The demographics of a city or metropolitan area, their media market size, the support of the political leadership in the city and the support of the business community are important aspects in determining the expansion of a professional sports league.
In this fourth installment of this series, the focus will be on the National Hockey League (NHL) and the potential expansion opportunities for a league which is rapidly growing in popularity. The NHL has witnessed some outstanding revenue growth in recent years which enabled them to obtain a huge television and media rights deal with Comcast/NBC (www.nbcsports.com).
In 2012 and 2013, every playoff game from every series was televised nationally via the Comcast/NBC for the first time in the history of the league (www.nhl.com). The NHL has long been considered the “fourth league” of the “Big 4” professional sports in the United States, but the ratings are growing exponentially.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins was a ratings record breaking series on NBC (www.nbcsports.com). This was in a year where the league had a lockout shortened season over a revenue dispute between the owners and the players union.
The NHL realigned their divisions for the 2013-14 season into two conferences with two divisions in each conference. However, unlike other sports, the conferences are unbalanced.
The Eastern Conference has two divisions of eight teams each for a total of sixteen teams. The Western Conference consists of two divisions of seven teams each for a total of fourteen teams. That brings the total number of teams to 30, but many reports have indicated that this uneven conference split was done with expansion in mind.
The most obvious expansion would be by two teams to a total of 32 and have both of those teams be added in the Western Conference to balance the league. Numerous sources close to the league have reported that the increased revenues from two additional future expansion teams via the league entry fee and the entry into two new markets was part of the discussion during the lockout negotiations (www.cbssports.com).
The other rumor circulating throughout the media is that the NHL may expand by four franchises in the near future. If those reports are true, that would mean a significant revenue infusion to the league through the expansion franchise entry fees and subsequent introduction into four new marketplaces in North America.
The TV market metrics are probably the least important in hockey than in other sports because the average person and the consensus among the casual sports fan is that hockey does not translate well to the medium of television. Now, NBC has tried to enhance the broadcasts to change some of that perception and offers some unique camera angles and outstanding production value to their hockey telecasts.
However, the NHL makes their money with the live game experience. Last season, following a protracted labor stoppage, the hockey arenas in the NHL averaged game attendance levels at 95% of capacity (www.nhl.com). The NHL live game experience is, in my opinion, the best sporting event to attend.
The NHL executives and franchise owners know that they will get their die-hard fans in the building for the games and they have proven that, in a recession or otherwise, those fans will spend money at the games. So the addition of four potential new franchises could bring in more revenue through in-game expenditures, season ticket sales, luxury suite sales, and merchandise sales.
North of the Border
It is important to note that unlike the other major sports, Canada is a legitimate expansion area for the NHL, and a likely area of future expansion. The sport of hockey is so well loved and supported in Canada, that the NHL could put a franchise basically almost anywhere in that country and it would be a successful venture.
That type of widespread and virtually assured support cannot be found in the U.S. hockey marketplace, but it is surprising how well the NHL has done in cities such as Nashville, Tampa, Dallas, San Jose, and Anaheim.
The list below will also demonstrate that the interest for an NHL franchise in some U.S. markets is very high at this point.
Potential Expansion Markets
The following cities are potential candidates for expansion franchises in the NHL (all TV markets data courtesy of www.stationindex.com – all Fortune 500 company information courtesy of www.money.cnn.com – and all Metro Population data courtesy of www.census.gov ):
- Seattle, WA – Has emerged as a very strong candidate for expansion based on the plans to build a new arena in the downtown area. The location, and population size and demographics make it a good fit for the NHL.
