We here at tLOGL are huge hockey fans. Huge hockey fans. Huge HOCKEY fans. Please do not misconstrue this statement as our opinion about the sport’s premier league, the National Hockey League. The NHL is a mismanaged, NBA wannabe, trying everything in its power to lure in the casual fan at the expense of the die-hard fan league with low ratings. As recently as the mid-nineties, this was the third most popular league in this country. But under horrible management, it has wandered aimlessly through the wilderness of the American major sports landscape, and now gets lower ratings than women’s college basketball. What can be done about this? Well, model your league after a successful one. And what better league to model yourself after than the National Football League.
How often have we heard that baseball is better with the Yankees playing into November? That the NBA is better with the Celtics and Lakers in the finals? That the NHL needs its stars to make long runs into June to get good ratings? That the NFL needs its New York and Los Angeles teams in the Super Bowl? Wait- you never hear this last one. Ever. The NFL will get great ratings regardless of who is playing in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Compare these two Indianapolis/Minnesota scenarios: first, the Colts are playing the Vikings in the Super Bowl; second, the Pacers are playing the Timberwolves in the NBA Finals. The Super Bowl will get great ratings; in this scenario, the NBA Finals will struggle to outdraw Iron Chef America on the Food Network (note: ICA is a tremendous show- this is not a knock!). Colin Cowherd on the four-letter network has always said this, and it is one of the few things he says that we agree with. But Colin always leaves it by simply saying that the NFL is better, so they will always draw better. Great, but why?
There is no doubt that the NFL rules the sports landscape in this country. And as such, it will always have higher ratings than its counterparts in the other sports. Why is this so? Well, there are a number of arguments about this, some better than others.
Argument 1: Football is better because there is more action.
This argument is the classic baseball vs. football argument. “Oh, man! Baseball is sooooooo sloooooooow. There’s no action!” Yeah, maybe, but take a good hard look in the mirror. Football has an average of 10 minutes of action per game over about three and a half hours. Baseball has 9-12 minutes of action over three hours. Meanwhile the NHL has 60 minutes of action and the NBA has 48. Soccer has 90, and it strives to be as popular as the NHL! This is a baseless argument, and one that is trotted out by baseball haters all the time. Don’t buy it.
Argument 2: The NFL is better because every team has a chance to win at the beginning of the season.
Another false claim by the NFL lovers. Our favorite team, the Detroit Lions, haven’t had a legitimate shot in over a decade. Further, the amount of turnover in playoff teams from year to year is lower in the NFL than in MLB or the NHL. This ain’t it either. As a matter of fact, we would turn this argument on its head: we think that the more parity a league has, the less interesting it becomes. If every game basically becomes a coin flip, it sucks. Wins are just as meaningful in terms of standings and playoff picture, but lose any sort of secondayr meaning outside of this. A Lions victory (bear with us, here) over the Patriots becomes the same as a win over the Browns which is the same as a win over the Cardinals. Good win, but it is left at that.
Argument 3: Fantasy leagues.
This is an argument that has usually been trotted out by the other side, the NFL detractors. This argument basically posits that the NFL is so popular because so many people are invested in it, literally, outside the actual sport itself. People now have a pecuniary interest in how the players on their team are playing, and thus tune in to watch, which generates more interest just by watching more games. We would agree with this, but if this was a driving reason behind its popularity, the playoffs would see the same problems as the other sports: namely, that the NFL needs the large-market teams to go far to generate interest. This is simply not so. While we are positive that this drives regular season interest, it just doesn’t explain why the league only needs any two teams to show up and it will get viewers.
Argument 4: The games mean more.
16 regular season games vs. 162 or 82. A four-month season vs. a six or eight month season. Now we’re getting to some nuts and bolts of why people are more apt to tune in to a NFL game than that of its competitors. From a purely math standpoint, a regular season football game is 10x more important to the final standings than a MLB game, and 5x more important than a NHL or NBA game. Consider a Yankees loss at home vs. Kansas City. Andy Pettite had a bad game and gave up 5 runs on 7 hits in 4 2/3 innings, and the Royals beat the Yankees 8-3. New York says “OK, we’ll come back, get the next two, take the series, no problem.” Now consider a Colts loss at home to the Detroit Lions. Peyton Manning goes 12-30 for 202, 1 TD and 2 INTs. Ho. Ly. Crap. ESPN would run a documentary on the week leading up to the game, and the decline of the “greatest ever.” (Excuse us while we get the barf out of our mouth after writing that little nugget.) The NFL Network would have audio from both sidelines and run a two-hour special on how the Detroit defense prepared to stop the Colts offense. Detroit would have a parade. The Michigan militia would take this as a sign and invade Indiana. The National Guard would all stand back and say “hey- they earned it. Let them go.”
There might be a little hyperbole there, but the point is every single game in the NFL has meaning. A whole lot of meaning. That’s something you just cant replicate in the other sports. When we were growing up Tigers fans, it was a treat when they would be broadcast over the TV airwaves. We would always ask our dad if they were on tonight, and when he would say “yup- they’re in Texas taking on Burt Hooten,” it was an amazing rush. We couldn’t wait to turn it on and see the cartoon Tiger roar (or whimper with a cold pack on its head if they were in a slump). We get the same feeling on Sundays when the Lions are taking on Arizona or San Francisco or Seattle or Tampa Bay or Miami or Oakland or Houston. Once a week, for 16 weeks, whether they win (HA!) or lose (yup, again) we tune in because we can. It’s not work. It’s not every night, or every other night.
There’s an old adage, “always leave them wanting more.” The NFL does this. Perfectly.
Argument 5: The product is just plain better.
This is a huge factor as well. When was the last time you heard an NFL fan complain about the play on the field? We complain about it, but we are on the fringe, as a hockey and baseball fan first, and football fan behind those. But WE STILL TUNE IN! Now think about the last time you heard a hockey fan complain about the product on the ice at a NHL game. One need not think back that far. What about MLB? There is always talk about ways to shorten the time of the game, to speed things up. When these things are brought up in the context of the NFL, it is to enhance the product, not to “fix” it. The fact is the NFL has catered to the hardcore football fan while enhancing the fringe to better market itself to the secondary or casual market. It has done this brilliantly. Fantasy leagues, TV packages, the marketing of its stars, none of this is done without an overall plan in place to market itself to the most people possible without losing the hardcore football fan in the process. On the contrary, with the added access to the huddle, the enhanced audio during the game, the secondary TV shows that get into the Xs and Os in more depth than ever was possible before, football fans at any level can get into the game, the sport, and the league. All of the secondary marketing techniques funnel into one giant spectacle ever Sunday for 17 weeks, and explode for five weeks after that.
So, knowing what we know about the NFL, how can we make the NHL better? The NHL needs to take a two-step process: better the product, then better the marketing. We’ll get into these in our next post.