NHL vs. NBA: Hoops fans meekly strike back at hockey's surge

Last Friday, we published a post about the divergent attendance and enthusiasm trends in the NHL vs. the NBA. It has sparked some wide-ranging debate, and I'm due on Rogers Sportsnet's Prime Time Sports to discuss it tonight. Sports Media Watch has a post on the topic week with some really interesting numbers and insights, including how razor-thin the margin is between the NBA and NHL in average attendance:

During the 2007-08 season, the NBA averaged 17,396 fans per game, compared to 17,268 for the NHL. Through November 24 of this year, using the most recent data compiled from ESPN.com, the NBA is edging the NHL in average attendance, 17,178 to 17,119.

Two considerations here: First, does that NHL average attendance include the 71,217 that watched the Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres? Obviously, that number could have some effect, even if averaged out over 2,460 games; it did for Buffalo.

But it's a disservice to the NHL to treat the Classic as a statistical aberration -- the League took a chance on a New Year's Day game and reaped the rewards. Maybe this is viewed through puck-colored glasses, but a comparable matchup in the NBA, like the Lakers at the Suns in a stadium, isn't pulling 71,000 fans.

Second consideration, and this is an important one: NBA arenas universally have higher capacities than arenas configured for hockey. Take the Air Canada Centre in Toronto: Basketball capacity is 19,800, and hockey capacity is 18,819. The Leafs already play to over-capacity crowds; hell, they could probably surpass the capacity of Montreal's building (21,273) if given the chance.

Sports Media Watch acknowledges that the trends are all in the NHL's favor right now:

What cannot be disputed is that the NHL's attendance is on an upward trend, while the NBA's is on a downward trend. Through November 10, NHL attendance was up 1.2% compared to the same period last year. During the 2007-08 season, NHL attendance was up 1.8%, while NBA attendance was down 2.1%.

What can be taken from this? The NBA still has higher attendance than the NHL, and while NBA attendance has been declining in the past two seasons, last year's average attendance still ranked among the best in league history. The NHL does take the lead in terms of filling its arenas to capacity; 20 NHL teams play to 90% capacity, compared to 17 for the NBA.

Ah, but try telling that to a bitter, dismissive NBA blogger.

Over on my old stomping grounds at AOL FanHouse, Eric McErlain expanded on our NHL vs. NBA coverage, adding that "I can't help but enjoy seeing the hoops crowd on the hot seat for once. Enjoy the spotlight; here's hoping you don't melt."

This didn't sit well with FanHouse NBA blogger Brett Edwards, who penned a rebuttal titled "On the Hilarious Insecurity of Hockey Fans." (Honestly, as a hockey fan for the better part of 31 years, I can tell you there's nothing hilarious about it. Especially when you're a Devils fan, too.) He attempts to explain away the NBA's declining attendance with a baffling theory:

There's a very simple reason that attendance has declined in the NBA, and it has nothing to do with the sport's fans losing interest. It's because the NBA is available on a wide variety of television networks that people have actually heard of and have access to. The NBA is on ESPN Wednesdays and Fridays, TNT on Thursdays, and on ABC every Sunday beginning in January. Oh, and the late stages of the playoffs and Finals are also nationally televised on ABC. The NHL? They have that big network contract with ... Versus, which can be found on channel five-hundred-and-something on your local cable or satellite provider. Maybe.

To summarize: More people go to NHL games than NBA games because basketball has better national television deals than hockey does.

To summarize a bit more: This is pretty much the dumbest premise for a debate point I've read in a long, long time.

It's completely ignorant of the modern sports television landscape. The NHL's television exposure isn't limited to Versus and the occasional game on NBC. The NBA's television coverage isn't limited to TNT, ESPN and ABC. Both leagues have local cable television coverage for virtually every game of the season via Comcast, Fox Sports Net, MSG and other carriers. That's not evening counting the PPV/In Demand packages for both leagues that give fans nearly every game for every team on every night.

Again, to revisit the theory: The Washington Capitals played the Minnesota Wild on Versus last night, so the other 28 fan bases are then motivated to visit their local arenas.

Edwards doesn't provide any empirical or circumstantial evidence to support this idea, because he'd have to invent it.

His theory seems to be founded on the notion that less television coverage equals more desire to spend money and go to the arena. In McErlain's response to Edwards on FanHouse, he takes on this theory with two words: Bill Wirtz. From E-Mac:

It was the aforementioned Wirtz who agreed with this line of thinking till the day that he died -- namely, that televised sports would kill attendance at the gate. But if that was the case, shouldn't the NFL be suffering at the gate too? After all, you can get NFL football on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays on a variety of cable and broadcast outlets. Yet I don't seem to detect any drop in average attendance -- or at least any reporting of it.

It should also be noted that the Blackhawks have been devastated by the lifting of their Dollar Bill television blackout, to the tune of leading the NHL in average attendance this season. D'oh!

So now we're counting down to the next round in this fight, in which NBA fans point to television ratings that eclipse those for the NHL in the U.S.

To which hockey fans will fire back with our usual rejoinder: Hey, imagine if those ratings counted six of the most motivated fan bases in the League that are located in Canada and are out of the equation?

Including Montreal and Toronto in the attendance fight put the NHL either neck-and-neck or over the top against the NBA. Fact is that leaving them out of the television picture would be like the NBA not having New York and Los Angeles in its ratings game.

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