In the mid-1990s a strong argument could be made that the NHL had surpassed the NBA in popularity. But, goaltender equipment grew, the trap gained popularity and hockey entered the dead puck era. All the while, the NBA had a surge of young talent and rapidly attracted casual fans.
Entering the early 2000s the NHL, armed with commissioner Gary Bettman, who was sent from the NBA, attempted to invade non-traditional, warm weather markets. Ten years later the Nashville Predators have been in a constant state of limbo, the Phoenix Coyotes are being run by the league and teams like Florida, Tampa and Atlanta have trouble filling seats. All of this is occurring while the Stanley Cup Finals draws new audience highs since the 90s with numbers comparable to the Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals. In fact, last night’s 7-4 Blackhawks win trounced the NBA Finals in the Chicago market. Of course, that is to be expected.
The trend nationwide surely would favor the NBA, and I would not argue that the NHL has again surpassed the NBA in popularity. However, hockey is a much more team-oriented sport that has seen less drama off the playing field than the NBA recently. When it all boils down the NHL is still a few years away, but, the youth movement has spurred ticket sales and unique events like the Winter Classic. Plus, the high-scoring Finals that is developing not only will help draw casual fans hungry for goals, but it will have Gary Bettman doing backflips about high-scoring games.
If ESPN’s coverage was less biased towards the NBA and the NHL continues to grow, the league should see nothing but positive growth in the next few years.