The NHL Needs a Slapshot of Youth - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A young fan awaits warm-ups before an NHL game.
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Can hockey’s humble, anti-diva identity connect with Gen Z viewers?

By Matt Foley

Player A is a prolific scorer. In 2017, the flashy 22-year-old center became the first teenager ever to score 40 goals in a season. His stick-twirling goal celebrations appear in NHL 2K, but fans still wonder if he cares about playing defense, as if that matters.

Player B is the second-youngest captain in NHL history and is the youngest player ever to win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and World Championship. His nickname is Captain Serious. What he lacks in speed and precision scoring he makes up for in effort on both ends of the ice. 

Who is the more popular player? 

If you guessed Player B (Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews), you’d be correct. Perhaps no major sport preaches “team first” and selfless ideals more than hockey, and self-aggrandizing stars are, if anything, frowned upon. But that might spell trouble for the league’s future. For Player A (Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews) to one day catch Toews, he’ll need to change his style of play or hope for a seismic shift in NHL fandom. That’s because:

The average age of NHL fans has risen 16 years since 2000 — the biggest increase of any major sport.

And old fans value substance over sizzle. It should be noted that nearly all sports have seen a rise in the average age of television viewers. As younger fans shift to digital platforms, that’s natural. But the NHL has among the fastest-growing average age of fans in professional sports. That’s according to a 2017 study from Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, which looked at 24 professional sports and found hockey’s aging fan base to be an obvious indicator of the league’s stagnation. The median age for an NHL fan in 2016 was 49. In 2000, it was 33. Only wrestling fans saw their median age increase by more (by 26 years, to age 54), and wrestling — as we all must admit — is not a sport.

One thing we know for sure? NHL fans are undoubtedly loyal. They fill arenas, so much so that last season the NHL’s total attendance (just over 22 million) was more than that of the NBA (21.93 million) and the NFL (17.18 million, albeit with far fewer games). But the lack of new fans does not bode well for the NHL’s future.

Much like Major League Baseball, the NHL has launched a concerted effort to better market its biggest stars. But, in some ways, this runs contrary to the traditional ideals of hockey, and it threatens to drive away the older contingent of fans committed to the sport. So be it. The NBA and NFL have done this with great success and seen their television audiences get younger and increasingly engage with sports on social media.

There’s no question that the league has figured out how to get younger — on the ice. Decades of expansion into states like California, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida have bred a new generation of stars from nontraditional hockey regions. NHL style of play has also adapted: Rosters league-wide are younger than ever before, and a fast-paced playing style that appeals to younger fans has taken center stage. 

NHL: OCT 05 Canucks at Flames

A young fan cuddles a Calgary Flames teddy bear awaiting a matchup between the Flames and the Vancouver Canucks.

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And yet, the NHL is still looking for ways to connect young superstars like Jack Eichel, 22, and Patrik Laine, 21, with young fans who couldn’t pick them out of a lineup. For years, the NHL has been notorious for controlling its own content. The NHL relies heavily on league-produced video features and written content and has long believed that, unlike fans of other sports, hockey fans seek out the league homepage as their primary news source. That may be true of the older generation, but the NHL may also be losing young, highly media-savvy sports fans because of it. By not heavily marketing its stars to casual fans, the NHL suffers the same troubling fate as the MLB: Casual sports fans don’t know Connor McDavid from Joc Pederson from Brayden Point. 

Only two of those athletes are hockey players. Do you know which?

The NBA, unlike other major leagues, has become so approachable in part because of the access it allows. That stance is most apparent on social media, where “NBA Twitter” has become a phenomenon. The league makes no attempt to crack down on the spread of highlights, leaving millions of fans to engage with every thunderous dunk in real time. The result? Passion. A few recent developments signal that the NHL may be following suit.  

This September, the NHL announced a partnership with social media marketing platform Opendorse to help players build their personal brands and increase fan engagement. All 31 teams can now quickly and easily send players photos, videos or GIFs, tailored to effectively engage their audiences. Players can then edit the messages at their discretion. In other words, the NHL and Opendorse are finally aiding the evolution of its players from indistinguishable brutes to internet influencers. It’s a smart, logical move — but the first NHL star to go full YouTube vlogger (smart money’s on Matthews) will still be fun to laugh at.

“You’re starting to see guys be promoted a little more and more former players embrace media roles like podcasting away from the broadcasting booth,” says Vincent LoVerde, a minor league defenseman in the New York Rangers organization. “It’s great to see some individual personalities come out. But not too many guys want to document their every move.” 

The targeted engagement doesn’t end on social media. As OZY has reported, NHL 2K streamers are now being sponsored like the league’s actual All-Stars. In 2020, the NHL will host its third annual NHL Gaming World Championships, a four-month-long tournament featuring the top NHL 2K gamers from America, Canada and Europe. The 2019 edition of the final event in Las Vegas drew 632,907 unique viewers on Twitch, nearly three times last year’s total. For a young fan base, these streaming gamers are stars in their own right, pushing hundreds of thousands of young fans toward NHL-owned content and, ideally, actual hockey itself. It’s yet another attempt to change who watches the sport, and how they do so. 

“Esports is another way to connect millennials and Gen Z fans with our game,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters at last year’s event. “This is resonating with people who are looking to connect with hockey through our video game.”

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