Can hockey and basketball gain some ground?

It’s no secret that professional football and baseball reign supreme in American sports. After that, NCAA football engenders the most fan loyalty – and cash. As far as pro sports go, each year, the NBA and NHL battle it out for which professional sports league will be Number Three With a Bullet. This year, more than any in recent memory, both leagues have a chance to gain even more ground than that.

Ask any basketball or hockey fan and they will tell you one good game is all it takes to get hooked. The fast pace, athleticism and artistry are more than enough to get past the confusing rules and unfamiliar names. See a truly epic contest or championship series and you can become a fan for life.

In most years, the NBA and NHL finals are fairly pedestrian. In many cases the two best teams have already played and only the die-hards really care who wins the “Big One.” But that’s not the case in 2015. This year, in both the NBA and NHL, the finals have been incredible.

In the NBA Golden State and Cleveland – two teams a fair-weather basketball fan may not even consider – are battling it out game after game. The Warriors are champions of “small ball,” using ball handling, strategy and shooting skill to defeat ersatz Goliaths. That role, this season, is being played by one of the most unlikely of all giants – the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lead by dynamic superstar LeBron James, the Cavs were expected to contend but generally relished the potential to be the Cinderella team. Now two overachieving franchises are putting on a basketball clinic, night after night.

It’s a series that largely puts both dedicated basketball fans and potential converts on the same playing field. Golden State v. Cleveland … really? And it’s exciting? Yes. It. Is. The series signals a turning point in the NBA where the perennial dynasties are overshadowed by teams that always seem to be having a rebuilding year. The only difference is that these teams look built to last.

In the NHL, all the networks were salivating for a Blackhawks v. Rangers series. As was most of NYC. But the brash young skaters from Tampa said no … again. When the Tampa Bay Lightning were formed, did anyone really believe they would have two Cup appearances by now … much less a strong shot at winning both series? Tampa believed. The beleaguered football town has transformed this season into Hockey Town by the Bay. Tampa fans love their Lightning, and their team gives them great reason. Consider, four games into the Cup series and Tampa has stayed even with the Hawks, who EVERYONE believes is the better team. And they have done it without marquee player Steven Stamkos scoring anything.

It has been role players and the enigmatic Triplets igniting this team against the storied Hawks. But there is a better headline buried within that story, particularly for fans on the fence or those looking to get hockey fever. Those upstarts from the Sunshine State, should they win the cup, will have beaten four of the Original Six. They already beat three, and, like the Warriors in the NBA, the victories fly in the face of league tradition – which could very well be a perfect reason for newcomers to latch on to hockey.

Both series offer exemplary PR opportunities to be leveraged by the respective leagues. It will be interesting to see how they manage that earned goodwill in the offseason.