TV Market Rank: 14th
Metro Area Population Rank: 15th
Fortune 500 Company HQ: 4
Synopsis/ Outlook: The Seattle bid gained traction with the league when the Phoenix Coyotes looked as if they may relocate. The NHL quickly lined up Seattle as a potential alternative site to move the franchise. They even had an ownership group lined up. The location is key for this bid because it addresses a region (Pacific Northwest) where the NHL has no current presence other than the Vancouver Canucks. The population and TV Market sizes are very good, and corporate support would be strong. The population is hockey-savvy as they have several youth hockey and minor league hockey teams in the region. The arena situation would be the murkiest part of the bid today. The team may have to play temporarily at the Key Arena, which would be very small for hockey and has a strange configuration for hockey. The new arena being planned (see Part 1 of this series) is primarily for the NBA expansion team. The hockey team is viewed as the second tenant. I do not know if they would build the arena solely for a hockey team with no assurances from the NBA on a future expansion franchise for the city. Overall a very strong bid.
- Quebec City – The second most widely regarded bid from NHL insiders is the bid from Quebec, which of course, was home to the Nordiques until they moved to Denver in the mid 1990s. A historic city with a rabid base of hockey fans.
Synopsis/Overview – The TV markets and other data does not apply to this Canadian city. The potential for regaining an NHL franchise is of tremendous importance to this city. The Mayor and the city government in Quebec City approved a new arena without a team or the assurances of an expansion team. In a “if we build it they will come” type of move they are currently in the construction phase of the new arena which is next to the old arena where the Nordiques once played. The NHL was so impressed with the confidence of the government and the people there, that the Quebec bid is thought to be a very strong one among league insiders.
- Houston, TX – A “dark horse” candidate but a place that has shown interest in the past. It was one of two cities (Hartford was the other) that was used as a bargaining chip by the Penguins ownership to get the new arena in Pittsburgh done.
TV Market Rank: 10th
Metro Population Rank: 5th
Fortune 500 Company HQ: 23
Synopsis/Overview: Houston has some very strong positives for a NHL expansion bid including excellent demographics and TV market rankings. The city has a rapidly growing economy and is home to a whopping 23 Fortune 500 companies – so the right ownership group and strong corporate support would not be an issue. Due to the rapid economic growth the city has a changing population with transplanted residents from across the country. The bid would pitch the fact that the changing demographics mean more hockey fans living within the city metro area. The arena is state of the art and hosts the NBA’s Rockets currently. This bid has potential, and hockey has been successful in Dallas, but the league may be resistant if they are unsure of long term fan support with all the other major sports already having a presence in that market.
- Markham, Ontario (other Toronto area city) – Toronto is the largest hockey market in the world. It currently has one team, the Maple Leafs, and they have struggled for a long period of time to get back to relevancy.
Synopsis/Overview: Since the other metrics do not apply here in a Canadian market, I will summarize this complicated bid. The issue here is that the league office and ownership had great support behind a bid for a second team in the Toronto market. In the past two years, some of that support has waned. The reports I have read indicate now that the Markham bid, or a bid by another Toronto area city, would very likely not get approved if the league expands by two franchises. It would have a better shot of getting in during the next round of expansion by two teams. The rationale behind this is two-fold: 1. The Maple Leafs are not thrilled about sharing the market with another franchise, especially an expansion franchise that will cut into their revenues directly. 2. The front runners for expansion at this point are not two Western cities which the NHL would need to balance the two conferences. Tim Leiweke who is a top executive with AEG (owner of arenas and sports teams) did a presentation last week and during the Q & A session which followed he stated the second Toronto team may not happen at all. He stated that the meetings he was involved with have Seattle and Quebec as the two front-runners and Kansas City and Las Vegas as very strong contenders for the second round of expansion(www.yahoo.com) This would make sense because Quebec would bring the Eastern Conference to 17 teams, and Seattle would bring the West to 15 teams, and then the potential additions of two more Western teams would balance the league at 17 teams in each conference (total of 34 teams). Markham just approved financing of $350 million for an NHL caliber arena north of Toronto (www.cbc.ca). It could be very interesting what happens here with this bid. The University of Toronto commissioned a study which was reported by the CBC that the country of Canada could easily support 12 NHL teams (they currently have 9 teams in Canada). However the concentration of wealth in Toronto is what makes that market so attractive to the NHL. It is a risk to build an arena, but Markham decided in a slim margin in their city council vote, that the risk was worth taking.
- Las Vegas, NV – One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world would provide a very robust stage for the NHL to showcase their international star players.
