Hockey fans in the U.S. take what we can get when it comes to validation of our sport's popularity.
We celebrate minimal upticks in television ratings that still put the NHL behind children's cartoon shows on cable. We beam when there's an NHL jersey or reference spotted in a mainstream sitcom or movie. We treat that Sports Illustrated cover story from nearly 20 years ago — "Why The NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not" — as proof that we were one lockout away from capturing the hearts and minds of U.S. sports fans.
So allow us the delusion that this new Harris Poll provides. In its annual examination of what American fans deem their "favorite" sports, football is king, baseball is fading, and hockey has just as many favorites as basketball — pro or college. Huzzah!
Here's how the new poll shakes out, via Harris Interactive's 2,237 adults surveyed online:
Over one-third of adults who follow at least one sport (36%) say professional football is their favorite sport while just 13% say baseball is their favorite. The gap between the two sports has widened in the past year — last year 31% said pro football was their favorite while 17% said baseball was their favorite sport.
Looking at how other sports fared, just over one in ten sports fans (13%) say college football is their favorite sport while 8% say it is auto racing, 5% each say men's professional basketball, men's college basketball and hockey. All other sports are favorites for 2% or less of sports fans.
This is hockey's popularity tracking since 1985 for fans that are asked the question: "If you had to choose, which ONE of these sports would you say is your favorite?"
So what does this prove?
For one, that hockey has developed a core group of fans who will support the game with fervor. Since 2004, hockey hasn't dipped below 4-percent support.
So hockey has a devoted following, much like auto racing. Unlike auto racing, it hasn't had peak year where popularity spiked.
The poll also concerns "favorite sport"; not "favorite to watch" or "favorite to play," but one assumes a combination of the two. Might hockey's uptick in recent years have anything to do with increased popularity as a participatory sport in the U.S.?
But insofar as the popularity of hockey vs. basketball … OK, it's a bit of wishful thinking to say pucks are as popular as roundball. The more accurate headline might have been: "Don't tell ESPN, but new poll finds hockey as popular as basketball in U.S. (in that they're both not as popular as football)"
Every metric from TV ratings to gate attendance to national media attention to star power tips in the favor of pro hoops. And while the Stanley Cup Playoffs are, in our completely biased opinion, the greatest annual tournament in sports, there are probably a few more March Madness brackets in circulation inside U.S. offices than Stanley Cup fantasy pools.
So while hockey has as many "favorites" as basketball, the evidence points to basketball being more popular — be it pro, college or on a participatory level.
The point, however, is that hockey is in the national sports conversation while some media consider it an afterthought. Like, for example, the television folks in Bristol.