In 1994, Sports Illustrated published an issue entitled “Why the NHL is Hot and the NBA is Not.” The issue and its cover are one of the most memorable, because of how it accurately captured the momentum of two different sports. Last month, Sports Illustrated decided to bring the cover back, this time proclaiming that both the NHL and the NBA were “hot,” and they certainly weren’t wrong.
These playoffs were huge for both the NBA and NHL, with lots of drama and major teams sticking around till the end. Perhaps, it is most telling that when both Finals ended so abruptly (and in one-sided fashion), fans were disappointed at how quickly these playoffs had come to end, longing for more games. While those same fans have to wait until the fall for both sports to return, the effects of their magical playoffs have been felt, and should continue to be felt, well into next season.
For the NHL, this is an especially promising sign. Let us not forget that this is the same league that suffered through two severely damaging lockouts in the past 10 years. Now, the league has dominant teams in dominant markets. The Chicago Blackhawks have won two of the last four Stanley Cups. The Los Angeles Kings, after winning the Cup this year, have now won two of the past three. It is a huge win for the league having a successful team in the number two media market, and a market that is not traditionally associated with the sport. Not to mention teams, like Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and New York continue to have consistent success.
In 1994, the Rangers brought the Stanley Cup back to the Big Apple after a 54-year drought. The 2014 Rangers hoped for a similar outcome against the LA Kings. While the Rangers couldn’t win the Cup, they and the LA Kings did help the NHL win its second best ratings in eight years, as the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals averaged five million viewers.
While it’s been said many times before, it bears repeating that the NHL has done extremely well in formulating its success. The league has changed the rules to make the game more entertaining to watch; HD television certainly has helped; and the league set up a system that is producing a regular profit from Canadian and NBC/NBC Sports broadcasts, for them and the teams. The Winter Classic and subsequent additional outdoor games have also helped draw in the casual fans mid-season, becoming a huge part of the success, which has been analyzed previously. Will the NHL be taking down the NFL ratings? No. But it doesn’t need to, or want to. Right now, the league makes money and keeps owners, fans and players happy. What more could you ask for?
As for the NBA, it’s almost unfair to directly compare ratings. The NBA has some strong powers working in its favor in terms of a player’s marketability and presence. It is safe to say there are more NBA players than hockey players that are household names across the country, and perhaps more than any other sport.
When Sports Illustrated published that original cover in 1994, Michael Jordan had retired, and the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets went to the NBA Finals with a defense-first mentality that was hard to watch. Twenty years later, we may look back on this current era as the NBA’s second golden age. Not since the days of Bird, Magic and Jordan has the league seen this many stars spread out across teams. And unlike hockey, these stars aren’t limited to just their regional influence. Kevin Durant fans aren’t just limited to Oklahoma City, and LeBron’s fans (and critics) aren’t limited to South Beach (or wherever he ends up next year). All of this has translated into another ratings win for the NBA, as its 2014 Finals viewership was up from last year, which saw a wildly entertaining Spurs versus Heat series go seven games. This year, the rematch between the two teams averaged 15.5 million viewers, with a peak of about 22.4 million viewers during the closing moments of the Spurs clinching Game 5 victory.
So what’s next? The NBA will begin looking to negotiate a new broadcast rights deal, almost certain to be one of the largest in history. The NHL will continue to focus on its regional influence and converting the casual fan into a more dedicated one. So many of us like to stack these leagues up against the NFL, but what if we’re looking at it all wrong? If the NFL has showed us anything, it might be that “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Maybe these two leagues don’t want to be the next NFL. Maybe, sticking to their respective strengths is how they will continue their growth after a “hot” summer.