Could the NHL ever find itself off the sports map?
Posted: Thursday July 28, 2005 11:52AM; Updated: Thursday July 28, 2005 11:52AM
The NHL is hoping Sidney Crosby can bring fans back to the league.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images
Do you think that the NFL will still exist a thousand years from now? In a future where people can, say, travel the cosmos and communicate telepathically, where science will enable us to use 100 percent of our brains -- and hearts -- will millions of viewers tune in on February 3006 to watch Super Bowl MXL?
Somehow I doubt it. Not because there's anything wrong with the NFL operations or its product. But just because stuff happens. Ask the folks at the Holy Roman Empire. Or Blockbuster executives. A great many claims that look strong one day can weaken the next for reasons no one can anticipate. Maybe in 3006, sports played in three dimensions and under the governace of gravity will no longer attract the 18-34 demo.
So let's take it as a point of argument that the NFL won't last a thousand years.
Well, how about five hundred years?
Two hundred years? When exactly does it end?
How about if you change the "F" to an "H" and make the question about the NHL? Then the darkness starts closing in much more quickly, doesn't it?
Because after this past year, it's really easy to imagine life without hockey.
Yes, the lockout is over and the NHL is back. And hockey fans will return. But the year-long hiatus of what has long been regarded as the No. 4 sport raised a prospect that we might see something that's never happened before -- a major sports league just fading away.
Fans toss about phrases like "all-time greats" so readily it's easy to forget that big-business team sports have been around for barely a tick in the cosmos. Whether you start counting with the cross-over celebrity of Babe Ruth in the 1920s or the NFL's increase in popularity in the 1950s, the history of major sports leagues is in its infancy. There are still baby teeth to be lost. And we've never seen a big pro sports leagues that hit the heights -- a network television contract, city parades thrown for its champions -- really drop off the map. Not yet, anyway. But it's bound to happen. The NBA flirted with extinction in the 1970s, before Bird and Magic and David (Stern) came along to revive it.
Maybe the NHL will bounce back the same way the NBA did, riding Sidney Crosby as its savior. That's the preferred scenario. But when your players are agreeing to pay cuts and ESPN decides it can live without you, things don't look promising.
Of course, in a country where you can still find duckpin bowling lanes in 10 states, it's safe to say we'll always have some form of professional hockey. But hockey's claim on being part of the Big Four gets looser and looser. The NHL, which threatened to overtake the NBA in popularity not too long ago, is now inching backward to the second stage in the Lollapalooza of sports. By my estimation, the NHL's popularity is at around the same level as NASCAR, but going in the wrong direction, toward the place where you find IRL, college baseball, non-Grand Slam tennis and poker -- and while you can argue that Texas Hold 'em isn't a sport, it's on ESPN. And then there's soccer and lacrosse, two up-and-comers that should really worry the hockey folks because they remind audiences of this simple fact: there's more than one way to put a ball into a net. People will still lean toward following hockey, but habits can change. And it doesn't always take a shift in gravity.