The NHL’s Dirty Little Not-so-secret

I hear hockey fans say that hockey is one of North America’s four major sports.

I hear hockey fans say it’s an outrage that hockey doesn’t get coverage on SportsCenter befitting a major sport.

I hear hockey fans say that, however lukewarm the United States is to hockey, it is so huge in Canada that it makes up for it.

I hear hockey fans say, above all else, they hate Gary Bettman for expanding the NHL into southern states in areas outside hockey hotbeds.

To those people I say: Take a look at page 14 of this.

This is an effort by Canada’s TVB to rank Canada’s media markets alongside America’s media markets using Canada’s measure of number of persons over the age of 2 (Nielsen ranks American markets based on number of households).

By most standards, based on this list, there are a grand total of three Canadian markets worthy of a place in an American sports league. For the record, the NHL has seven Canadian teams. The three markets are, not surprisingly, the only three any other American sports league has even tried to put a team in: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Toronto is in the next tier below the American Big Three of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Montreal is knocking on the door of the top ten at about Detroit’s size. Vancouver is a mid- to low-size market, about the size of Denver or Cleveland.

The rest? Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa are on the low side of borderline of where most American sports leagues would be willing to put a team in. Their peer markets are the likes of Buffalo, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City. And Winnipeg? Why, Winnipeg makes freaking Green Bay look like a bustling big city.

Don’t try to tell me that Canada is enough to make hockey a major sport. Canada has an eighth the population of the United States. Canada is peanuts compared to the large swathes of the United States where hockey may as well not exist. Los Angeles has barely even noticed the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup. Most of the teams in the South haven’t been getting fans or respect from hockey’s old guard. The team in Atlanta – a top ten market by Nielsen’s measure – couldn’t get out of Dodge fast enough, making tracks to Winnipeg. Winnipeg! You leave behind a market with 5.8 million people to move to a market with a sixth that total. And what’s worse? The main objection I’d have to it if I was one of those myopic hockey fans was that it wasn’t to Quebec, if only to leave open the possibility of the Phoenix Coyotes returning home. (By the way? Phoenix is knocking on the door of the top ten as well. Had they moved to Quebec, they would have left a market of nearly four and a half million people to one a quarter of the size at barely over a million.)

Here are the sums of the populations of the markets occupied by the so-called four “major” professional sports. To be fair, I gave all non-NHL leagues credit for only two-thirds of New York’s population, all non-MLB leagues credit for only half of Chicago’s population, and basketball and hockey credit for only half of the Bay Area’s population, to reflect the number of teams each league has in each market. To keep things simple, I didn’t count any outlying markets whose proximity to existing markets keeps them from having a team of their own, except that the Packers were counted as a Milwaukee team.

MLB: 144,679,333

NBA: 137,180,333

NHL: 133,652,000

NFL: 129,237,833

Now consider that the NFL’s numbers are depressed by not having a team in Los Angeles. Give the NFL the same one-half credit for the Bay Area as basketball and hockey, then give them one-half credit for LA (the effect of moving the Oakland Raiders), and the NFL’s total shoots up to 134,261,833. Now consider that the New York market is so massive that the one-third bonus the NHL gets for having a third team is topped by only a handful of entire markets. Give the NHL the same one-third penalty as the others, and the NHL drops down to 127,052,333 – less than what the NFL started with.

The NBA, NFL, and NHL all have propensities for having teams in odd markets, though in the NFL’s case it’s almost accidental. MLB’s smallest market (Cincinnati) is bigger than four NBA markets (San Antonio, Memphis, New Orleans, and that team that just won the Western Conference), three NFL markets (Buffalo, Jacksonville, and New Orleans, not counting Green Bay), and five NHL markets (Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Buffalo); of those, San Antonio is the only one within ten spots of Cincinnati. So the NHL has more teams in tinier markets; it has two teams (Ottawa and Winnipeg) in markets smaller than the smallest non-Green Bay market in the other three sports (New Orleans).

Now look at what the NHL is missing compared to the others. The only thing the NFL is really missing is LA and maybe Toronto, the latter of which is perfectly understandable, and they’re constantly trying to fix the former. The NBA doesn’t have a team in Seattle, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis. The NHL? They don’t have teams in Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, arguably Cleveland… not even Milwaukee, which would seem to be a great hockey market! The NHL is the only league in America that doesn’t have teams in three of the top 15 markets in the US and doesn’t see any of them as a problem – and it’s the only league in the history of history whose fans want that number to be higher! Do you realize why this might sound like lunacy to someone not in your little club?

Maybe the NHL’s fans like things this way. Maybe they’d rather despise the southern teams’ existence than root for them to have success and growing fanbases. Maybe they like having passionate fanbases in some places where it actually snows and empty (or nonexistent) arenas everywhere else. Maybe they like their preferred solution to having more of the former being just not caring how many people are there to make it up. Maybe they’d prefer to just keep things in their own exclusive club and keep out anyone who just doesn’t “get it”. Maybe they don’t care about the already far-from-their-supposed-peers Stanley Cup Final ratings dropping like a stone. If they want to do that, that’s fine with me. Just don’t try to tell me you’re a major sport worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as baseball and basketball, and certainly don’t try to tell me you deserve national coverage on par with those other two.

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