The NHL expansion rumors that have been swirling around for the last year, has caused some people to wonder if Seattle would be a viable market for the NHL to expand to. These critics point to the fact that the Mariners attendance has been in the lower third of MLB over the last five years — but ignore the fact that the team pulled over two million fans per season from 1996-2010 — and that the team’s reported revenue has dipped as a result.
One of these critics is J-Dub over at Dubsism. J-Dub took a look at the NHL expansion rumors, and why the league’s interest in expansion is a bad idea. Instead of expanding, he believes that the league should relocate its struggling franchises. Even if the NHL were to relocate one of its existing franchises to Seattle, he still has some questions about the market’s ability to support an NHL team.
Seattle has two problems. One, there’s the aforementioned fact that hockey really only works in places that have real winter or have large transplanted populations from such areas. The second is just a shift in the odds from the Las Vegas issue; in Seattle’s case the metro area has a population of 3.7 million, which means to make the magic number of half a million dedicated hockey fans one out of seven people needs to be a hockey fan. I’m not familiar enough with the Seattle market to know if that is a realistic number.
While he does bring up some valid points, he misses the biggest problem with the Seattle market…the lack of an NHL ready arena, and the Seattle process that is slowing down the current arena proposal. That being said, let’s take a look at five reasons Seattle would be a viable NHL market.
5) Seattle is the quickest growing city (and one of the fastest growing markets) in the country
Believe it or not, the Emerald City is the quickest growing market in the United States (beware of Seattle Times pay wall). From July 1st, 2012 to July 1st, 2013, Seattle’s population grew by 18,000 residents — 2.8% of the city’s population; Seattle is now a larger city than Boston, Mass. The city’s growth has outpaced its suburbs for the second straight year, putting more people near the sports/entertainment district. There is a pretty good chance that there are some hockey fans within the emigrants coming to the city.
The Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma area is expected to continue growing (Seattle Times pay wall alert) over the next 30 years; in fact, those three cities are ranked at No. 14 in projected population growth during that time span. Those three cities are also an economic power house, they would be the world’s 53rd largest economy.
4) The Seattle metro-area already has a substantial hockey fan base
The Western Hockey League is a junior hockey league in the Pacific Northwest. Two of the league’s teams are in Seattle and Everett, Wash. (north of Seattle), and five of the league’s 22 teams are in the state of Washington. Seattle averaged 4,427* (73.5% of ShoWare Center’s capacity) fans per game for the 2013-14 season, and have 23,904 likes on Facebook. As for Everett, the Silvertips averaged 4,901* fans per game (60.1% of Comcast Arena’s capacity) for the 2013-14 season, and have 15,208 likes on Facebook.
*Attendance numbers are courtesy of Hockey Attendance
Another impact of the WHL franchises, that will benefit a NHL franchise, is that they have spent money working on increasing the enrollment of youth hockey in the region. The Junior Silvertips are a youth hockey program run by the Everett Silvertips designed to get more kids playing hockey, and interested in the sport down the road.
The Seattle Totems — Seattle’s original WHL franchise, and first attempt at NHL expansion — are currently a team that plays in the Western States Hockey League. While there is no attendance data available for the team, they do have 1,288 likes on Facebook.
3) There is a built in rivalry with Vancouver
Seattle and Vancouver already have a hockey rivalry in the WHL, and the MLS. The two cities have been playing each other in hockey for nearly 100 years.
In 1915, the owner of the new Seattle Metroplitans began to build a team that would dominate the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) for the next nine seasons. The Mets went on to become the first hockey team based in the United States to win the Stanley Cup in 1917. Seattle would be knocked out of the 1917-18 playoffs by the Vancover Millionaires, and then knocked the Millionaires out of the playoffs in the next season. America’s first franchise to win the Stanley Cup folded after the 1923-24 season,
A hockey rivalry — that has spanned through three separate leagues — was born.
2) Seattle has a need for winter sports
Outside of the WHL, college basketball, and various semi-pro basketball and hockey leagues, there is a distinct lack of winter sports in the Seattle metro-area. Since the Sonics left after the 2007-08 NBA season, the City hasn’t had a major league winter sport to keep it entertained during the cloudy winter months.
What ever winter sports league gets here first (NBA or NHL) is going to be entering a market that is going to be willing to pay to watch it. That league will also be entering a business market that is ripe for sponsorship agreement as well.
1) ROOT Sports is in need of live winter content, and is probably willing to pay for it
ROOT Sports is a struggling regional sports network that is the home to the Seattle Mariners, also owned by the Mariners. The network is in desperate need of live programming if it wants to stay afloat, and getting an NHL (and/or NBA) team in the market would be huge for the network, but there is some competition within Seattle for live sports broadcast — the Sounds FC matches are broadcast on Q13 FOX. This means that there is going to be a bidding war between the networks for the broadcast rights.
That means that ROOT (backed by the Mariners money) is going to have to outbid the other networks for the rights to the NHL and/or NBA franchise. This means that any NHL team in Seattle will be earning a lot of cash from its TV contracts. Which will help keep the team’s revenue up, even if attendance struggles after the franchise’s first season.