Be it on ice, hardwood or grass, June is finals season. With the help of Google News Lab Sports Gazette analyses the popularity of three major sports using the finals of each as a benchmark.
The NHL is a provincial competition when cast alongside European Football and the NBA. Despite the NHL Finals already being two games into a potential seven game series, the interest in the showcase is proven to be local by Google Trends.
During the last seven days, Canada and small pockets of Scandinavia show more interest in the on-going NHL Finals than the NBA Finals due to start this week.
A game predominated by North American players, it seems fitting that the majority of the world’s interest over the last five years has been from Canada and America.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been pivotal in the league's stagnant international affairs. While rival organisations such as NFL and NBA stage annual regular season fixtures on foreign soil, hockey elects to stay at home.
Despite the last NHL international series taking place back in 2011, signs are positive with two regular season fixtures scheduled to take place in Sweden November 2017. Additionally, the league saw the first-ever Chinese-born player, Andong Song, drafted back in 2015 by the New York Islanders.
While only a fifth round pick, Song’s presence in the league has prompted Bettman to reach out to Asia to increase the game’s interest by staging exhibition games September 2017 in Bejing and Shanghai.
Hockey will likely never compete with basketball or football. Indeed, Google Trends suggests there is an overall decline in interest in the game’s showcase event.
Many hockey fans feel the season is simply too long, and if the Stanley Cup was hoisted in late April or May these trends could prove very different.the NBA is now televised in 215 countries around the world in 43 languages.”
In contrast to hockey, the NBA is proven to be an increasingly popular sport with a growing international audience. Despite a 2014 dip in popularity, in part due to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the hoop game goes from strength to strength.
Where many believe Bettman has held hockey back, previous and current NBA commissioner’s David Stern and Adam Silver respectively, have taken huge strides to spread the word of basketball to all corners of the earth.
Appointed commissioner in 1984, Stern boosted league interest by setting up training camps, playing exhibition games around the world, and recruiting more international players. Stern’s legacy is best illustrated by his first and last NBA drafts.
In 1984 the first name he called up to the stage was Nigerian Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon, and his last ever being that of Serbian Nemanja Nedović – an indication of why the game is now televised in 215 countries around the world in 43 languages.
The NBA’s best asset is its ability to build and improve its product both on and off the court each year. New commissioner Silver is a progressive thinker capable of growing the game while being equally adept at tackling the league's unpredictable off-court controversies.
Less than three months after his 2014 appointment, Silver took strong action in banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following recorded racist outbursts. Sterling was also fined a maximum $2.5million and expelled from any future involvement with the NBA. The new commissioner was also quick to support NBA official Billy Kennedy after he was subject to homophobic abuse from then-Sacramento Kings point guard Rajon Rondo.
The NBA’s recent popularity explosion makes it a worthy competitor of the ‘world game’ football. Given that football is played the world over with a multitude of leagues and tournaments at club and international level, it makes a direct comparison hard to make. However, as the annual showcase event, the UEFA Champions League is the best barometer against which the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals should be compared.
The results are startling with the NBA appearing to have a vastly more popular final. Indeed, researching the three leagues themselves even supports the notion the NBA and NHL garner more web interest than the UEFA Champions League. This interest peaks around the festive period when the NBA stages three highlight fixtures on Christmas day while the rest of the sporting calendar draws a blank – another intelligent decision by the NBA to edge out its competitors.
If like me you thought football would run out as the internet’s favourite sport of the three, rest assured, normal business is resumed when each of the game's superstars, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lebron James and Sidney Crosby, are pitted against each other. Ronaldo emerges as the most popular by a considerable distance regarding numbers and the myriad of global locations interested in the Portuguese sensation.
It’s questionable how much the NHL wants to grow outside of North America. Should the league appoint a more forward thinking commissioner, they could learn a lesson or two with regards to attracting a global audience. The folks at FIFA need not worry. Internet searches are one measure of a sport’s stature but in reality football’s sheer accessibility enables it to stand out as the most popular sport in the world.