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Good Question: How Popular Is Hockey?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The headlines are not good for the National Hockey League: “Stanley Cup Ratings Down,” “66 Shows With Better Ratings Than Stanley Cup.”

TV ratings for the Stanley Cup are down at least 20 percent from last year, partially because the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils aren’t huge, legacy hockey teams (although they are both huge media markets). And it’s also because game one, three and four were on NBC Sports Channel instead of NBC. Many homes don’t get NBC Sports Channel, formerly Versus.

So how popular is hockey? And which sports are the most popular in the U.S.?

About 2.9 million people watched game two of the Stanley Cup. On the other hand, 4.5 million people watched a repeat of “Dogs in the City,” and 8.8 million watched a repeat of “Big Bang Theory.”

“At the pro level, it’s a niche sport and will always be,” said WCCO radio host Chad Hartman, who is a former Timberwolves play-by-play caller.

“You’re gonna have as loyal a fan base as any sport, it’s not gonna be that broad,” he said. “Even in this town, when the Wolves are hot and the Wild are hot, the ratings for the Wolves are dramatically higher.”

Indeed, an NBA playoff game this week on ESPN drew 10 million fans — three times the Stanley Cup audience.

There isn’t much debate about the number one sport in the United States, and it isn’t the so-called “national pastime.”

“It’s the NFL, and it will be for a long time,” Hartman said.

In a Harris Interactive poll in 2010, 31 percent of Americans said football is their favorite sport. That compares to 17 percent who said baseball, 7 percent who said auto racing, 6 percent who said basketball, and 5 percent who said hockey.

“When the Vikings are on, even when they’re playing poorly, 70 percent of households are watching the Vikings,” Hartman said.

In 2011, the average NFL attendance was 67,394. Baseball averaged 30,352 per game.

Surprisingly, Major League Soccer’s 18 teams drew an average of 17,872 fans a game, putting it in third place for professional sports in the U.S. The NBA drew 17,323, while the NHL drew an average of 17,132.
“I would like to see how NASCAR would do here if we ever would get a track,” Hartman said.

NASCAR’s big races average around 110,000 spectators, and according to Fox, about 8 million viewers watch each Sprint Cup race on television.

To compare the Stanley Cup to other sports championships, the 2011 World Series averaged 16.6 million viewers on Fox, the 2012 Super Bowl averaged 111.3 million on network television, and this week’s Heat/Celtics NBA Playoff game 5 on ESPN averaged 10.25 million viewers.

If you look at total attendance, you’ll see the NHL is still selling a lot of tickets. NHL has more than 1200 games per season, selling 21 million tickets, very close to what the NBA sells (with a similar number of games).

Football has far fewer games, and sells about 17 million tickets.

Hockey is “never gonna match, football, baseball, basketball, NASCAR,” Hartman said. “Just accept what you are and love it.”

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