For the first time in forever (actually the year 2000 but I was 10 so it was forever ago) the NHL is looking to expand league membership by two teams. This comes at a time when the NHL is firmly back on its feet after a couple of lockouts and a less than memorable TV stint on Versus. The NHL has a nice TV deal with NBC Universal, it has all major markets with competitive teams (looking at you Toronto), a better than expected outdoor series and most importantly, several U.S. and Canadian markets hungry for a team. Oh yeah and the NHL has the most exciting playoffs and coolest championship trophy in all of sports.
The NHL has had expansion on its mind for the past couple of years and has had a pretty good idea of markets it would like to enter. Gary Bettman, league commissioner, is dead set on making warm weather hockey work after successes in Tampa and Dallas which he loves to cite as reasons to expand (He has mild amnesia though, forgetting the Florida Panthers and the Phoenix/Tempe/Arizona Coyotes). With that in mind Las Vegas has become a central part of the new expansion process.
This process is being spearheaded by Bill Foley, the billionaire head of Hockey Vision Las Vegas, the prospective ownership group of the yet to be named (but surely a desert/gambling pun based) hockey team. His group has already held season ticket drives that has yielded 13,200 season ticket sales in the MGM and AEG joint venture, Las Vegas Arena. With strong season ticket sales, a new arena in the heart of the Vegas strip and a multi-billion dollar ownership group, this expansion is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’.
The main question that saddles this expansion effort into yet another desert market is can the franchise sustain ticket sales and support past the honeymoon stage they seem to be in at the moment? Las Vegas is an event town. They host big fights, world class shows and have one of the biggest tourist population fluxes in America outside of Orlando (Also two of the worst cities to drive through in the entire world). But can they sustain good crowds and TV support for 82 games a year, and playoffs?
The NHL should be focusing on saving its fledgling franchises that it already has operating before it adds more teams. They already have a franchise in a similar market, Miami, and it’s a train wreck. The team gets little local support, has a dismal arena, hasn’t fielded a competitive team in years and is always brought up in relocation talks. Another would be the aforementioned Arizona Coyotes. They play in, well no one actually knows where they play because they are in the middle of a stadium lawsuit with the city of Glendale. They draw some of the worst crowds in the NHL, have had huge ownership problems that led the NHL to run the team briefly, and no free agents want to sign there unless they wildly overpay (which they won’t do because they are a budget team).
I am all for moving into new markets for my beloved NHL, but for every warm weather success story the NHL has an equal number of warts. The NHL needs to fix or better yet move these franchises to more deserving markets with better owners, wealthier TV markets and hungrier fans. This was wildly successful when the Atlanta Thrashers moved back to Winnipeg and the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche.
The NHL should look back into their recent past for ways to strengthen their league, relocation, not just try to expand and hope the failures just go away. This would be a type of addition by subtraction. The league should take a view of being only as strong as its weakest members not the strength in numbers approach it seems to be taking. Admit defeat, fix the problem, and move on.