Research & Insights

By Justin Tenuto, February 20, 2015

It’s Hockey Weekend Across America, But Does Anyone Care?

Hockey Weekend Across America began long, long ago in 2011. The goal was to gin up publicity for the sport and the NHL, which was still recovering from a 2004 lockout that saw scads of fans migrate to other sports that were actually playing games. Metrics for the success of this ancient, four year-old tradition are hard to measure, but if you’re using national media coverage as a barometer for a sport’s health, it’s not hard to see why hockey felt it needed a boost. The sport, long considered one of America’s “Big Four,” had been on precisely TWO Sports Illustrated covers in the preceding seven years.

Hockey-6

See that graph? That’s the amount of SI covers hockey’s received since 1955. Which is to say: maybe there’s no such thing as the Big Four after all.

Let’s try this instead:

Hockey-5

Since 1955, golf, boxing, and even track & field have been featured more frequently on the cover of Sports Illustrated than hockey. In fact, there have only been twelve SI hockey covers since the grimly devastating 2004 NHL lockout. In contrast, Michael Phelps alone has been on there seven times himself, most notably with enough gold around his neck to make Slick Rick blush. (Football, in contrast, has 202 covers in the same period of time. That’s more than twice as many covers as hockey has had, total. All hail football, apparently. But you knew that already.)

Of course, we’re cognizant of the fact that SI covers aren’t the end-all be-all indicator of a sports’ health. Sure, they give us a decent picture of how successful the sport is nationally, but what about gate receipts, franchise value, and searches on the interweb? Let’s find out, shall we?

Nobody Goes to Football Games

Every league has their own metrics for success. Here’s hockey’s favorite: despite football’s immense footprint on the national media psyche, some 96% of fans have never even been to a game.

Attendance figures, notoriously, are a bit malleable. We’ve all been to a game where they announce a sell-out while Gary Glitter pounds over the sound system, but our section is about half-full of soused hecklers. That’s because leagues often use “ticket distributed” as opposed to, you know, how many people actually came to the game itself. But the trends still look good for hockey and, regardless of the metric, tickets distributed has been increasing since the lockout.

Just don’t tell Sports Illustrated. They aren’t buying it.

Consulting Old Man Google

Over at the data oracle FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver took a look at the most popular North American sports-related Google searches. And this, friends, is where Hockey Weekend Across America takes on a different flavor. Namely: Canadians are just way more into this than we are.

There are 27 teams with more Google presence than the first hockey team to appear on the scene. That team? The Canadiens. Ok. How about a little further down? Who’s the next most popular hockey team on Google? Oh. The Maple Leafs. They’re from Canada too.

They’re followed by the Canucks.

In fact, it takes you 47 ranks of search popularity to hit the first American hockey team: the Boston Bruins.

Maybe the NHL needs Hockey Weekend Across America after all.

Billions with a B

While we’re grousing about hockey’s (relative) unpopularity, it’s worth remembering that big sports is still big business. Three of the NHL’s premier franchises are worth at least a billion dollars (according to Forbes) but, in keeping with the trend, two of the three are of course Canadian. The New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins rank highest in value amongst American teams, something that shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider those teams are from giant refrigerated metroplexes.

Conversely, the least valuable franchises are from toastier American states like Arizona and the hockey hotbed of Florida. Which is to say: your hockey team is probably worth more if it’s either cold where they play or they play in Canada. But we repeat ourselves.

While those NHL franchise are nothing to scoff at, they do in fact pale in comparison to their piers in the Big Four. The average NFL team, for example, is worth $1.43 billion—more than any NHL franchise. The average NBA and MLB teams are worth $1.1 billion and $811 million, respectively.

So what’s all this mean? Well, it means that hockey’s nowhere near as lucrative as our other major leagues. Whether you’re looking at franchise valuations, fan interest, or national media coverage, hockey finishes off the medal platform (or worse) in every metric.

In other words, we should probably just start calling it the Big Three.

Et cetera

To figure out how often hockey was on the cover of SI, we ran a data categorization job on all issues from 1955 on. We asked contributors to classify which sport was on the cover, what their race and sex was, and whether a coach was on the cover. The piddling coverage for hockey was what jumped out at us, but we found a few other tidbits worthy of sharing. To wit:

  • It took soccer 22 years to make the cover of Sports Illustrated
  • In contrast, surfing had already gotten five covers by that time
  • NASCAR was around for 20 years before it made a cover
  • There have only been 3 boxing covers this millenia
  • 9 of 13 total cycling covers came during the Lance Armstrong era
  • There have been twice as many bowling covers as fencing ones (two to one, admittedly)