The National Hockey League is going to spend Saturday and Sunday giving out free t-shirts to customers at their flagship store on 47th and 6th labeled #hockeyisback. No doubt, you'll see that phrase posted through opening weekend on NHL broadcasts in the United States, and perhaps even Canada. We'll all sarcastically sneer at this attempt to define the NHL as hockey itself, then quietly go back to watching our sport. Complain and then just sit around and watch the silly ice game anyway: it's what we hockey people do.
The question remains, however: will hockey actually be "back"? A lot of people will use a lot of factors in their determination. Attendance will be seen as a barometer, especially since the NHL is such a gate-driven league. Others, more likely, will find the most embarrassing rating for a game on NBC Sports Network at some point during this season and use it to go back to the tired old chestnut that this sport isn't mainstream, that it's failing on television, that it's closer to bowling than it is basketball. Even if, say, a Penguins-Flyers game draws 700,000 viewers or even a million, you know they'll look for that Predators-Stars game that only gathers in 150,000+ of us to make their point.
It isn't a battle worth fighting in terms of hockey's relevance. Television simply isn't the measuring stick, as much as people who run NHL TV websites would love them to be (cough). We simply aren't at a place technologically to compete with the in-arena experience of translating hockey to the casual fan. You can fit an entire basketball set-up on your TV screen. You can't do the same for baseball or football, but television will -- 99.9 percent of the time -- guarantee that you are seeing the part of the game that you most want to see.
Hockey simply isn't that... well, simple. It's a game that, in the arena, allows you to choose what is most interesting to look at. Sure, it all centers around the well-dressed gentleman looking to fling the rubber disk at the twine, but look at the guys in front trying to battle for position! Or check out that four-man scrum over at the half-boards for possession! Wait again, there's some kind of potential scrap at center ice that the announcers are dutifully letting you know about but you won't see unless it leads to blows. Hockey, in person, allows you to see whatever it is you want to see. Unfortunately, on television, this sport is still an information overload for those not easily converted.
The thing is, though, that's okay. We have time to let technology catch up with us. Hockey is not Arrested Development or Community or Terriers. We have nine years remaining on a multi-billion dollar television contract with a major television network, which also needs the game to help build it's fledgling cable channel. Hockey has time and leverage to find new ways to it's fanbase.
But we are hockey people, and I'm sure you've heard forty billion excuses for why this sport doesn't work on television. Let's look at this NHL season from a TV ratings perspective. Also, this is still an NHL TV website and you came here for numbers and perspective, so let's... do that.
Will the half-season do well, ratings-wise? It's a tough question. NBC will probably be fine. In fact, between the opening day regional games, Hockey Day in America and more coverage than ever before, there's a chance the mothership's ratings may even go up from the 2012 calendar year.
But as I wrote earlier today, the NBC Sports Network has to deal with a lot of games that will be blacked out in the local markets of the teams they are televising. They will need a massive outpouring of either causal or transplanted fans to make that up. I wouldn't bet on the league's viewership average from last season (or even January through April of last season) going up.
Here's how I would judge success. Let's take a look at the five most- and least-watched NHL on NBCSN games after Jan. 19, 2012.
Five Most-Watched NHL on NBCSN Games After Jan. 19, 2012
1. Philadelphia vs. Pittsburgh, Apr. 7 - 691,000 viewers
2. Boston vs. NY Rangers, Apr. 1 - 664,000
3. Philadelphia vs. Detroit, Feb. 12 - 600,000
4. Detroit vs. St. Louis, Apr. 4 - 572,000
5. Detroit vs. NY Rangers, Mar. 21 - 518,000
Five Least-Watched NHL on NBCSN Games After Jan. 19, 2012
1. Anaheim vs. Vancouver, Apr. 3 - 132,000 viewers
2. San Jose vs. Los Angeles, Mar. 20 - 134,000
3. Los Angeles vs. San Jose, Apr. 7 - 146,000
4. Los Angeles vs. Tampa Bay, Feb. 7 - 155,000
5. Los Angeles vs. Colorado, Feb. 22 - 166,000
If you're seeing exclusive games between teams in big markets draw somewhere above, say, that 518,000 for Red Wings-Rangers, then the NHL is fine. On the other side, if any games stay above that 132,000 for Ducks-Canucks, then the league is also fine, because you can point to that number and say "well it was worse before the lockout!" If you're not seeing NHL games break 500,000, and the lows are even lower... then there is work to be done.
I personally feel the league will be fine. The diehards will always come back, and on most nights, those are the only people watching (I mean, look at those bottom five games). Whether or not the so-called "casual fan" still has the appetite for Penguins-Capitals or Red Wings-Blackhawks, however, will be the more decisive factor as to whether or not... sigh, #hockeyisback.