For about 15 years the NHL has been doing everything it can to gain a larger American fan base. It moved two Canadian teams to the U.S. and rapidly expanded from 21 teams to 30 teams with the main purpose of bringing hockey to the U.S. south and becoming more of a national sport. There are now teams in Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Tampa, Nashville, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim and San Jose and aside from maybe Dallas and San Jose, who have had some success, all have been relative failures in attracting significant numbers of new fans. The NHL has utilized glowing pucks, changed rules, went to 4-on-4 overtime hockey, brought in the shootout, cracked down on fighting, cracked down on hooking, cracked down on obstruction, cracked down on hooking again, put regular season and playoff games on in the afternoon, cracked down on hooking and obstruction again, shut down the league for a full season so those new small market teams in the U.S. can better compete financially, and are now even talking about bringing in crazy rounded bubble nets all in the hopes of building a bigger American audience. But Instead of generating a bigger American audience TV coverage has been demoted from the all sports network ESPN, to Versus which has limited availability across much of the country. On top of that NBC pays nothing to broadcast a handful of regular season and playoff games, the TV ratings are dismal, and the few fans that do exist and want to watch hockey get shafted when NBC decides not to show overtime of a semi-finals series clinching game so it can show an hour of pre-horse race coverage.
It is time for the NHL owners to realize that Gary Bettmanâ€™s master plan of â€˜if you expand, they will watchâ€™ has not worked, is not working, and will not likely ever work. It is time to realize that the NHL has a better hope of growing their fan base in cities like Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and even Columbus or in a new market like Portland or Seattle than in Nashville, Miami, Carolina and Phoenix. You can have a Stanley Cup winning team in Carolina or one of the best, most entertaining teams to watch in Nashville but the new fans they generate pales in comparison to the new fan interest that has been generated in Buffalo now that a quality, stable franchise exists or in Pittsburgh now that that franchise is getting better on the ice and looking more stable off the ice. If Buffalo and Pittsburgh can generate huge new fan interest in those smaller American cities, just imagine how many new fans could be created if Chicago or Boston got a better product on the ice or started marketing their franchises better. The sooner the NHL begins to realize that the future of the NHL in the U.S. is in Boston and Chicago and St. Louis and not in Miami or Nashville or Phoenix the better.
The NHL needs to understand that there is nothing wrong with being a regional (i.e. northern U.S., Canada) sport, and you can even get national TV deals when the majority of your audience is regional, and then grow from there. NASCAR is a perfect example. For the most part it is a regional sport with the majority of their events in the south and with the majority of their fans in the south, but lat time I checked they have some pretty good TV contracts and are now in the process of expanding their region. The NHL is trying to do it the other way around and it is failing miserably. There is no reason why if you gained enough interest in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minnesota, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and maybe even a new market like Seattle that one of the major networks would be interested in broadcasting hockey. No offence to Nashville or North Carolina but these arenâ€™t exactly major TV markets when compared to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, or Chicago. Just increasing interest 10% in each of those cities will do far more good than doubling or tripling the interest in Nashville. But unfortunately through the NHLâ€™s misguided vision NHL in Chicago has been all but destroyed, Boston seems to be following the same path, and even Detroit is starting to have trouble selling out playoff games. It is time the NHL changed course and started focusing on promoting the game in traditional hockey markets and getting rid of the gimmickry used to promote the game to non-fans who aren’t really interested in being fans.
Edit: Dan Wetzel has a similar story about the NHL possibily making changes to playoff OT rules against the interest of the traditional hockey fan.