The Hockey Conundrum

Seen hockey on TV lately? The data tells me probably not. It’s there, alright, but very few people (relatively speaking) are watching it. And yet attendance is great. What’s going on?

As this summary of recent TV ratings shows, hockey playoff games get outviewed by such blockbuster programming as Sex Sent Me to the ER on TLC as well as two other episodes of Sex Sent Me to the ER, and Spongebob.

Am I saying hockey’s not popular? No, not exactly. In fact, take a look at these attendance numbers for the National Hockey League for the past regular season.

That’s right. Thirteen of the league’s 30 teams were at 100% or more in attendance over 41 regular season home games, including teams like Chicago, Detroit, LA and Vancouver technically WAY over 100%. In fact, just to go below 90% attendance, you’d have to go all the way down to the 24th best team, the St. Louis Blues. And even the worst performers are right around 80%, which isn’t terrible.

In other words, the live product of the National Hockey League is very popular. The broadcast product is not.

It’s taken a few years for this to bubble up. The numbers haven’t spiked, but they’ve just risen gradually since the lockout in 2004 and 2005 canceled season. But now, especially if you live in the northeast or a big Midwestern city like Chicago, you can probably notice the enthusiasm and fervor of hockey fans. Even in the hot weather cities, the numbers are decent if not great.

So why don’t people watch this on television? I’m sure there are a number of good theories, but let me suggest one to add to the mix.

This is an example of a niche audience with a high degree of passion growing into a more mainstream interest over time. In this case, it’s possible that the live product is leading the broadcast product. The “faithful” are meeting at their gathering spot to cheer for their team, and their passion is gradually growing the flock of converts. It hasn’t hit a tipping point yet.

How long does a thing like this take? It could be years, but if you could bet on NHL hockey TV ratings in 10 years, you would probably be wise to do so. I think we’re at the start of something here, and there’s a lot to learn about building audience from it. So pay attention to hockey!

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