regulars.