The NHL has also been a beneficiary of the in-line skating boom, which has brought an appreciation of hockey skills to warm-weather locales that previously had limited exposure to the game. Street hockey, played both in sneakers and on in-line skates, is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. In San Jose the NHL helped set up a street-hockey program that now involves 50,000 kids, and it is making plans to follow that model in as many as 14 more cities.
On the marketing front NHL-licensed merchandise will exceed a billion dollars in retail sales this year, a 600% increase over the last five years. True, that figure is well below the $2.5 billion in U.S. retail sales generated by the NBA, whose gross licensing income has increased 333% over the same period. But percentagewise, no major league sport has seen its licensing income grow as fast as hockey's has. The Mighty Ducks, fueled by the Disney magic, had the top-selling logo in team sports this year, passing the NFL's L.A. Raiders and the NBA's Bulls. And hockey jerseys, with their baggy look and bright colors, have become the stuff of high fashion. "We've had the football jersey, the baseball jersey, basketball trends," designer Tommy Hilfiger told The New York Times. "Hockey [jerseys have]...a great shape, very oversized, with neat emblems and great colors. And it's cool because hockey is kind of a rough sport."
Hockey is also the rage of the videogame market. The NHL game, created by Electronic Arts, has sold more than a million copies at $60 in each of the past two years, almost twice what the company's corresponding NBA game has sold, and comparable to the most popular basketball game on the market, Sega's NBA Jam. "It's big in England. It's huge on campuses," says Don Transeth, vice president of spoils marketing for Electronic Arts. "And a lot of these people are learning hockey through the video game."
That statement, as self-serving as it may sound, was recently confirmed by a 17-year-old friend of ours, a basketball player, who said he was following the hockey playoffs because he'd been hooked by the NHL '94 video game. "If the boys in the junior class were to make a list of their favorite things," he said, "first would be sophomore girls. Second would be NHL '94. Everyone plays it." Where, he was asked, did the girls in his junior class rank? "Way down. Not even top 10."
As yet ESPN's ratings do not reflect this surge in hockey interest. With the Rangers' games contractually not available on ESPN in the New York market (the MSG Network carries the games there), ESPN has averaged a 1.8 rating, minuscule by NBA standards. "Nobody should read too much into the ratings," says Bettman. "We were off TV so many years, we're in the rebuilding process. If we were still getting those numbers in five years, I'd be disappointed." The NHL also had six games televised this season on an over-the-air network, ABC, where it drew a lowly 1.7 average rating.
The league's horizon is not bereft of its clouds. It, too, must negotiate a contract with its players union, which has been without one for more than a year. Hockey has also had to deal with the ire caused by a controversial franchise shift, from Minnesota to Dallas. There have been problems with ownership, most notoriously in L.A., where profligate Bruce McNall was forced to relinquish control of the Kings. And flagging attendance has plagued both the New York Islanders and the Hartford Whalers. But even Stern, Bettman's former NBA boss, is impressed with what's going on over at the NHL. "Hockey is doing well and, in percentage of its growth, will continue to do well," Stern says. "They should do well. They have a very good blueprint to follow."
A blueprint that the NBA, by all appearances, had better take back to the drawing board.