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When fans of football and hockey compare their two favorite sports, it’s usually just to figure out which game is more brutal.
And there’s absolutely zero consensus as to which sport delivers the most punishment.
Football fans argue that NFL players are bigger on average and get hit on every play, which is true. Hockey fans come back with how much faster NHL players are traveling on ice when they slam into each other and how dangerous a puck is to unprotected body parts when flying around at 100 mph. Also true.
Which league bangs more heads?
Tough to precisely measure, but experts now estimate NFL players suffered 271 concussions in practices, preseason and regular games back in 2015, whereas NHL players suffered an average of 70 concussions per year from 1997 to 2004.
No doubt to most casual observers, both football and hockey are similarly brutal, but the two sports are definitely different in a lot of ways, especially at the professional level:
And the list of differences goes on and on.
Especially when it comes to comparing the business aspects of the NFL and the NHL.
Which league makes more revenue?
Which sport do more Americans prefer in 2018?
Which league is better preparing themselves for worldwide domination?
In this article, we’re going to answer those questions and a whole lot more as we examine and compare the NFL and the NHL – their revenue, salaries, viewership, attendance and ratings – and try to figure out which sports league is better positioning itself to be number one in America and in the world.
Let’s start by comparing each league’s revenue.
Since there are only 256 regular-season NFL games each year and 1,271 NHL matchups, you’d think that the bigger overall revenue stream would go to hockey.
But it doesn’t.
Last season, the NFL made $14 billion in total revenue, which was over $900 million more than they made the season before and a $6 billion increase from 2010.
On the other hand, NHL Commissioner Gary Gettman predicted the 2018 season revenues to be $4.54 billion, up 8.2% from the 2017 season when they made a total of $4.196 billion.
The NFL averages more sponsorship revenue, as well.
NFL sponsorship revenue reached $1.32 billion in the 2017-18 season, with beer, trucks and fast food being among the largest spenders.
NHL sponsorship revenue was $559.5 million for the 2017-18 season, with Adidas, Hulu, Great Clips, and Oikos (the official yogurt of the NHL in Canada) being the major spenders.
The main purpose of revenue sharing is to set up measures that allow richer and poorer teams to compete with each other on semi-equal footing.
Of the $14 billion that the NFL made last season, mostly from national media deals, they distributed more than half of it to its individual franchises.
Last season, every NFL team received $226.4 million in national revenue sharing, which comes out to more than $7.2 billion across the league.
Revenue sharing came into the NHL beginning in 2005-06.
SBNation describes the NHL revenue sharing system as:
The financial mechanism which enables the Salary Cap, by taking money in part from teams that could afford to spend much more than the Cap (Toronto, the New York Rangers, Montreal, etc.) and distributing it to those which need help to fill out a roster that at least sits somewhere in the bottom half of the payroll range (Phoenix, Columbus, Carolina, Florida, Nashville, etc.).
The NHL revenue sharing totals are miniscule when compared to the NFL.
For example, during the 2012 season, the NHL shared only 4.5% of its $3.3 billion in revenue, which came out to be a total of $150 million split between all the teams who qualified.
This one isn’t even close.
The Super Bowl actually brings in more revenue than both the NHL Playoffs and the MLB Playoffs combined.
Last season, the revenue from Super Bowl LII easily surpassed $500 million. Ad spending alone for in-game spots exceeded $400 million, as it did the previous season. Anheuser-Busch InBev and Fiat Chrysler Automotive were the top-spending parent companies in that game.
It’s a lot harder to track the total revenue of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals since each season it lasts anywhere from four games (if it’s a sweep) to seven games, and obviously the more games there are, the more money there is to be made by everyone.
Some more cynical fans suspect the reason some series go longer is because everyone wants to make more money.
The easiest way to compare the revenue potential of the two championships is by looking at how much each charges for an advertisement.
The cost of a 30-second commercial during the 2017 Super Bowl was $5.02 million, while during the Stanley Cup playoffs, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) charges $40,000 for the same 30-second spot.
When it comes to team worth, the NFL has a huge advantage over the NHL.
The average NFL team is worth $2.5 billion and according to Forbes Magazine that’s up 8% over last year. All but five of the NFL teams are worth at least $2 billion.
For the eleventh year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s most valuable team and the world’s most valuable franchise. They’re worth $4.8 billion, and that’s up 14%. The Buffalo Bills are last on the list with a value of $1.6 billion.
The average NHL team is now worth $594 million, up 15 percent from a year ago.
The New York Rangers are the NHL’s most valuable team worth $1.5 billion. Bringing up the NHL rear are the Arizona Coyotes, worth $300 million.
The NFL hasn’t done as much as the NHL to reach international audiences, and that’s one of the factors that’s hurting its overall numbers. The one region they’re focusing on?
The United Kingdom.
According to the Econ Review, NFL viewers in the United Kingdom increased by 60% in 2017, not an easy feat given that rugby is the primary sport known to those English sports fans.
In 2018, there are three NFL games scheduled to be played in the U.K.:
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he wants the league to put together a “predictable calendar” of international games each year, and he’s followed through with that this season.
