The Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were going to be a tough sell as a Stanley Cup Final.
Neither team has the enormous national fan support that Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston had. Neither team was among the top seeds in their conference. Casual fans in the U.S. have been taught for 20 years that the Devils are tedious. The Los Angeles Kings' pursuit of their first Stanley Cup doesn't resonate like the Cup droughts in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston did.
So far, the viewership isn't there for the series. Game 1 hit a five-year low for a Stanley Cup Final game. The fast national ratings for Game 2 averaged 2.54 million viewers on Saturday night; initially, that's down from the 2.9 million viewers for Game 1, but when West Coast viewership is factored in expect the final rating to rise.
But despite the New York and Los Angeles markets, this Cup Final has started slowly. Adrian Dater of the Denver Post believes this is a referendum on the NHL's ability to market star players, and those star players' ability to market themselves.
There are a couple of thoughts in this Dater column from Sunday. The first one is a good one: That NHL players don't promote themselves, and then blame the NHL for a lack of national recognition of their talents. From Dater:
Maybe the ratings will improve as the series goes along, but don't count on it. Should NHL players make spectacles of themselves with outrageous comments and/or be selfish self-promoters? Well, I don't want that, really. But if you want to be noticed in this country, to get people talking and tuning in, you can't be too vanilla.
This has been the NHL Players' Association's problem for a long time, and until hockey figures out how to stand out more, it will continue to get ratings near the bottom of the big-sports totem pole.
Dater's right that the "logo on the front, not the name on the back" culture of the NHL prevents players from becoming the outsized personalities we see in other U.S. sports, which is how players become catnip for SportsCenter. To that end, humility will always be the most endearing and frustrating quality of the modern NHL player.
But there are other challenges inherent in marketing star players in the NHL. Most prominently is the "familiarity with the game" problem.
Sports producers don't know hockey well enough to program the NHL; would a swaggering personality cure that allergy?
Casual fans in the U.S. likely have a cursory understanding and experience playing football, basketball, baseball and even soccer. Then they see Adrian Peterson break through the defensive line or Albert Pujols hit a home run, they understand the difficulty and appreciate the talent in that feat. A hockey fan drools when watching what Drew Doughty did against the Devils in Game 2; the nuance of it might be lost on a casual fan that's never picked up a stick, no matter what Doughty says in a postgame press conference.
Factor in xenophobia about hockey itself and the men who play it ("Kovalchuk? Kopitar? Give me Brady and James and Rodriguez!"). Factor in that star offensive players in hockey are off the playing surface for nearly two thirds of the game. Factor in other challenges, and marketing hockey players isn't exactly like selling plastic surgery to soap stars.
That's where Dater's a little off the mark:
"The lousy ratings prop up the larger truth: Big markets don't make for big TV ratings — big stars make for big ratings."
Big markets? No, not necessarily. But neither do big stars.
Important franchises with compelling stories do.
The last four Stanley Cup finals had some star players (Sidney Crosby) but more so had some star teams. The Red Wings, Penguins, Blackhawks, Flyers, Bruins and Canucks evoke an emotional response from fans; whether it's because of their prestige or hate-factor or emotional baggage from other sports rivalries. (Seriously, rooting against Boston is a regional pastime in parts of the Northeast.)
The Devils evoke apathy, even more now that Philadelphia and New York Rangers fans have tuned out after being turned out of the postseason by New Jersey. They're also not good enough to play Wicked Stepmother to the Kings' potential Cinderella, subverting that narrative.
In the end, it's like any great Hollywood drama: You need a strong script and compelling actors that make you stare at the screen. Steve Lepore of SB Nation believes that the NHL has done a poor job with promoting both for this Stanley Cup Final:
Every year, baseball gets more and more vanilla and the ratings for the regular season games head closer and closer to hockey's. But their World Series is still capable of drawing 25 million viewers, as it did last year. Because of the narratives. Albert Pujols' potential last hurrah with the Cardinals, the Rangers looking for redemption after last year's loss, "Holy Crap Game 6!".
Hockey should've have been hitting home things like Carter and Richards, Brodeur's last chance at glory, both captains are stars from that American Olympic team you all loved so much (and drew 27 million viewers on NBC), Anze Kopitar is freaky awesome. But no, we get those vague "Because It's The Cup" ads. The NHL says the Stanley Cup is it's best draw, but only because they've never actually tried promoting the guys who try to win it. That's what TV's about, whether it's Heroes or hockey heroes and villains.
The problem is that Carter and Richards are compelling to hockey fans. Casual fans, meanwhile, respond to big shiny things: Like the Stanley Cup, for example, which the NHL found in its market research was pretty much the only thing the casuals knew about hockey. So it's promoted the trophy and the tournament.
Why do people watch the World Series? "Because It's The World Series", to paraphrase the NHL ad campaign. Ditto the NBA Final. The NHL is working hard to make its tournament and final round an institution for U.S. sports fans. It's a slow build.
Lepore's right: There have been narratives squandered here. Los Angeles's First Cup, In a City of Champions. Old Hall of Famer's Last Chance. Maybe even Cinderella Kings.
But the best, more compelling narratives are the ones grown organically within the context of a series that augment what we already know about these teams. Blue-collar Bruins vs. Evil Canucks was interesting; it took over the hockey world in Game 3 of last year's Final thanks to this, with one team leading 2-0 in the series:
The star appeal of the players didn't make Vancouver vs. Boston must-see. It was the story they told. Entering tonight's Game 3 in Los Angeles, there's still time for a narrative to form for the Kings and Devils.