The Stanley Cup Final pairs the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings -- a commissioner's dream considering the top two television markets in the country are involved in a championship series. NBC, which controls the broadcast rights of the NHL, should be ecstatic about the coverage. The drawback is that NHL hockey has never achieved the depth of market penetration in Southern California that is present in major hockey cities in the Midwest and East Coast.
Attendance is heavy for the Kings and the Ducks, but it hasn't translated into widespread viewership. Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, NBCSN's most heavily watched non-Olympic broadcast ever, was a thrilling overtime match. It had a 22.7 household rating in Chicago, but only a 4.8 in Los Angeles.
I grew up in Los Angeles without much awareness of hockey. There was no professional team present in the 60s. It does not snow in Los Angeles. Our elementary school would design a field trip to take students up to the mountains so they could experience the snow. We were so delighted to see it, we would fill a cup full to show our parents. Unfortunately the bus ride took several hours and the snow reverted to its natural form. I did not know anyone who ice skated. Hockey was never available as a television option the way that MLB, the NBA and the NFL were.
The Kings understood the dilemma and provided the best hockey player ever -- Wayne Gretzky -- to popularize hockey. Southern California loves handsome, articulate stars and he certainly fit the bill. The Ducks were marketed by Disney and had Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Both teams have won Stanley Cup championships. There are legions of loyal fans in Southern California, but not at the numbers of the other major sports.
The Kings' championship in 2012 over the New Jersey Devils should have led to more excitement. Had it been a movie, the screen would have faded to black with a new relationship between hockey and the region. Then the NHL did what it has done before -- it committed sports suicide with a protracted lockout. Every time the sport catches fire in the Sun Belt area of the country, the NHL stultifies the growth with a self-destructive labor dispute.
The Kings are playing incredibly exciting hockey. Their unwillingness to quit notwithstanding the challenge of coming from behind makes them a perfect team to follow. It would behoove the hockey teams in Southern California to embark on a major education and marketing program to increase fan interest.
Individual players need to be marketed without their helmets on. A simple explanation of the rules would work wonders. This market has a huge Latino population, and they also grow up without much exposure to hockey. Instead of ridiculing the hockey unfamiliarity present in large parts of the Sun Belt, teams and the league can work to promote the product.
This is the best opportunity that the NHL may ever have to extend its reach. A CBA is in place so there will be no interruption of play. The two largest markets in the country are involved. They each have exciting teams. NBC pioneered the use of "back story" to popularize the Olympics. Destiny is calling.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.
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