At the start of the year, the Edmonton Oilers will face the New Jersey Devils in Sweden, while in November the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers will play two games in Finland.
Also, two international preseason games are already scheduled, with more possibly on the way. The Oilers will play an exhibition game in Germany at the end of training camp, and the Devils will play one in Switzerland.
TSN’s Darren Dreger also reports the NHL and NHLPA are trying to reach an agreement for a two-game series in China between the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings played two preseason matchups in China in September 2017.
And if you count Canada as an international audience, the NHL seems to have the NFL beat in this category.
First year players in the NFL can expect to make an average of $365,000 per year, and that constantly rises anywhere from $5 to $10 thousand per year. Rookies make their big money through bonuses, including a roster bonus, a signing bonus, contact incentives and a few other formats.
Rookies typically start off at the NFL minimum, but exceptions are made for exceptional players. For example, this year Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield signed a four-year deal worth $32.68 million (with a $21.85 million signing bonus) and running back Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants agreed to a contract worth $31.2 million (with a $20.77 million signing bonus).
The average salary of a typical NFL player is $1.9 million per year while the average salary for an NFL quarterback is about $4 million per year. The top ten highest-paid NFL athletes are all quarterbacks – the biggest salaries going to Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons who makes an average of $30 million per season plus $5 million in endorsements and Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings who makes $28 million per season plus about $1 to $1.5 million in endorsements.
(For a complete list of the NFL’s top ten highest players, check out our in-depth article on all ten of those athletic millionaires.)
The minimum salary in the NHL for the 2017-18 season is $650,000, which is what the average rookie can expect.
The average salary of a typical NHL player is $2.4 million. The top paid professional hockey player is center Connor McDavid, who last year signed an eight-year contract extension with the Edmonton Oilers for $100 million, or $12.5 million per year. Add to that his deal with equipment manufacturer CCM Hockey, which is reportedly worth C$1M, though both CCM and McDavid’s agent, Jeff Jackson, “balk at that figure.”
The previous record for NHL average annual salary was held by Chicago Blackhawks teammates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at $10.5 million.
It actually comes down to basic math.
There are 32 NFL teams with 53-man rosters, so that’s 1,696 players getting a share of endorsements and league revenue.
In the NHL, there are 31 teams but each normally has 20 players and at least 2 goalkeepers on their roster, so there are only 682 total NHL players vying for salary and endorsement deals.
Another place that makes a difference is with revenue sharing.
As a result of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the NFL currently shares 48.5 percent of all league revenue with its players. In 2017, the NFL ownership kept just over $8 billion in revenue for themselves, while the players took just less than that.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement for the NHL, the players receive 50 percent of hockey-related revenue. Half of 2018’s revenue of $4.54 billion would be $2.27 billion shared.
That’s a lot less revenue than the NFL gets to share, but there are a whole lot more football players than hockey players, so each piece of the NFL revenue pie turns out to be larger than the NHL slice.
League revenues are split between 1,696 total players in the NFL, while in the NHL it’s split between 682 players.
$8 billion / 1,696 = $4.717 million per NFL player.
$2.27 billion / 682 = $3.328 million per NHL player.
There’s no doubt NFL viewership is going down according to Austin Karp of the Sports Business Daily.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football, ESPN’s Monday Night Football and the shared Thursday Night Football package (between NBC, CBS, NFL Network and Amazon) all declined in viewership for the second straight season.
The raw numbers (avg. viewership):
|NBC’s Sunday Night Football|
|ESPN’s Monday Night Football|
|Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network)|
So how do those declining NFL viewership numbers compare to the NHL?
It’s not even close.
According to Sports Media Watch, last season NHL viewership hit a multi-year low in the regular season.
NHL regular-season games averaged 417,000 viewers across NBC, NBCSN and NBC’s digital platforms, down 12% from last year (474K). Sports Business Daily notes that it was the lowest average since at least 2010-11.
It’s estimated that 103.4 million people worldwide watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII last season. The season before that saw slightly higher numbers when 111.3 viewers tuned in to Super Bowl LI.
The 2017 Stanley Cup six-game final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators averaged a total audience of 4.762 million viewers, up 19% vs. 2016. The final matchup, game 6, had nearly 9.5 viewers.
By the way, the Pittsburgh Penguins won that game by a score of 2-0 to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
This part of the contest goes to the NHL. The reason?
Attendance is a numbers game, and with more actual games being played in the NHL than in the NFL, it’s actually surprising that the totals are even this close.
Last season, 17,253,425 people attended NFL games, while 22,174,263 NHL fans went to games. Yes, the NHL attracted 5 million more people than the NFL, but that’s not as many per matchup as one would think given the big difference in the number of games each league plays per season.
Here’s the math:
The NFL has 32 teams, each plays 16 games, so that’s 256 games per season.
The NHL has 31 teams, each plays 82 games, so that’s 1,271 games per season.
So 17,253,425 NFL fans attended 256 games, so that’s an average of 67,396 people per game.
22,174,263 NHL fans attended 1,271 games, so that’s an average of 17,446 people per game.
And that’s the reason NHL games are played in arenas and NFL games are played in stadiums.
