NHL vs. NBA: Hockey winning in attendance, fan enthusiasm?

It was the June 20, 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated, back when that publication's cover stories and proclamations shaped the conversation for sports culture in the U.S. The story by writer E.M. Swift was titled "Hot Not: While the NBA's image has cooled, the NHL has ignited surprising new interest in hockey." It appeared at a time when offense was down and embarrassing moments were up in the NBA, while Mark Messier's New York Rangers were the sports story of the year.

The SI article has become something of a legend for puckheads, some of whom are convinced it foretold of an NHL surge in popularity past the NBA's -- one that was short-circuited by the 1995 lockout. It's like hockey's answer to the UFO crash in Roswell: infamous and resonating, but everyone has a different version of the truth. The Hockey's Future boards even had a thread created to "myth-bust" what fans claim the story reported.

Yet 14 years later, we find ourselves at another "Hot Not" moment for the NHL and the NBA, the two most popular professional arena sports in North America (sorry, lacrosse). Both leagues are taking their licks as the economy worsens; but the numbers show the NHL's gains and stability in attendance, while basketball fans are concerned about what they see as a clear enthusiasm gap in the NBA.

You can't blame Supersonic Soul for being bitter about the NBA after the Seattle Sonics blog saw its team relocated to Oklahoma City. But it made waves this week by publishing this chart that tracks average attendance in the NBA vs. the NHL over the last several years:

"That, my friends, is the cold, hard hand of reality smacking David Stern in the face. In the past six years, his league has gone from dominator to also-ran," wrote PN on the Soul.

In the NBA's defense, it didn't have the benefit of the "reset button" that was the post-lockout NHL. New rules, new stars and competitive parity -- with a healthy dose of freebies and creative accounting in ticket distribution -- set the NHL on a course through which attendance records fell on almost a monthly basis.

That said, it's a downward trend for the NBA, and a much less severe dip for the NHL, in a spiraling economy.

Head-to-head in cities and states that share both sports, the NHL has always been surprisingly competitive. These numbers tend to rise and fall based in the local teams' success (or lack thereof). Atlanta, for example, had been a Thrashers' town until their fortunes and those of the Hawks changed dramatically.

Here are the head-to-head figures very early in both seasons thus far (numbers complied from ESPN's NBA and NHL attendance figures, prior to last night's games):





17,771 (4 games)/88.8

13,726 (8 games)/74.0


18,624 (7 games)100.0

15,731 (8 games)/84.5


21,818 (7 games)/100.5

21,485 (11 games)/104.8


20,116 (4 games)/104.8

17,870 (6 games)/96.4


16,863 (5 games)/88.0

16,485 (8 games)/91.6


22,076 (4 games)/100.0

19,753 (7 games)/98.4

Los Angeles

18,997 (5 gms, Lakers)/96.9

14,915 (12 games)/80.6


15,841 (6 games)/80.8

15,162 (7 games)/78.8


13,629 (5 games)/70.4

18,568 (7 games)/102.8

New Jersey

16,026 (6 games)/79.7

14,459 (10 games)/82.0

New York

18,758 (6 games)/94.9

18,120 (14 games)/107.2


12,758 (5 games)/62.4

19,267 (8 games)/98.8


18,422 (5 games)/96.8

15,214 (9 games)/86.9


19,073 (4 games)/96.3

19,287 (9 games)/102.6


17,582 (4 games)/85.0

17,758 (8 games)/95.1

Throw in the Carolina Hurricanes (15,091/80.6) over the Charlotte Bobcats (13,040/68.5) if you'd like, even though those are two distinct media markets.

Not counting Carolina, and again extremely early for both sports, the NHL leads the NBA (8-7) in arena capacity while the NBA wins average attendance in a rout (11-4). Outside of Colorado, Denver and New Jersey, the capacity winners in each city will likely hold throughout the season.

Both leagues use the nebulous and deceptive "tickets distributed" method for tabulating attendance. Frequently in their coverage, sports writers will note empty seats in the arenas that greatly vary from the attendance figures in the box scores. That goes for both the NBA and the NHL.

But for the NBA, the empties have taken on a new meaning. Nick Friedell over on Ball Don't Lie reported on what can only be called the Enthusiasm Gap being witnessed between NBA crowds of today and of old:

I had to cringe last weekend when I read Phil Mushnick's column about the attendance problems that some NBA teams are having. He reports that at a recent New York-Memphis game in Tennessee, an eyewitness said there were only about 4,000 people in the stands to see the two teams play. Mushnick also believes that by next spring we will be hearing/seeing stories about how some NBA (and NHL) teams are close to suspending operations because of larger financial troubles.

I wish I could refute his thinking, but, I actually agree with him.

I have watched NBA games throughout my entire life and I don't ever remember seeing this many empty seats in arenas all over the league. I've covered several games in Orlando during the early part of the season, and there are always plenty of good seats to be had. What surprises me more than anything, though, is the general lack of enthusiasm from some of the crowds. For the most part, the crowds I've seen at Magic games are flatter than a pancake. Sure, there are some exciting moments, and, if asked, the fans are usually willing to get out of their seats and cheer. But, if it wasn't for the noise blaring from the speaker system, you would be able to hear Stan Van Gundy barking out orders on almost every possession.

The Enthusiasm Gap may exist between the NBA and the NHL, as well. The Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals fans have eclipsed their NBA brethren for sheer excitement about their teams. The Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche all hold historic leads in enthusiasm over their NBA neighbors. From events like the Winter Classic to players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL has been more adept in creating fresh buzz than the NBA; and on a micro level, the NHL even out-rated the NBA in their respective championship rounds last summer.

NBA fans and pundits will point to overall television ratings, merchandise sales and mainstream attention in an attempt to curb whatever positive momentum can be perceived for the NHL. Which would ignore that (a) basketball translates from the arena to television much better than hockey, which has consistently held the NHL back; (b) NBA merchandise is cheaper, more user-friendly and culturally embraced; and (c) most mainstream sports editors loathe hockey.

The television problem will eventually be solved by technology for hockey. I did an interview with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban back in 2006, and his thoughts about hockey and HDTV resonate today:

"It's hard to watch for the casual fan. The casual fan doesn't understand strategy and because the action is so fast, it's hard to pick up on it with regular TV. HDTV with its widescreen and high resolution allows for shots of the entire ice, so it's much simpler to pick up the puck and see the strategy that takes place in a game."

(Cuban also said back then: "I'm not as in tune to this for the NHL as I am for the NBA, but I think the NHL's biggest challenge is on the marketing side." Truer words ... )

The fact is that neither of these leagues is particularly thriving in a bad economy, and that both are having to resort to some creative marketing to keeps fannies in the seats. But to hear NBA writers and fans tell it, there seems to be an unmistakable malaise setting in for professional basketball, at a time when professional hockey is having some semblance of a renaissance.

Or, as Sports Illustrated put it 14 years ago, "While the NBA's image has cooled, the NHL has ignited surprising new interest in hockey."

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