TV Markets Rank: 42nd
Metro Area Population Rank: 31st
Fortune 500 Company HQ: 4
Synopsis/Overview: The Las Vegas bid is considered within many circles close to the NHL to be a very strong potential contender for a franchise. The TV market ranking is a little low (Buffalo has an NHL team and is 51st) and the TV market as I stated earlier is not looked at in hockey as crucially as it is for other sports. The population is low too, but the league has several current franchises in smaller metro areas currently. The three biggest issues with a potential Las Vegas expansion bid are: the selection of a stable ownership group, the ability of the metro area population to support a team for the long term, and the arena. The NHL offices have expressed issues with the arena situation there numerous times in the past through various media reports. The largest arena in the city, The Thomas & Mack Center, does not have an ice sheet. That means that the temporary home for the team would have to be the MGM Grand Garden Arena which seats about 16,000 for hockey which is small (www.cbssports.com). However, MGM and the before mentioned AEG group recently announced a joint partnership on a brand new 20,000 seat arena to be built between the Monte Carlo and the New York, New York Casino Hotels (www.finance.yahoo.com). Just last week, the first renderings of the new Vegas arena went public. It will immediately be able to host an NBA or NHL team. The project is slated to begin in April 2014 and be finished in 2016. This project addresses the key issue the league had with Las Vegas. The NHL has always talked about wanting to be the first professional league to tap the Vegas market, and one final note, Jerry Bruckheimer is very close with the top executives at AEG. He has openly discussed wanting to own an NHL team in Las Vegas. A very strong bid made stronger by the new arena project.
- Kansas City, MO – An interesting bid it would open up that part of the Midwest to the NHL and create an instant rivalry with the St. Louis Blues.
TV Markets Rank: 31st
Metro Population Rank: 30th
Fortune 500 Company HQ: 2
Synopsis/ Overview: Kansas City was also included in the NBA potential expansion bids. The strength of the bid is still the arena, Sprint Center, which is world class and has no permanent tenant. The taxpayers want a team for the building since they approved tax money to build it. The political goodwill is very strong here, and the corporate base would be supportive of an NHL team, though that support could be better in other cities with less sports teams already (Kansas City has the Chiefs in the NFL, and the Royals of MLB) and the other issue that may or may not be a mitigating one (depends on what reports you read) is that the NHL was already in Kansas City (the Scouts) and it lasted only a couple of years and the team struggled to get attendance and fans, so they moved to Colorado and rebranded as the Rockies. The Rockies eventually moved to New Jersey and became known as the Devils (www.nhl.com). So much has changed economically and demographically since the time of the Scouts that I think it is an unfair comparison to hold against Kansas City at this point. This city has a solid bid and the NHL brass will have to determine if it is worthy of a team when comparing all the variables as compared to the rest of the cities on this list.
The unique aspect about the NHL part of this series on sports expansion is that the league intends to expand. The other leagues talk about expansion as an eventual thing if all goes well, other leagues like the NBA only want to expand by one or two teams to avoid splitting revenue dollars further.
The NHL is fairly aggressive in their expansion goals. They have talked at media events in the past about expanding within certain time frames. This list is a very viable list of cities that could very well be hosting an NHL team in the next three to five years.
In the event that the reports are true and Seattle and Quebec City are the front runners for the two expansion spots, that would probably create a second round of expansion because of the geography and politics involved.
The entry of Quebec into the Eastern Conference would still leave the East with more teams, so the NHL would have to add two more teams in the Western Conference to balance the league. The relocation of one of the current teams in the East being sent to the Western Conference would be highly problematic from a political point of view.
The owners of the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets fought for years to get moved into the Eastern Conference, and now that they have moved East, then the league will be reticent about moving one of them back to balance the conference sizes.
If you are a hockey fan, that is exciting news, and if you are not a hockey fan, but you are a sports fan; then it could give you something else to do while on a long weekend in Las Vegas in the future.
The final part of my series will be up next and that is the future expansion of MLS (Major League Soccer).