Vulgar Statistics: The Big Four Sports Leagues in North America
With no major deal in place with ESPN, and thus very little coverage, the popular thought is that the NHL comes in dead last in terms of the four major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) in the United States and Canada. That didn’t seem to jive so I sat down, listed every professional city and highlighted which team I thought was the main draw in that city. Of course some teams won by default, but there were plenty of contested cities to draw an accurate picture.
Based solely on my perceptions, each league was the main draw in the following cities (Uncontested cities in italics. Cities with all four major sports underlined.):
- NFL – 21 (Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New Orleans, Oakland, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Washington)
- NHL – 14 (Buffalo, Calgary, Columbus, Detroit, Edmonton, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Montreal, Nashville, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Jose, Toronto, and Vancouver)
- NBA – 9 (Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio)
- MLB – 6 (Anaheim, Atlanta, Boston, Milwaukee, New York, St. Louis)
But of course that wasn’t good enough for me so I started to look for numbers to put to my guesses. I originally wanted to track both attendance figures and local TV ratings, but local TV ratings are very difficult to find (and impossible for the Canadian teams since Canada doesn’t use Nielsen Ratings) so I had to tailor my study. Still I think that the percentage of seats a given team can fill versus other professional sports teams in the same city tells us a lot about how big of a draw they are.
(All figures from ESPN.com)
As you can see the reality is somewhat different than my perceptions.
- NHL – 19 (Anaheim, Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Montreal, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington)
- NFL – 16 (Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Nashville, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle)
- NBA – 12 (Cleveland, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio)
- MLB – 3 (Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco)
The NHL is the somewhat skewed winner here, with the NFL picking up the most cities where there was actually another professional sports team to compete with. As you can see, the MLB is the clear loser with a whopping six of its teams coming in at under 50% capacity. I found it interesting to note that in cities with all four professional sports, the NHL notched the most wins, picking up Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Washington.
I think we can all agree that despite these numbers, the NFL is a juggernaut in a league of its own, especially when you factor in TV ratings and merchandise sales. (The NHL tends to come in dead last in TV ratings.) Let’s be realistic, as encouraging as the attendance figures are, there is a lot to support the assertion that the NHL is the country’s least popular sports league. The TV ratings for its big games are the lowest of the four, and I’d wager its merchandise sales aren’t great either. But the gap isn’t as wide as a lot of people think, and there are encouraging signs that it will continue to gain ground.
No sport has been helped more by the advent of HDTV than the NHL. The increased picture clarity has produced the most marked improvement in NHL broadcasts and taken a sport that was lacking in TV watchability and turned it into one of the most beautiful spectacles. Seeing an NHL game in HD is gorgeous compared to the other leagues, and it isn’t even close. (Plus with the lack of extreme closeup shots in hockey, you get less of the bad, weird, or just plain gross that comes with high definition.)
The NHL also boasts something that no other league can even approach, the Winter Classic. The cool-factor of playing a hockey game outdoors in a massive stadium in front of 40,000 plus is something that the NFL, NBA, and MLB will never be able to match. There is nothing like it anywhere else, and the experience of actually being there is second to none.
Plus we’re all forgetting something that the NHL probably does better than every other league, the All-Star game. People complain nonstop about the NHL All-Star game, but when coupled with the skills competitions, it rises above its NFL, MLB, and NBA counterparts. The Pro-Bowl excludes the players from the two best teams, the MLB All-Star game actually matters (kind of) and people still don’t care, and the NBA has their slam dunk yawn-fest. If the NHL tweaked All-Star weekend a little bit more, it could widen that gap even further.
There is a long way to go in terms of legitimizing the NHL, but there are a lot of positive seeds in place. NBA teams move around so frequently, it’s hard to keep track of them. The MLB only has ten teams that matter, and that’s in a good year, and the NFL seems poised to cripple itself with a lockout. (And even if it doesn’t, things such as increased commercial time, an inability to watch every game thanks to the NFL Network, and personal seat licencses will drive fans away anyways.) The changes made after the lockout did a lot to clean up some of the more unsavory aspects of the game, and youth hockey has exploded in some unlikely places in Raleigh, Dallas, and Atlanta. The NHL may arguably be sitting in last place now, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case for much longer.