The NHL has always had an intensely devoted fan base. You’ll find that more hockey fans identify as “diehards” than those in any other league. While the NBA — which the NHL competes with for wallet share and eyeballs — has many casual fans, the NHL is different. It’s better for business to have rabid, devoted fans than fair-weather fans.
That fan base is growing. The NHL is filling arenas at a greater rate than the NBA . The league has stars in the form of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Jonathan Quick. The Stadium Series is bringing in impressive ratings due to its pageantry and novelty, and it just plain looks cool. There have been rumblings that the NHL should expand now, while its product is at its peak.
Well, the NHL is throwing ice cold water on that idea. Multiple NHL officials say this discussion is media driven and there is practically no talk about adding teams.
Still, rumors are circulating that the NHL would like to expand from 30 to 32 teams with cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, Quebec, and Hamilton (sorry Hartford, the NHL isn’t looking to bring the Whalers back) in the mix for an expansion team. If the market demand is present, and ownership groups are ready, it should be easy.
However, the NHL is holding back. One reason is the NHL is still recovering from its last bit of expansion. The Atlanta Thrashers failed miserably and were moved to Winnipeg (a city that already had a team move). The Florida Panthers routinely struggle with attendance, and the Phoenix Coyotes remain in financial trouble . The sun-belt expansion didn’t go well and many of these teams could just be moved to better markets (aka somewhere where ice forms naturally).
Current owners may be holding back as well. Currently they share the profits from the NBC TV deal and split it 30 ways. They would have to shrink their piece of the national pie to 1/32.
There are local problems too. No owner wants to give up a TV market. If Kansas City were to get a team, that would take market share from the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. Quebec would take TV rights from the Montreal Canadiens, and Hamilton is next to Toronto, home of the Leafs. Commissioner Gary Bettman needs these powerful teams/ownership groups in his corner.
The NHL should continue its wait-and-see approach on expansion. Wait until the new media rights deal is completed, see how much money is thrown its way in a bidding war, and then decide whether adding two teams makes sense.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.