Friday, August 24, 2007

What makes a great hockey market?

The Toronto Maple Leafs – who wouldn’t want to be like them? Sure, Habs fans in this world would scream “ME!” at this question, but follow me on this one. The Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup in 40 years, and it’s been awhile since their last playoff appearance, but they are still the most profitable team in the NHL. People from Newfoundland to British Columbia bleed blue and white, and though they will be the first to heap criticism on their own, they will forever be Leaf fans. They pass on their Leaf allegiance to their children, who then pass it on to their children. The Air Canada Centre sells out just about every single game, it’s virtually impossible to get season tickets, and Maple Leaf fans dish out hard-earned money for ‘nosebleed’ tickets. The Leafs organization is just rolling in the dough, so which team would not like to enjoy this kind of success?

Which brings me to what everyone has been talking about lately: hockey markets. There have been whispers for awhile that the NHL will be expanding within a few years, and it has been confirmed that AEG is building a new arena in Las Vegas that can house hockey or basketball franchises (or both). And then there are the existing franchises that are on the verge of relocating because they are in poor hockey markets.

What makes a good hockey market? I think there are basically two things that all teams need: fan support and corporate support. It’s not enough to have casual fans – teams need to have fans who have hockey knowledge and who are willing to spend money on tickets and merchandise. If you’re a new team in the area and the ‘fans’ are cheering for every goal scored – even the ones scored by the visiting team – you’re in trouble from the get-go (this should have been Nashville’s first clue). If a team cannot draw a decent number of fans for each game, then there will be little corporate support, and the franchise is in the toilet.

Nashville is the current problem market in the NHL. The owner of the Predators, Craig Leipold, has been losing money on this team since day one. The biggest problem is that there is no fan support, so there is basically no corporate support. Leipold invoked a clause in the arena’s lease that says that if the team draws an average of less than 14,000 fans per game for 2 consecutive years, then the team can break the lease with the arena. Last year, the Predators played for less than 14,000 people per game, and if 2007-08 follows the same path, bye-bye lease.

Leipold wants to sell his team (and hand off the money pit to someone else) and the biggest fear is that the team will leave the city. First, Jim Balsillie made a ridiculous offer to buy the Predators, and then promptly made arrangements with the kind people of Hamilton to bring the Predators to Ontario in the near future – that deal with Leipold quickly disappeared, since Balsillie just couldn’t play by the rules. Soon after, a group of investors (mostly Nashville locals) decided to buy the team to keep it in the city. It now looks like that deal is close to crumbling because of issues with the lease.

My two cents on this situation is that Nashville is not a good hockey market. It’s hardly a market at all. Sure, there are Predators fans in Nashville, but I don’t think that there are enough of them to support an entire franchise. If a business continually loses money, they don’t hang around just because of the few customers that stop by on a regular basis. The NHL should cut their losses now, get out of Nashville and go into a city that has a good market for hockey. I don’t blame Gary Bettman for expanding the league to southern markets in the 90s to capitalize on the 'Wayne Gretzky effect', or whatever you want to call it, but I have the feeling that he doesn’t want to admit that he was wrong. A lot (if not most) of these franchises are suffering financially, and this is only bringing down the entire league.

If I was commissioner, I’d put a halt to any talks of expansion. The NHL is simply not ready for more teams. There are so many franchises that are in trouble and their problems should be addressed. A number of teams need to relocate in order to strengthen the league, and these relocation cities should be in proven hockey markets (not ‘experiments’). I’d put together a committee to look into possible relocation cities, and I would put a focus on Canadian cities – Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Quebec City, Halifax. Who knows, maybe two or three of these cities would be great NHL markets that could boost league revenue.

And as for Las Vegas, I’d avoid it like the plague. Any professional sports franchise in that city is risking scandal. A lot of athletes like to party and gamble, and Vegas will be too tempting for some – especially with the Las Vegas Strip being literally a block away from the new AEG arena.

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