Obviously, adding more games to the NFL schedule would be financially beneficial to the league, but the violent nature of the sport of professional football prevents them from doing that.
Last season the average cost of an NFL ticket was $92.98 according to data from Team Marketing Report. That was up 8.3 percent from the previous season.
For a little over half the NHL teams, average ticket price is more than $100. The most expensive NHL tickets are to see the Montreal Canadiens ($195) and the least expensive were to see the Calgary Flames ($43).
The average cost of a Super Bowl LII ticket on secondary ticket providers like StubHub, Ticketmaster, TickPick and Vivid Seats was well over $5,000.
According to CNN, last season was unprecedented for Stanley Cup tickets. The lowest prices on TicketIQ were over $1,100 for the Stanley Cup Final. On Ticketmaster and StubHub, NHL tickets are priced at over $800.
On September 24, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted:
“…NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
Some numbers back him up on that, showing an 8% decline in attendance since the 2016 season. This is said to be due to both the sudden attention to concussions and the resulting CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) as well as from a negative response to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
(For more details on the players’ peaceful protest, please read our extensive article explaining the NFL kneeling controversy.)
Last season the NHL attendance was ‘flat’, with some teams experiencing decent gains while others had fairly large drops.
For example, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Blue Jackets attendance is up 15.1% — the biggest gain among NHL clubs. The Florida Panthers have seen the largest drop in attendance at 9.6%. The New York Islanders are down 5.9% to date for a league-low 11,686 per game.
According to the Nielsen Ratings, NFL television ratings fell 9.7 percent during the 2017-18 season. And that follows the 8 percent drop in ratings from the season prior.
The NHL, on the other hand, says the ratings of its NBC telecasts are up, but overall it was down. According to an SBJ analysis of local ratings for 22 of the 23 U.S.-based NHL teams (data on the Carolina Hurricanes was not available), there was a 10 percent year-over-year drop from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
The average NHL TV rating in 2017 for the Stanley Cup was a 2.7, whereas the prior season it was only a 2.3. Compare that to 2015 (3.2) and 2014 (3).
Not by a long shot.
The 2016-17 NHL regular season averaged 467,000 viewers across NBC and NBCSN, down 7% from last year (503K) and down 5% from 2015 (503K).
Now look at the NFL numbers and you’ll see they’re still the clear winner.
For example, a Week 17 regular-season game on FOX attracted 5.5 million viewers, while the least-watched game on CBS attracted 2.9 million viewers.
The highest watched regular-season NHL game this season was against the Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres which attracted 2.5 million viewers.
The highest watched regular-season NFL game last season was when the New England Patriots played the Pittsburg Steelers in December and attracted 26.88 million viewers.
If you go by the numbers, it’s not hard to see that the NFL is preferred by a lot more people than the NHL and the revenue generated seems to back that up.
Take a look.
|$14 billion||$4.54 billion|
|$1.32 billion||$559.5 million|
|Average Team Worth|
|$2.5 billion||$594 million|
|Average Salaries (Rookies)|
|$365,000 per year||$650,000 per season|
|Average Salaries (Player)|
|$1.9 million per year||$2.4 million|
|Average Salaries (Top Salary)|
|$30 million per season + $5 million in endorsements = $35 million||$12.5 million + C$1 million in endorsement deals = $13.5 million|
|NBC’s Sunday Night Football 18.175 million||417,000|
|ESPN’s Monday Night Football 10.757 million|
|Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network) 10.937 million|
|17,253,425 total||22.174.263 total|
|67,396 people per game||17,446 people per game|
|fell 9% in 2017||10% year-over-year drop from 2016-17 to 2017-18|
|Highest viewed game drew 26.88 million viewers||Highest viewed game drew 2.5 million viewers|
There’s no real comparison between the NFL and the NHL when it comes to which league draws more fans and which creates more revenue – the NFL is the hands-down winner of that competition since the NHL’s numbers are just a fraction of its football counterpart.
Except for total compensation.
Hockey players make more money on average, but they play a lot more games than football players do. An average hockey player makes $29,268 for every one of the 82 games he plays, while the average football player makes $118,750 each of the 16 times he steps onto the gridiron.
Fans of hockey are willing to pay more to see their team, but fans of football completely outnumber them. Owners of NFL teams make a lot more money, but NHL owners share less of their profits.
Hockey used to be relegated to cold climates, whereas football could always exist in the warm and the cold. But now with NHL franchises popping up in southern cities in Florida, the Carolinas and Texas, weather no longer dictates who gets to grow up being a fan of professional hockey or football.
Both football and hockey enjoy one similar thing, and that’s rabid fans who are willing to pay top dollar to see their team play and pay millions to wear their gear.
In the big picture, football still rules over hockey, but with the NHL’s superior efforts over the NFL to branch out worldwide, who knows how its overall popularity could shift over time.
Either way, one thing is certain – both games are fast and often brutal, and both sets of fans are convinced that they’ve chosen the better of the two sports to follow.
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After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Journalism, Richard Janvrin has been covering iGaming and sports betting since December 2018. Richard has covered betting at Bleacher Report, Gambling.com, The Game Day, Forbes, and more.More info on Richard Janvrin
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