As the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs near, I can’t help but gush over how much I love watching the NHL. Unfortunately, it seems as if the number of Americans who share that sentiment is steadily declining, as the NHL has experienced a 22% year-over-year decrease in viewership.
This figure is concerning for a league desperately trying to stay relevant as sports like soccer threaten its spot as one of the four major men’s leagues in the United States. Fans and league officials alike constantly discuss how to “grow the game,” so here’s what I would do to accomplish that if I were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Increase the Salary Cap
The NHL’s relatively low salary cap — compared to the other major American sports leagues — restricts the ability of front offices to change their teams, making the league less interesting during free agency and the trade deadline.
The NHL currently has a hard salary cap of $82.5 million, and teams usually choose to have 21 to 23 players. In comparison, the NBA has a salary cap of over $134 million, and its roster sizes consist of a maximum of 15 players. The result is that NHL general managers have less money to work with when building a larger roster relative to other sports leagues.
You might wonder why you should care that hockey players are slightly less rich millionaires than their NBA counterparts. The answer? Risk. Because the cap restricts NHL front offices so much, the league essentially forces executives and players to avoid taking on the financial risks associated with trading.
Front offices hesitate to take big swings in free agency or at the trade deadline, fearing doing so will jeopardize their ability to put together a winning roster by destroying their limited financial flexibility. Players often prioritize contract length when negotiating if they think there’s any chance of their game taking the slightest dip in a contract year.
These two factors result in a league where players move teams less often and front offices have less autonomy and flexibility to construct their rosters. The NHL misses out on a lot of attention and excitement that comes with surprising blockbuster trades and signings. In fact, only three of the league’s top 15 in points players no longer play for the team that drafted them.
Encourage International Play
Hockey is a truly international sport: it’s the only major U.S. sport where the majority of players are not from the United States. With that facet of the sport comes a rich history of international contests and rivalries.
Iconic moments like the 1980 Miracle on Ice, Sidney Crosby’s 2010 Golden Goal or the T.J. Oshie’s unforgettable shootout performance against Russia in 2014 create lasting memories and compelling storylines.
Unfortunately, NHL players haven’t been allowed to play in the Olympics since 2014. It’s understandable that Bettman doesn’t want players to risk injury or pause the NHL season for two weeks to make time for the Olympics, but the opportunity is simply too good to pass up.
Consider, for example, this year’s World Baseball Classic. Nearly 5 million people in the United States watched Shohei Ohtani face off against Mike Trout in the tournament’s final, more than all but one MLB regular season game since 2011.
The popularity of these international contests indicates American fans have an appetite for international contests and seeing their favorite players play for national pride and glory — while also serving as a way to expose international audiences to American and NHL players.
Fans of sports love to see rivals become teammates and teammates become rivals, and giving its players the chance to do that in international play has the possibility to recapture the attention of people who haven’t cared about hockey in years. And for what it’s worth, thinking about never getting to see Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid on the same team is legitimately upsetting.
Make Youth Hockey More Accessible
People tend to watch sports that are prevalent in their community, and unfortunately, hockey is completely inaccessible to many low-income and nonwhite communities, making the NHL’s fan base one of the country’s least diverse.
One survey conducted in Utah found that parents, on average, spend $7,000 a year on expenses associated with youth hockey, compared to annual costs under $1,500 for soccer and basketball. Coughing up several thousand dollars a year isn’t reasonable for the majority of American families, and racial wealth inequality prevents an even larger portion of families of color, particularly Black families, from being able to expose their kids to hockey from a young age.
Additionally, because the vast majority of families who keep their kids in youth hockey are wealthy and white, families who are not wealthy and white face social isolation and even blatant classism and racism if they try to play.
Hockey’s lack of diversity originates from structural inequities beyond the scope of the NHL, but the league can take action to make hockey a more inclusive space. Creating scholarships and supporting already existing organizations like the Black Girl Hockey Club can begin to make the sport more accessible for more people.
The NHL likes to market that “Hockey is for Everyone,” but that won’t be true until the NHL puts much more effort and resources into making hockey something worth engaging with.
Erin Casey is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Breaking the Ice appears online and in print every three weeks.
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