Canucks and Beyond

Hockey and Perception

02/20/2008 at 4:18pm EST

Yesterday, the

Washington Post’s

(oops!) Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy”, Carl Bialik, insisted that “Reports of Basketball’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.” He was responding to the widely quoted Harris Report that found that the popularity of hockey had surpassed that of the NBA and college basketball.

There is some actual reason for worry: Over the life of the poll, the NBA and college basketball really have been slipping in popularity. But the reaction was also overblown. The poll didn’t measure overall popularity. It was also constructed in a way that gave certain advantages to hockey over hoops. And the much-touted difference between hockey and its hardwood competitors was negligible.

It was also Bialik who, last June, challenged the findings of another large-scale survey that indicated there are over 49 million people with an interest in hockey, a survey the NHL was quick to quote in its favor.

In Bialik’s words:

Scarborough found just 8.3 million American adults were “very” interested in the NHL. Another 13.5 million were “somewhat” interested. To approach 50 million requires counting the other 27.5 million who said they are “a little bit” interested. Apparently a little bit of interest doesn’t translate into switching on the television to watch free broadcasts of the season’s most important games.

The NHL’s sales pitch on those stats was admittedly a bit liberal (eg. Gary Bettman is quoted saying that the sport has “somewhere around 50 million fans”). But that same data can be (and is) interpreted as such for the other major sports as well. An even playing field across the board, albeit a self-aggrandizing one.

Look, I don’t grasp the fine complexities of statistical analysis all that well, but from a layman’s point of view, I do think the effort to knock down the NHL—and the positive spin they understandably choose to put on such numbers—seems to be a matter of journalistic habit in some cases. And I think that habit is born of the widely-accepted belief/perception that hockey is disliked, even before the statistics have been interpreted at all.

In NHL Digest yesterday, Tyler McKinna reminded me of how an entirely different perception of the statistics can change how we look at the sport, and quoted NBA owner Mark Cuban’s assessment from a year ago:

“People in the States underestimate (hockey),” he said. “More people watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights than watch NBA basketball on Thursday night in the States. People in the U.S. don’t realize that. They don’t realize there are more hockey fans in a country of (32.8) million than there are NBA fans in the U.S. (population 300 million).

“I’d be out there promoting the NHL’s combined TV viewer ship in the U.S. and Canada. But it doesn’t happen.”

What a good idea that would be. But of course, it would still just be a matter of perception.

No matter how you look at it, all this stuff, it’s just lies, damned lies, and statistics… as the saying goes.

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