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YouTube as Litmus Test

10.11.2012

If we cast our minds back eight years, back to the time of the previous NHL lockout, we might be surprised at how much has changed. Although the Internet had long become a feature of daily life, it had not come close to fulfilling even one hundredth of its potential.

For example, in late 2004 the social networking site, Facebook, had one million subscribers; in September 2012 that number passed the one billion mark.

And while it now seems hard to believe, there was no such thing as YouTube back in 2004. The phenomenon made its debut in February of 2005. The following year saw the first appearance of Twitter.

Back then, in those dark ages, North American hockey fans were enduring the agony of the second NHL lockout, which left them cruelly starved of the sport for an entire season. And just like a heroin addict seeks out methadone, Canadians turned to the teams of the junior league, the CHL, for a fix of their favourite game. This is why to this day, Canucks hold a special reverence for junior hockey in general and the World Junior Championships in particular.

Back to the present, and the NHL has once again shut its doors, clinging to the belief that the fans have nowhere else to go, and will faithfully return to the competition once they realize there is no alternative. Possibly such a belief was understandable back in 2004, but things have changed over the eight intervening years: the Internet has made a huge leap forward and the KHL has confidently strutted onto the world stage.

Statistics sometimes speak louder than words, so here is a little dossier of facts about the official KHL Channel on YouTube.

The channel was born on the 27th of July 2010, since when it has attracted a grand total of 42,475,553 views. If we separate these hits by location, we can build a table of the most avid KHL viewers by country.

1

Russia

23 142 371

2

Latvia

5 085 862

3

Belarus

2 545 850

4

USA

2 226 320

5

Canada

1 580 975

6

Finland

1 282 757

7

Slovakia

1 174 056

8

Kazakhstan

1 083 372

9

Ukraine

711 525

10

Germany

597 595

11

Czech Republic

477 741

12

Great Britain

472 360

13

Sweden

264 781

14

Poland

152 327

15

Estonia

139 574

16

Norway

135 324

17

Switzerland

113 382

18

Ireland

105 109

19

Hungary

102 616

20

France

95 352

The top three are unlikely to raise any eyebrows, as the popularity of the KHL in Russia, Latvia and Belarus is surely no secret, and it is just as logical that the USA and Canada complete the top five, but things start to get really interesting as we move further down the standings.

Finland sits in 6th spot, higher even than Slovakia and Kazakhstan – both members of the KHL, remember, and this despite no fewer than 49 Slovak players currently plying their trade in the League – the largest presence of any nationality other than Russian.

There are at the moment 36 Finns playing in the KHL, while the Czechs, who of course now have their own team in the League, currently number 38, but in our list of KHL-watchers the Czech Republic is way down in 11th place, lower even than Germany! Admittedly, this could in part be down to the considerable number of German-based Russians (around two million, according to various sources).

One would certainly expect the Swedes to follow the League, since a fair few of their fellow countrymen play in the competition. Geographical proximity should be another significant factor, especially considering their Finnish neighbors’ passion for the KHL championship.

And yet in these standings Sweden occupies a lowly 13th place, trailing even... Great Britain. Now there’s a surprise!

The statistics above cover a period of 25 months, and for most of this time the KHL Channel was targeted mainly at the domestic audience. Only recently, on the 8th of October, did the channel begin broadcasting content with commentary in English. Did this haveany impact on the viewing figures?

Here is a breakdown of views from fans in Canada:
October 2011 – 37,634;
September 2012 – 310,185;
October 2012 - 516,822.
Note the increase – a jump of 66.6% in one month. The total number of views from the country over the 25 months is 1,580,975, meaning that last month alone accounted for 32.7% of hits.

The picture is almost identical in the USA, only with slightly higher figures:
October 2011 – 55,936;
September 2012 – 321,341;
October 2012 – 529,963.

So last month’s increase in interest shown by US fans was 64.9%, which is 23.8% of total views.

The figures are even more curious when we break them down according to states. Michigan and Minnesota are traditionally considered to be the true hockey heartlands, yet they only just make it into our top five:
1. California – 258 182;
2. New York – 220 082;
3. Pennsylvania – 167 368;
4. Michigan – 127 005;
5. Illinois – 124 947.

In October of this year the situation changed slightly: Pennsylvania (57,340) edged ahead of California (56,421) and New York(52,718), Illinois moved up to fourth place (25,491), while Texas(!) ousted Michigan from the top five (20,367).

Minnesota managed only 12th spot, while the District of Columbia - home of Alexander Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals - is 10th. Moreover, these figures for DC include the neighboring state of Maryland, without which it would languish down in 23rd place, below such ‘hockey backwaters’ as Arizona and Florida.

As for Finland, the appearance of English-language material had no discernible effect on the nation’s interest in the KHL – October’s rise in views was a mere 7.58%. The increase in England was far higher – 18.6%.

Sweden, on the other hand, had yet another surprise for us: in September there were 13,492 views, and the following month – 75,949, a surge of no less than 462.9%! Taking October’s figure as a percentage of total views gives us 28.6%, a result comparable with those recorded for Canada and the US.

There can be no doubt that much of the heightened appetite for the KHL is due to the lockout. The return of stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk to play in their homeland has spurred US broadcasters such as ESPN3 and MSG to show live and recorded coverage of action from the KHL. The fever has also spread north of the border, and now Canada’s TSN, TheScore and Sportsnet, are all showing daily highlights of KHL games.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that the level of North American interest in the KHL will decline when (or if) the dispute is finally resolved. However, as shown by the example of the previous lockout, when a hockey fan falls in love, it is a passionate and long-lasting affair. Eight years ago the NHL lockout raised junior hockey to an unprecedented level of popularity. Games in the CHL are still shown on nationwide Canadian TV channels and follow a schedule independent of that of the NHL, and the last World Junior Championships broke all previous TV ratings records.

And now it seems the KHL has occupied a place in hockey fans’ hearts across the world – a very different world from that of 2004.

Andrei Osadchenko, in Toronto, special for khl.ru