The NHL's Expansion Options Mostly Suck, But At These Prices, Who Cares?
The National Hockey League figures to have plenty of expansion suitors, but do any of the cities angling for a new franchise make sense?
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The reason the NHL is considering expanding beyond 30 teams — and the league's announcement was carefully noncommittal about how many teams it would add, if any — is the same as why it doubled in size from the Original Six in 1967: There are so many outstanding markets out there lacking hockey that it would be unfair not to allow them to ...
BWAHAHAHA! Okay, couldn't keep a straight face with that one. The reason why the NHL is expanding is, of course, the prospect of gobs and gobs of cash:
That is indeed crazy money, especially when you consider that in the NHL's last round of expansion, in 2000, the owners of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild got away with paying a mere $80 million apiece to join the owners' club.
What's changed in the interim isn't so much a surge in hockey's popularity—it's still the United States' #5 sport, after football, baseball, basketball, and NASCAR—than a bunch of other factors causing overall pro sports franchise values to surge. The collapse of appointment TV has left sports as the only thing that viewers are willing to pay to watch live (and most importantly, sit through commercials for), leaving cable companies to throw increasing amounts of money at sports leagues for the right to televise even low-rated games. Ballooning income inequality also means there are more billionaires than ever, all of whom want to own sports teams, which drives up the purchase price. Add in that Congress recently increased the tax deduction that team owners can take on their purchase price, and suddenly a half-billion-dollar hockey expansion fee doesn't sound quite so nutso.
That said, it's still pretty nutso.
Forbes dramatically upped its estimates of NHL team values last year, and still only got to an average of $490 million. And that's heavily skewed by the most valuable franchises like the Toronto Maple Leafs ($1.3 billion) and New York Rangers ($1.1 billion); 20 of the 30 current NHL teams are estimated to be worth less than the $500 million that it will take to get a shiny new one to play in a shiny new city. Also according to Forbes, seven franchises come in at less than half of the expansion value—mostly teams in relatively tiny markets, or places where no one watches hockey, or both: Florida, Columbus, Carolina, Arizona, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Nashville.
This last fact is kind of important, given that the cities the NHL will consider starting a week from Monday also are all either relatively tiny markets, places where no one watches hockey, or both. Let's take a closer look:
Las Vegas: The home of the Perpetual Celine is widely considered the front-runner for an NHL expansion team, though the numbers indicate that it has all the makings of another Gary Bettman Sun Belt disaster. Vegas is a very small TV market (it would be the NHL's second-smallest after Buffalo), its permanent population is mostly poor, and it has no record of supporting any major (or even minor) pro sports team well, let alone hockey. Oh, and its ownership group would include the Maloof brothers, who during their days at the helm of the Sacramento Kings were voted the worst owners in all of sports. Yes, it has a new arena under construction and a whole lot of people willing to put up $150 deposits for season tickets. But Phoenix had a new arena plus the nation's 12th-biggest TV market, and we all saw how well that worked out.
Quebec: The campaign to restore the Nordiques has landed a new arena (aided by about $250 million in public subsidies that Quebecois taxpayers will never see again), a deep-pocketed owner (Quebecor, the telecommunications giant that owns, pretty much, Canada), and plenty of excitement among the local hockey-loving populace. Unfortunately, there isn't all that much populace there: Quebec City is just the 78th-largest TV market in North America, right behind Honolulu and Flint. Yes, Canadians love their hockey, but there's a reason why the Nordiques left in the first place, and it wasn't solely because Bettman wanted a foothold in Denver.
Seattle: Now, there's a decent-sized market! Thirteenth in the U.S.! A minor-league hockey team that outdraws both Kamloops and Medicine Hat! An arena that ... okay, the only large local arena is sized for basketball only, the downtown arena plan that's been kicking around for years is likewise NBA-only and its builder says he hasn't heard from any prospective NHL owners looking to make it otherwise. Another arena plan way out by Sea-Tac airport is barely off the drawing board. Seattle could potentially be the NHL's best option, or it could be no option at all.
Toronto: Yes, Toronto already has a major-league hockey team (or the Maple Leafs, anyway), but it's North America's fourth-largest market, and two of the cities ahead of it have more than one team, so why not? In fact, the NHL has already received word of a bid for a team from Graeme Roustan, the guy who several years ago proposed an arena in the suburb of Markham, turned out to be lying about having been a finalist to buy the Montreal Canadiens and who has been convicted of fraud in an arena case in Texas, then stopped answering his phone ... okay, maybe not Toronto.
Kansas City: Has the inglorious two-year history of the Scouts, plus a relatively new arena that was built specifically to lure an NHL team. Unfortunately, the publicly funded arena's private operator has said it probably couldn't afford to host a hockey team, as that would get in the way of more lucrative concert dates. At least they'll always have the memories of dinner with Mario Lemieux.
Hartford: The Whalers used to play there, and it would make VICE Sports' own Aaron Gordon really really happy. So there's that.
That's an awfully motley group. Not that any of them couldn't become as successful as some of the marginal franchises at the bottom of the NHL heap—you tell me there's any significant difference between Columbus and Hartford—but the league doesn't exactly need more of those. And if things go badly, you could easily end up with another Coyotes scenario. (Which reminds me, if two of these cities get filled by expansion teams, where do the Coyotes threaten to move if Glendale succeeds in canceling their sweetheart lease? The biggest beneficiaries of NHL expansion could be Glendale city officials, whose leverage in lease renegotiations would increase exponentially.)
If the NHL expands, in other words, it will have little to do with hockey, and even less to do with the viability of whatever two lucky cities end up being home to freshly baked franchises. It will be all about the Tubmans. My hope is that the league goes all-in and actually asks ownership groups to bid for teams, perhaps on eBay. Or, better, compete for expansion franchises on some kind of reality cooking or dance show. Now that might get a mass audience in the U.S. to finally pay attention to hockey.