2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. NBA and NFL: Not a Fair Fight

May 10, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of a laser show at the Staples Center during game four of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
May 10, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of a laser show at the Staples Center during game four of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

If you haven’t been paying attention to professional hockey, now would be a tremendous time to start.  The NHL’s 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs have had everything a fan could want out of a postseason.  From Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks to P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens, playoff hockey has featured young star power primed to dominate the sport for at least the next decade.  And with rarities such as the Los Angeles Kings coming back from a three loss deficit to defeat the San Jose Sharks in round one, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have showcased the enviable drama desired by competing sports leagues like the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and Major League Baseball.

It then begs the question: why is the National Hockey League struggling against its competitors in terms of sheer popularity?

According to the Harris Poll—which has been asking sports fans to rank their favorite sports since 1985—in 2014 the NHL is less popular than the NBA, auto racing, college football, MLB, and the NFL.  In a lukewarm saving grace, professional hockey slightly edged college basketball in terms of popularity, although that seems hard to rationalize given the holistic allure of March Madness.

If I were a mildly successful but underperforming local purveyor of burritos, the last thing I would do is build my brick and mortar storefronts next door to the local Chipotle and Qdoba restaurants.  Competition is great, but rational competition is ideal, and it would be rather nonsensical to set up shop right alongside established industry giants that are accepted preferable alternatives to my product.   Instead, I would position my storefront safely away from the popular draw of Chipotle and Qdoba—thus allowing me to target burrito consumers not conveniently near the aforementioned preferable alternatives.  My strategy would be for customers out of necessity to purchase my burritos and perhaps begin to develop a taste for my particular product.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and his National Hockey League are doing the exact opposite of what is referenced in the above hypothetical.  If the NHL is the local burrito shop, the NFL and the NBA are the more highly regarded Chipotle and Qdoba chains, and Bettman is choosing to take his perceived-to-be inferior product and directly compete with it against stronger brands.  A smart businessman would never do such a thing unless he knew that he would ultimately win, and unfortunately for professional hockey, the NHL is perpetually losing.  Then again, no one really ever argues that Bettman is the savviest of commissioners.

Up to this point, the NHL’s 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs have directly competed with the NBA Playoffs.  I am a die hard professional basketball fan, but I also enjoy watching hockey in high definition.  I subscribe to both NBA League Pass and NHL Center Ice; that is to say, I am willing to watch both products.  But why should I have to choose between the NBA Playoffs and the NHL Playoffs?  Unless you are a niche hockey wonk, you are almost assuredly going to watch a game featuring Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers over a game showcasing Jarrett Stoll and Dustin Brown of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.  As the Harris poll suggests, and as recent history has long demonstrated, the NBA is more popular than the NHL, and it will likely continue to be viewed as such moving forward.  So why would the NHL choose to have its playoffs compete directly against the NBA playoffs?

On Thursday, May 8th,  a third behemoth of a competitor also began directly competing against the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the NFL Draft.

Last year, 7.7 million people tuned in for the first day of the NFL Draft.  And with the NFL devoting a record-setting 51-hours of television coverage of the NFL Draft in 2014, that 7.7 million figure will likely increase.  How many would-be NHL watchers instead tuned in to the NFL Draft last weekend?  And if professional football roster construction isn’t their thing, how many hockey fans watched the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets versus Miami Heat and the Portland Trailblazers versus San Antonio Spurs?  The NHL featured two fantastic matchups that Thursday—the Canadiens versus the Boston Bruins and the Anaheim Ducks versus the Kings—but aside from the die hards, who waswatching?

It is 2014; we should not have to choose between which major sport’s incredibly important event we should watch on a given night.  Every year, the day after Major League Baseball’s All Star Game is affectionately known as the day without sports.  That is not entirely true, as the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream will be taking on the New York Liberty and the Tulsa Shock will be playing against the Minnesota Lynx, but the logic still stands.  Despite my affinity for women’s professional basketball and the Minnesota Lynx’s Monica Wright in particular, the WNBA is currently on a drastically lower tier than football, mens basketball, baseball, and hockey.  It should not be trailblazing advice for Gary Bettman, but the NHL should construct its season so that the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on July 16, 2014—the day after the MLB All Star Game.

Such a playoffs start date would force the 24-hour sports television networks like ESPN and Fox Sports One to showcase professional hockey, and with the only competition moving forward being the MLB’s dog days of summer and women’s professional basketball, more consumers than ever would watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs—perhaps even falling in love with the sport.

The NHL is currently the local burrito shop getting dominated by Chipotle and Qdoba.  But it doesn’t have to be.