When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings more than a quarter of a century ago, the National Hockey League hoped the move would boost the sport’s popularity outside its traditional strongholds of Canada and the northeast U.S. The move piqued the interest of Angelenos, but L.A. grew indifferent about the team again when the Great One was traded a few years later. While a wave of new teams soon set up shop across the sunbelt, the expansion still didn’t bring the league much closer to the status enjoyed by more popular sports like pro football, baseball and basketball. But this year, hockey is finally making real strides in its viewership, and the Kings are doing more than their part by contending for their second championship in three years.
It hasn’t been an easy road for hockey. When the Stanley Cup playoffs come around every spring, some American sports fans give a collective yawn. Others aren’t even aware hockey is played in June. They’re too busy watching the concurrent basketball playoffs or more popular spring sporting events like the Belmont Stakes or the French Open. Hockey hasn’t helped its own cause by staging two lockouts over the past decade, the most recent one cancelling a good chunk of last season.
But last year’s woes haven’t carried over. As the Kings look to close out the New York Rangers with a win in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight, the Canadian pastime is posting its best season ever in attendance and U.S. viewership. The NHL filled a record number of seats at its arenas this year, even beating the NBA’s total attendance. And viewership has been stellar in the playoffs. It rose 57 percent in the first round compared with 2013. Game Two of the Stanley Cup Final on June 7 pulled in 6.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen, the most since the company began tracking data in 1994.
To novice fans still trying to understand what icing is, the sudden surge in popularity might seem to have happened overnight. Yet smart business decisions have played a role. This season, the league realigned its divisional structure and put on special outdoor games that garnered national attention. It also restructured its playoff format so that teams in the same division would play each other, helping to rekindle old playoff rivalries and spark new ones by pitting geographically close teams against each other. The sport is benefiting as well from a television deal with NBC that nationally broadcasts all playoffs games. “By almost any measure,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters on June 4, “this may have been the most successful season on and off the ice in league history.”
The sport has its fans to thank, too. While hockey is known for its particularly diehard audience, the NHL also has the wealthiest fans of all U.S. professional sports, according to Nielsen’s 2013 Year in Sports Media report. One-third of its viewers earn more than $100,000 a year, beating out more popular sports like baseball and others associated with wealth, such as golf. The high-earning power has helped the fan base stay loyal even during tough economic times. In fact, hockey is the only one of the four major pro sports that actually saw increased attendance in the years following the Great Recession, according to a study by financial firm ConvergEx Group cited by CNBC.
More than fans’ salaries or Bettman’s strategies, it’s been great hockey that has raised the league’s profile the most. Remarkably, the first round of this year’s playoffs featured 25 games decided by one goal, 14 overtime games and a record 10 comeback wins by teams who were trailing by more than one goal. Half of the 14 playoff series in the first three rounds went a full seven games. The greatest fortune of all for ratings: it’s the first time since 1981 that teams from the country’s two largest television markets are playing each other for the championship of a major pro sport. And in L.A., the Kings’ run may finally turn the sunny city into a hockey town decades after Gretzky left. If the Kings beat the Rangers, says Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, it will be the best playoff run ever by an L.A. team. That’s no small feat for a town that has seen 10 Lakers championships.