United States hockey participation is a fickle beast. Sometimes the year-to-date numbers soar, other times they simply plateau. Nonetheless, they are worth paying attention to especially in states where hockey is supposedly in its “grassroots” stages in 2014.
When football, basketball, baseball, and soccer all trump the attention of the kiddos when it comes to competitive sports, you are never going to assume that sticks and pucks are the dreamiest of sporting endeavors. Yet we always want the number to go up, because like me, we all realize that hockey is an incredible tool for instructing teamwork, hard work, and character building. Iron sharpens iron, and very few sports churn out better team-minded players than hockey.
But something odd has happened in the state I call home. Over the last year, registered participants of U.S. Hockey has dropped sharply – 32.2% to be exact. Chris Peters, in a post yesterday at United States of Hockey mentioned each state, their “plus or minus”, and a bit of commentary. On Oklahoma:
Total Players: 738 (-32.2%)
National Rank: 47
Notes: This was a bit disappointing to see as Oklahoma hasn’t been under 1,000 players in some time. I was wondering if the Oklahoma City Oil Barons would have much impact on growth in the state, but as this shows, the answer is no. OKC is near the bottom in attendance in the AHL as well.
Ouch. He continues:
Only 16 states saw a decline in hockey participation last season, with seven of those seeing a decline of 1 percent or less. Oklahoma had the greatest percentage of decline (-32.2%), while Michigan lost the most players in total (1,344).
Ten-Year Growth: 466 (74.8%)
Five-Year Growth: 31 (2.93%)
This is a serious problem, and one that sort of catches me off guard. How does a state WITH an AHL team in its largest city somehow manage to lose the greatest percentage of players? A couple of things worth considering.
First, Oklahoma isn’t a huge state. The 28th largest state with a population under 4,000,000 means there aren’t a lot of bodies. When it comes to sports, they are the third smallest metro area that hosts an NBA team. Oklahoma City indeed is the largest city in the state, but it’s metro area posts just over a million. Simply put, this is a small state. But remember we are talking about percentages here, so the population density argument is thrown out the window.
Second, hockey had a niche market before the NBA rolled in to town. Early on in the re-development of downtown Oklahoma City, before Katrina and the eventual nurturing of the Oklahoma City Hornets, the city was pushing for a hockey team. Bound and determined to earn the right to be considered, based on an 8,000 average of CHL games, and the success of hockey for quite some time in the state. The southwest was supposed to be a goldmine. Then the city turned its attention towards the NBA, and the rest is history. What happened was simple. The cornerstone sport of college football still remained (in huge numbers), but a post-Fall / Winter sport emerged that crippled anything even remotely competing. Like, say, a hockey team playing across the street. The timing was awful for the Oklahoma City Barons, and both the attendance numbers, and the hockey participation numbers agree. The niche market of hockey is gone, people are spending their hard earned cash elsewhere, and it seems that AHL hockey is about ten years too late in inserting themselves into the entertainment avenue in Oklahoma.
Third, it is not all doom and gloom. Despite the severity of this drop when compared to last season, there is a glimmer of hope. Hockey is an expensive sport, one of the most expensive in fact . The economic downturn seemed to quietly creep its way into the middle of the U.S. later than the rest of the country. Perhaps the sport just got too expensive, too fast for some people. In addition, the marketability of the Barons hasn’t been highly successful, even ownership has admitted that. The floor hockey program, inserted by the Barons in to schools, rec programs, etc. is one way that the exploration of hockey can continue. Yet it isn’t enough. Kids and adults are still missing the opportunity to enjoy a sport like hockey.
In the end I remain hopeful that this number jumps, but the blowback of a highly successful NBA team with decades upon decades of college football (which is my first love) hardwired to the community has hockey becoming an increasingly tougher sell. Is it really important that the US Hockey numbers go up? I think it is, especially if the state of the NHL is still to grow (and the AHL for that matter). You would think that the Olympics on the horizon would help, and maybe we see rebounded totals in the next reporting year. I hope so. Regardless, this is a setback, and one that still has me scratching my head.