Despite my resistance to listening to musical artists that debuted after 2005, I actually like shiny new things. This is particularly true when it comes to sports. I get excited for any new season. Major college football starts tonight? Can’t wait! The NFL’s starting the week after? Perfect. Not surprisingly, I was very interested in a story I read this morning about the NHL possibly expanding by as many as four teams.
The story came from a tweet from Howard Bloom of sportsbusinessnews.com. The actual tweet read “NHL expansion – four teams added by 2017, Quebec City, Toronto, Seattle and Las Vegas $1.4b in expansion fees”. As much as I hate discussing something that is just speculation, my enjoyment of shiny new things had me thinking about NHL expansion all day. Will the NHL expand? More to the point, should it expand?
Right now the league office is shooting down all NHL expansion rumors, but there are a lot of winners if the NHL happens to expand. Current NHL owners could stand to line their pockets with expansion fees that the ownership groups of the new franchises would have to pay, and since that money is not considered hockey-related revenue, they wouldn’t have to equally share that money with players. The players are still winners because you could suddenly have as many as four teams full of empty roster spots. If you’re a fringe NHL player or a veteran trying to hang on for one more year, that’s great news. The cities that get a franchise win because now there’s one more thing to do in that town. Obviously, if you’re a person living in one of those cities, now you’ve got another option in a major professional sports league.
So then what would the downside of expansion be? The obvious answer is the quality of the product. Expansion in any sport always means that the talent pool will be diluted, and with more fringe-level players in the NHL, the quality of the product will suffer. Think about some of the guys that suited up for the Flyers this season. I know for a fact that I watched a game once or twice and said “who is this guy” about some fourth-line player or extra defenseman. Look at how much we worry about the Flyers’ defensemen, and now add four more teams to the mix.
For this reason, I think you need to look at moving some teams before you consider adding new franchises. Gary Bettman’s push to grow hockey in the southern U.S. has had more than its share of critics. In some cases (Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers, the now-moved Atlanta Thrashers), those criticisms hold water. In other cases (Tampa Bay and Nashville come to mind), hockey seems to have taken hold.
So who can be moved before we get to expansion? For this, I looked at the bottom 5 teams (#26-30) in the NHL in attendance for the 2013-2014 season. These numbers come from www.hockeyattendance.com and the rankings are based on the average number of fans that attended each game. For the record, the Flyers came in 4th in the NHL in average attendance, behind only Chicago, Montreal, and Detroit. Anyway, here are the bottom 5:
26) Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) – Initially, this disheartened me because I’m all for southern teams moving up north. Looking at the numbers, though, their average capacity percentage was at 100% of seats available. You can’t fault the fans; they’re just selling out a small arena.
27) Columbus Blue Jackets – I can’t lie, if the Blue Jackets moved, it would be really hard for me to care. Unless Urban Meyer gets behind the bench and Braxton Miller and Joey Bosa drop the footballs and pick up hockey sticks, I doubt many people in Columbus will care either.
28) Florida Panthers – Now we’re talking. The Panthers came in dead last in average capacity percentage at 75.5%. Unless we’re talking about football, Miami and southern Florida in general is a joke when it comes to sports fandom. Watch for all the empty seats at Heat games this year once they go in the tank now that LeBron’s gone. There’s no heritage of good hockey here, at least their rivals in Tampa Bay have won a Stanley Cup.
29) New York Islanders – I wouldn’t mind seeing the Islanders move, either. In fact, they are moving…from Long Island to Brooklyn. I think the move will actually help attendance, because apparently Nassau Coliseum was pretty far removed from everything and kind of hard to get to. With how trendy Brooklyn has become, believe me; a lot of these people have the disposable income needed to buy hockey tickets.
30) Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes – Phoenix has become the whipping boy when people talk about relocating NHL teams. There’s a good reason for this, they came in dead last when it comes to average attendance (13,776) and were next-to-last in average capacity percentage (80.4%). I’m not up on my Phoenix geography, but I’ve heard that their arena is no picnic to travel to, either. However, with new ownership and a new naming rights deal for their arena, I don’t see them moving.
If it were up to me, the first thing that would happen is to move the Panthers out of south Florida. Attendance is lagging and apparently they are having lease issues. It’s an easy call as far as I’m concerned, back up the moving vans. But to where? Since the Eastern Conference currently has 16 teams and the Western Conference has 14, I’d like to move them west in the name of symmetry. Kansas City actually has the 19,000 seat Sprint Center ready to go right now, so despite the fact that they lost a franchise in the ‘70s due to an economic downturn, I’m going to give them a second chance. They were apparently the front-runners to get the Penguins before Mario Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh by buying the team, let’s give them a shot. By the way, Pittsburgh, Lemieux should STILL be the hockey god you worship instead of that whiny baby Crosby.
So now we have 15 teams in each conference, let’s expand by two teams so that we can have 2 conferences of 16 teams, each with 2 divisions of 8 teams. Let’s look at the candidates, starting with those in the tweet that inspired this rambling nonsense of mine:
Seattle – If Seattle would just go ahead and build an arena, I think the NHL would get them a team one way or another. Instead, Seattle is holding off waiting for word that the NBA is coming back before they build, pining for the NBA like an old girlfriend. I say this as somebody that likes professional basketball…hey Seattle, screw the NBA! They screwed you over and now any time a team talks about moving, they get your hopes up only to let you down. Move on, you have a wonderful geographical blood rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks just waiting for you.
Las Vegas – Sin City is actually the market that has the most rumors swirling about it. This has “bad idea” written all over it for me. The whole gambling issue aside, Vegas is a tourist destination city. Yeah, you’ll have a few tourists come in to check out a game here and there, but will there ever be any kind of home-ice advantage? I have to believe most of the residents of the city are working in the service industry at the casinos; do they make enough money to spring for hockey tickets? I just think there are way better options.
Quebec City – I’m someone that wants to see Canada get as many hockey teams as possible. Call me un-American, but outside of Minnesota, we just don’t have the passion for the game the way that Canadians do. While I like shiny new things, I can also be a sucker for nostalgia. So bring back the Nordiques, and the Hartford Whalers while you’re at it. On the practical side, Quebec City already has a multi-purpose indoor arena under construction that will seat over 18,000 for hockey.
Toronto – Does Toronto have the capacity to join New York and LA/Anaheim as the third NHL market to accommodate more than one team? Absolutely. If we’re taking into account just the U.S. and Canada, Toronto is the 4th biggest market on the continent, behind New York, LA, and Chicago. I saw a hockey game in Montreal once, and I have no doubt that the atmosphere in Toronto is just as electric as the one I experienced in Montreal. I believe that the potential interest could be there. My question is whether an upstart franchise can gain traction in a market with a storied franchise such as the Maple Leafs.
I think you could also make a case for putting a team in Wisconsin, in either Milwaukee or Madison. Southeastern Ontario has a few cities near Toronto that are bigger than you’d imagine (Mississauga and Hamilton come to mind). Cleveland already has an arena and a hockey team could possibly bring more revenue into town.
Still, we’re going to stick with the teams with the most realistic chance. If I’m handing out two franchises, they are going to Seattle and Quebec City. You could then organize the divisions as follows:
Northeast Division (East) – Boston, Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto
Atlantic Division (East) – Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington
Central Division (West) – Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Kansas City, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Pacific Division (West) – Anaheim, Arizona, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver
Maybe this alignment could lead to an even more balanced schedule and less travel. If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to share them in the comments.