Hockey’s Declining Popularity

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It has been a couple of years since I looked at the ailing popularity of traditional sports (with apologies to soccer) and compared it to the rise of esports (for those unfamiliar with the term, it means competitive video games). The exchange between the two mediums isn’t one-for-one, but I do think the latter is eating up potential fans of the former at an ever accelerating pace. This isn’t intended as a deep dive on the subject, but it is an update and refresher of what I think the issues are.

First let’s establish our parameters: for hockey I’m specifically looking at the American audience (the more casual fanbase and the one with the most growth potential). Overall TV viewership is down (this presents combined TV and stream numbers). As the article notes, these numbers are the lowest since 2010-11 and a 17% drop from just two years ago. Even within the comfy confines of the Stanley Cup views are not safe. The 2010 Cup had the highest ratings in eight years (coming on the heels of game seven in 2009 having the highest ratings since 1973), but the key point is the lower ratings previously. Those twin peak events, boosted by the 2010 Winter Olympics, were the cornerstones of the 10-year contract the league signed with NBC (you can read the other factors here). This brief moment of positive growth came rapidly back to earth in the 2012 final which barely edged out the 2007 final as the lowest of all time.

Talking about numbers is less effective than seeing them, so for the sake of visualizing I put together the NBCSN numbers and NBC national broadcast network numbers into a couple of graphs (finding the former was easier than the latter, sources for which are here and here). The point is the general trend:

This gradual downward trend, as I pointed out two years ago, is not unique to hockey as traditional sports in North America are all amidst the same trend (with the NFL as an exception of sorts, although it too is aging while benefiting from the buffer of gambling interests–it can’t get too comfortable). This trend is not something that has gone unnoticed, but generally the theories proposed (for example) focus on inter-league competition rather than a changing medium or something outside the avenue of sport (the inherent idea seems to be only traditional sport can compete with itself, ie, only competitiveness within the bottle of what’s typically defined as sport can work against itself). My theory remains that many younger viewers are gravitating to esports and I want to go through why that is.esports viewership through June 2018.1

When I looked at the esports numbers previously, Fortune (in 2015) estimated the number of fans at around 226 million (a number surely already higher than overall interest in hockey at the time). The graph above shows just viewership achieving that number this year, indicating the number of fans continues to increase exponentially. The rate of growth is staggering as can be seen through the growth of Twitch (the streaming service primarily devoted to gameplay) since 2012:

Twitch Growth

Back in 2011 the then most popular esport (Starcraft 2) and Twitch joined forces and popular esports pressed on. Specific to hockey one might argue that it’s current decline is simply a dip in what is a relatively stable overall number, but that doesn’t address the aging fanbase and what that means going forward.

One of hockey’s primary problems is the cost of entry (equipment, rink time, etc), making it far less available to a general audience. There are secondary issues as well with the violence of the sport (such things as Don Sanderson’s death in 2008 or the general awareness of the impact of concussions)–something kids playing soccer or basketball don’t typically have to worry about (they are also the two least expensive sports and the ones whose fanbase is aging the least). The other issues are akin to what all traditional sports suffer from:
1) the games are long (2.5 hours is what I expect, punctuated by long intermissions–how anyone watches a baseball game is beyond me)
2) the content has limitations (off-seasons with no on-ice content whatsoever)
3) repetitive (there’s a limited variety in what you’ll see on the field of play–to a casual fan the game is basically unchanged since 2005)

Conversely, there’s almost no barrier to entry for video games–not only are they relatively cheap and accessible, but there’s almost no limitation for playing them (gender, age, physical fitness, and some disabilities become completely irrelevant). The games themselves are short, such that almost any schedule can accommodate putting time into playing or watching. In addition there is content–so much content. Even though all esports have an annual championship (just like traditional sports), they are peppered with other major tournaments along the way and in addition there are innumerable smaller competitions–whatever game you enjoy it’s a virtually guarantee to have something competitive to watch every week. In addition to this is a mountain of general content (streaming) that’s available 24/7. The players themselves are much more accessible–if you’re a fan of uber Fortnite player Ninja you can go watch his stream and potentially interact with him. A streamer might invite fans to play with them and a fan who is good enough might simply compete against them on the ladder–these are things that are impossible with a pro athlete outside very rare arranged activities.

Hockey (and sport in general) are also very resistant to change, whereas esports have to adapt and change all the time. I used to blog about StarCraft (something that had five to ten times the readership of what I do for hockey, despite a much smaller fanbase), and each year the game was quite different–even within a year patches would alter the meta. This kind of variety is impossible for normal sport to compete with–they simply can’t adapt this quickly–not only is it more complicated to change the game (given the resonance down to development leagues along with getting the owners and the union to agree), but fans themselves can be very resistant. If Valve wants to change CS:GO there’s no impediment for them to do so save potential backlash from the community–if there is backlash the change can be reverted almost immediately. There’s really no parallel to this in sport, as hockey’s major changes occur extremely rarely and are usually separated by decades.

While I think the product of hockey is in better shape than it was in 2003, the league itself continues to fail to make any serious gains in popularity. My feeling has long been that that the lack of offence is the primary problem for the NHL. You only have to look at its main competitor, the NBA (whose season overlaps it), to see how focusing on offense helps create excitement. Casual fans come to see goals and they want to see records challenged–that’s been impossible in the league for the last 25 years (look at the top-50 best seasons of all time, only the 05-06 and 06-07 seasons had anyone come close to the bottom of that list).

Do I think the NHL will make major changes? No. They won’t go down that road until there’s a dramatic collapse in views (think of how long the issue with goaltender equipment has lingered), but I do think it’s the only way the sport can go if it truly wants to anchor itself into the future. While I don’t think hockey is in the same death-spiral of the baseball audience, that will be their fate in a generation if things don’t change.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

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1 Comment

  1. […] Hockey’s Declining Popularity […]


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