On Wednesday, the NHL officially announced that it is exploring options for expansion. It’s a big step for a league to take, despite the fact that one of your teams is still struggling financially and another that could be homeless before the next season starts. As the league moves forward into the process, it is going to get a lot of interest from prospective investors in many markets; and most of those proposals aren’t going to get past the initial vetting.
There are also going to be several markets that do make it through the initially vetting process. Three markets have already expressed interest in bring professional hockey to their towns, and are the primary movers behind the NHL’s expansion interest. Let’s take a look at the markets that we can expect to file a formal application, why the league is interested in that market, obstacles to getting a team, and what their chances are of actually receiving an expansion franchise..
Will apply, league is interested in
Why the league is interested: Seattle is one of the fastest growing city in the United States, and has shown time and again that is more than capable of supporting professional franchises. The league is probably hoping to copy the MLS’s successful expansion into Seattle, which has two well supported junior hockey league teams, and take advantage of the city’s already existing rivalry with Vancouver. This way the team will be guaranteed several sold out home games no matter what the product looks like on the rink.
Seattle has eight Fortune 500 companies headquartered within its city limits, and has many more businesses that have shown a willingness to spend money sponsoring sports teams and purchasing tickets for games. This means that the team should have plenty of outside dollars flowing in to help it stay afloat financially.
But the No. 1 reason the NHL is interested in coming to Seattle is the fact that there is no other professional winter sport in the city. The league would love to get into the city before the NBA returns to capitalize on the (probably) sizable regional sports network deal and fan interest.
Issues with the market: The biggest, known, issue about the Seattle market is the lack of an NHL ready arena. There are currently two proposals on hand to build a shiny new arena; one of which is near Seattle’s downtown core — but needs an NBA franchise to get the city and county to kick in funds…while the other arena proposal is located in in a traffic hell hole near the South Center Mall and I-5 / I-405 interchange.
There is no way the NHL is going to let an expansion franchise play in Seattle’s Key Arena for two years while a new building is being built…after all, it’s a terrible place to watch a hockey game. The new arena would have to be built-in time for any expansion franchise to take the rink.
Quebec City, Quebec
Why the league is interested: Quebec City loyally supported the Nordiques before their forced relocation in 1995, despite the fans fantastic support. Fans have been active in trying to get back their franchise, and they’ve had the backing of their city’s leadership; as the city has financed a brand new arena.
Quebec City’s arena is almost complete, and would be able to accept the new Nordiques starting on September 11th, 2015. The building is owned by Quebecor, the same company that is planning on owning any NHL franchise. Which means that the team will not have pay rent on the building, and will collect all of the revenue from the games. This is a major advantage for the team in the NHL, hockey franchises primarily survive off of revenue produced at the arena.
It would also be a great PR opportunity for the league to return to a market it abandoned 20 years ago when the Nordiques left town in the middle of an economic downturn.
Issues with the market: Quebec City is not that large of a media market — in fact, Flint, Mich. is bigger — and it would be hard for the franchise to pull in a large RSN contract to help increase its revenue streams. That being said, the NHL has shown a willingness to return to abandoned, smaller, Canadian markets as the Atlanta Thrashers moved up to Winnipeg and became the reincarnated (kind of) Jets.
Another problem is that the new Nordiques would probably end up in the Eastern Conference, which already has 16 teams…while the Western Conference has 14. It would give the league a major imbalance that would be difficult to correct without moving Detroit back to the West; and that doesn’t seem like it’s a likely path the league is going to take.
Las Vegas, Nev.
Why the league is interested: Sin City attracts millions in tourist revenue each year, and all of its arenas are almost always booked with events. Outside of the tourist, there are over 600,000 permanent residents within the cities limits. It’s a big population base that should, in theory, be able to support a major sports franchise.
Another reason the NHL is in a race to get to Vegas is the fact that there are zero major league franchises in the state of Nevada…let alone Vegas. The team would get a huge lead on sponsorship, season ticket commitments, and support within the city’s population. Fans exceeded the potential ownership’s expectations with regards to a season ticket drive that started in February and ended in April. It was an impressive show of support in a market that doesn’t have any major sports.
The league would also be able to improve the travel schedules of teams in the Western Conference by adding another two teams to it. It appears that Vegas would be a good city for the league to move into and help balance out its conferences.
Issues with the market: The biggest concern regarding expansion to Vegas would be the city’s ability to handle all of its tourist, conferences, and 41+ hockey games a year. This could create all sorts of travel havoc for visiting teams, and that’s something that the league (and potential ownership) should keep an eye on…but it is a fairly minor concern as Vegas is almost always building new hotels and/or expanding already existing ones.
Will apply, but league has no interest
A second Toronto franchise is a tantalizing idea to those in the metropolitan’s suburbs as they believe that they could easily support a NHL franchise. But none of the suburban towns have a NHL ready arena, and there are no (public) plans to build a second such arena in the area.
It’s also extremely unlikely that the Maple Leafs will be okay with another franchise in their market. They’ve been extremely protective of the Toronto area since their arrival and that’s unlikely to change in the near future.
Mexico City, Mexico
While Mexico City does have a great arena, a large population, a large number of potential sponsors, and could easily support a massive TV contract, it’s highly unlikely that the NHL expands to a city that is so far out of the league’s current geographical footprint. A Mexico City team would make travel cost even more expensive for the league’s franchises, and would make for some difficult (but interesting) scheduling.
Should apply, probably won’t
Portland would provide an NHL ready arena, with a city that has done a fantastic job of supporting its two major league franchises. It would also add a great rivalry — with Vancouver for sure, potentially Seattle — to the NHL that would be a big boon for the league. Unfortunately, no owner has stepped forward to put an NHL franchise there, and it seems unlikely that Paul Allen is interested in pursuing an expansion franchise at this time.