Pressing the NHL

Alexis Russell, Staff Writer

When I, a die-hard basketball fan, was first approached to write a piece in which I was to assemble an argument stating why the National Basketball Association was better than the National Hockey League, I was elated. I can’t help but feel like I have the upper-hand in this debate, as the NBA has all of the makings of surpassing the NFL, let alone the NHL, as America’s most popular sports league. So, for those of you out there who are hockey fans or just flat out hate yourself, don’t worry. I’m here to guide you in the right direction.

First things first: the fans. Right off the bat, this category diminishes any real threat my opponent still holds to winning this debate, because, simply put, the NBA has way more fans. Hockey just doesn’t have a hold on Americans the way other sports do. At least not since 1980. Not to say that it’s a lesser sport because of it, but the lack of American fans isn’t the exactly good for the NHL.

Year after year, the NBA Finals consistently racks up an absurd amount of viewers in comparison to the Stanley Cup Finals. Sure the same two teams have met in the last four Finals, but with that comes the creation of a sweet rivalry and the notorious  blown 3-1 lead that gave Cleveland its first ever championship, brought to you by none other than Lebron James. How’s that for a headline? I admit that hockey is the hardest sport to translate to a television screen, but in a world where not everyone has the luxury of commuting downtown to attend a hockey game on a Tuesday night, the NHL has to find a way to retain fans. In 2016, Sports Business Daily looked at the age of the television audiences of major sports. They found that in 2000, the median age for NHL fans was 33. In 2016, it was 49, which means the average NHL fan aged 16 years during that 16 year timespan. This insinuates that the NHL failed to bring in any new fans from younger generations, which is a problem. At the rate it’s going, the NHL is likely to cave when its aging fans fall asleep before the third period of the 7 p.m Flyers game.
This brings me to my next point. The NBA does an excellent job at being what it is: a business. The lengths the Association goes to in order to market its product and its players is astounding. Just look at guys like Lebron James, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and even guys like Javale McGee and Joe Ingles. People know their names for a reason. It also helps that the NBA’s social media presence, specifically that of its players, is second to none, and without it, it would be comparable to, well, the NHL.

I concede that ESPN covers the NBA way more than the NHL, but it only makes sense. It all goes back to the entertainment aspect that the players bring to the table: whether it be Drake mouthing off to Steph Curry on the sidelines every time the the Warriors visit Toronto or Joel Embiid claiming he “owns real estate in [Andre Drummond’s] head” on Twitter. Our society idolizes professional athletes, and the NBA is there to profit off of that obsession. As for the NHL, the average person might be able to name Wayne Gretzky. Maybe Sidney Crosby. You see my point.

Again, it has to do with a certain kind of “intimacy” between athletes and fans in the NBA that the NHL simply cannot match, just by the pure nature of the sport. In the NHL, there are helmets, masks, and a literal wall separating you and your favorite player, where as an NBA fan might get a high five, selfie, or even an autographed jersey from their favorite athlete. And if you’re really lucky, Kevin Durant might even tweet you.

Let’s keep it going. The NBA pays its athletes more money. It has way more diversity and teams have a growing impact on their community through NBA Cares. It’s safe to say that the NBA keeps its teams, coaches, and players relatively happy. The league doesn’t subdue the voices of its players or prevent them from actively using their platform. NBA commissioner Adam Silver does not have the brewing hatred against him like that of Roger Goodell (NFL commissioner) and Gary Bettman (NHL commissioner). Let’s not forget that the NHL has experienced multiple lockouts in the recent past.

The Association prioritizes the safety of its players, which the NHL has failed to do, especially regarding the pressing issue of concussions. Bettman is actively fighting lawsuits from retired hockey players about the safety protocol of the league. And get a load of this: Bettman has gone to great lengths to try and question evidence linking head hits and injuries to brain trauma. You’re kidding me, right? The NHL’s archaic air of rugged manliness and toughness is doing more harm than good when it comes down to the health of its current and former players.
My only concession is the fact that, to me, hockey is a far more difficult sport that requires an entirely different level of skill than basketball does. Those guys can lose teeth and break out into massive brawls and it’s just another day on the ice. I respect it.

Yet, just because its athletes may be “tougher” and more skilled, does not mean that the NHL is automatically better or more entertaining. In my opinion, watching Russell Westbrook throw down a nasty poster or Chris Paul ruthlessly cross-up his defender is just as entertaining, if not more so, than two or three goals that take place during the span of a three hour hockey game. But to each their own.

Overall, the NBA has continued to show its dominance by adapting to the new, more entertainment-based era of sports, which includes marketing its players over teams (something the NHL is seemingly unable to do) and keeping the fans connected. So while there are some unique aspects that make the NHL intriguing to a select few, the NBA continues to successfully captivate all audiences and show that it’s truly “bigger than basketball.”