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  • Writer's pictureVillanova Sports Law Blog

Why the NHL is Lagging Behind Other Major Sports Leagues

Updated: Feb 12

By Thomas Dunn:

The NHL is one of the four major professional sports leagues in North America. Hockey has one of the greatest trophies in sports, the Stanley Cup, and the sport is beloved by its passionate fans. Yet hockey has become less publicized when compared to basketball, football, and baseball. The answer to why this is may lie in the fact that hockey has not marketed itself as well as the other major North American sports.

The NHL currently has a cable deal with NBC Sports Group for $200 million per year for the rights to 100 regular season games and playoffs in the U.S.[1] The NHL also has a deal with Rogers Communications that pays the league roughly $430 million for the television rights in Canada.[2] While the deal seemed to be a great success for the NHL, it is not nearly as much as the other major sports leagues. The NFL’s television rights deal nets an average of $7 billion per year in revenue.[3] The NFL has also agreed with Amazon on a two-year $130 million deal to stream eleven Thursday Night Football games on Amazon Prime video.[4]

The MLB receives nearly $700 million per year through its television deal with ESPN[5], and another $800 million through its deal with Fox and TBS to air postseason baseball and the all-star game.[6] The NBA recently signed a deal with ESPN and TNT that pays the league $2.4 billion per year for the broadcasting rights to NBA games.[7] The NHL has the smallest television deal by a large margin and does not have any deals with streaming like the NFL.

The NHL is also losing the promotional battle through social media. The NHL has recently made a push to expand its social media communication, yet its social media policy does not allow for media outlets to post videos of live in-game action.[8] Team accounts have resorted to using short GIF files to get around the wording of the rules, but the short clips are not enticing enough for people to share on social media. Unlike the immediate buzz of NBA action, where a monstrous dunk is posted as soon as it happens and goes viral, the NHL does not allow an unbelievable goal to go viral because fans are not permitted to consume the content in real time through social media. Fans are forced to wait to share the content until after the game, where the aura surrounding the play has worn off and there is not as much of a need to share the post with friends.

The NHL also has had a difficult time marketing its superstars. In the NBA, every player has a personality that shines through in-game play and talk or through social media. NFL superstars let their strong personalities shine through in either smack talk or through their personal brands, and engage in “beefs” on social media that raise awareness. Baseball, to a lesser degree, markets its superstars by constantly having highlights play on ESPN and allowing for boisterous acts like flipping bats and screaming after great plays. The NHL barely gets coverage on ESPN and does not even have full-time beat writers for each team. The NHL is a very tradition-based league, however, and it is seen as a source of pride to come in and do your job unnoticed for the betterment of the team.[9] The NHL culture does not allow for large personalities to shine through because of the nature of the game, where if you show another team up by celebrating goals and putting yourself above the team, like the Canadiens alleged with P.K. Subban, then the team will see you as a nuisance and move on from you.[10]

Overall, the NHL needs to make itself more marketable to young Americans to be able to grow into a business that is on the same level as the rest of the major North American sports leagues. Canadians and, to an extent, Northeasterners have a large interest in hockey because it is popular regionally, but the rest of the United States does not have a vested interest in the sport. Hockey is not on many channels outside of NBCSports and teams’ local networks, it does not like to market its superstars because of the culture of the sport, and the stringent social media policies implemented by the league take away any possibility of viral moments. For these reasons, the NHL is not growing at the rate of the other major sports leagues and needs to market itself better to younger fans to keep pace.

[1] Condor, Bob, NHL, NBC sign record-setting 10-year TV deal, NHL (Apr. 19, 2011),

[2] CBC Sports, NBA TV deal: How the new $24B contract stacks up against other leagues, CBC Sports (Oct. 7, 2014),

[3] Statista, Total value of NFL national TV broadcasting rights deals from 2014 to 2022 (in billion U.S. dollars), Statista (Oct. 1, 2016),

[4] Reuters, Amazon and NFL ink a 2-year, $130 million streaming deal, New York Post (Apr. 27, 2018),

[5] Sandomir, Richard, ESPN Extends M.L.B. Deal, Doubling What It Pays Yearly, New York Times (Aug. 29, 2012),

[6] foxsports, MLB completes 8-year deal with Fox, Turner Sports, Fox Sports (Oct. 2, 2012),

[7] CBC Sports, NBA TV deal: How the new $24B contract stacks up against other leagues, CBC Sports (Oct. 7, 2014),

[8] NHL, NHL Online Transmission Policy, NHL (Nov. 10, 2018),

[9] Blackburn, Pete, Should the NHL be more focused on promoting its star players?, Fox Sports (Feb. 2, 2017),

[10] Id.

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