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The National Hockey League (NHL) announced earlier this week that 19-year-old TikTok celebrity, Josh Richards, had been appointed as a special adviser to the league.
In this new advisory role, Richards will help create content for the league and make appearances at marquee NHL events, but ultimately, his mandate is simple — to help the NHL grow its youth audience.
The interesting part: Whether it's because he never played competitive hockey at a high level, makes “stupid” lipsync videos for a living on TikTok, or people simply believe that there were better options, NHL fans are furious at the decision.
For example, the NHL.com Twitter account averages less than a combined 100 likes, comments, and retweets per post, but when they tweeted out the announcement, they received almost 4,000 likes, comments, and retweets on that single post — 99% of which were extremely negative.
Comments ranged from “The NHL is embarrassing” & “I’m never watching hockey again” to “This league is an absolute joke” & “You think THIS GUY will bring fans to hockey? lmao, man cmon.”
But I think they are wrong, and here’s why.
First, let’s start with a wild stat. The 2020 Stanley Cup Finals averaged 953,000 viewers per game, while Josh Richards averages over 3 million views on a single TikTok video.
Sure, it’s not exactly comparable, but you get the point — Josh Richards has built one of the largest & most engaged social platforms in the world at just 19-years-old.
TikTok: 25.4 million followers
Instagram: 7.3 million followers
YouTube: 2.4 million followers
Twitter: 2 million followers
In total, Richards has more than 37 million followers across the four main social platforms, and I’d *estimate* he does somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion monthly impressions. For context, that would put him well within the top 1% of all social media accounts globally.
Even more interesting? The majority of his 37 million followers are 16 to 24 years old, exactly where the NHL is lacking.
Generally speaking, all major US professional sports leagues have struggled with attracting younger fans. According to a recent study by Morning Consult, almost 50% of Gen Z respondents (Age 13-23) said they don’t even consider themselves sports fans.
But specifically speaking, the National Hockey League (NHL) has struggled more than their US counterparts — the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, etc. — to attract a younger generation of fans. Yes, even Major League Baseball.
This chart is slightly outdated, so bear with me. But as you can see below, with their average fan just 33-years-old, the NHL had the youngest audience out of all of the major professional sports leagues in 2000.
But fast forward about two decades, and the average NHL fan is now almost 50 years old, accelerating at a much faster pace than the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and others.
As a result of the compounding impact of an aging fan demographic, combined with the inevitable financial stress caused by COVID-19, the economic health of the NHL has been shaken to its core.
2010: $3.1 billion
2015: $4.1 billion
2019: $5.1 billion
2020: $4.4 billion
Not only did overall NHL revenue dip 14% last year, returning to levels not seen since 2016, but after seeing average franchise valuations rise from $148 million to $667 million from 2000 to 2019, the average NHL franchise declined in value for the first time in 20 years last year — falling 2% on average to $653 million.
Even worse, despite a 100-year head start, multiple MLS clubs are now more valuable than the average NHL team.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily saying Josh Richards was the perfect pick or that he is going to solve all the NHL’s problems.
They just doubled their media rights, from about $300 million annually to more than $600 million. That will have a much bigger impact than an advisory position ever could. Not to mention some fans wanted a person of color, another area that the NHL lacks, which certainly would’ve made sense also.
But when you look at the data, the structural issues are apparent. More than any other major US professional sports league, the NHL needs to create foundational change that attracts a younger demographic of viewers towards the sport.
Josh Richards and his 37 million Generation Z followers will help with that.
It’s Independence Day this weekend here in the US, so I’ll be off on Monday. I hope everyone has a fantastic weekend, and I’ll talk to everyone on Tuesday.
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