Much has been written about the economic troubles the Phoenix Coyotes are having. The best article in my opinion is Stu Hackel's of the New York Times.
The Morning Skate: How Did the Coyotes Mess Happen?
Many Canadian journalists and fans seem to abhor expansion and relocated NHL teams. The media and fans denigrate those teams at every turn, and they want those teams moved or contracted. It's refreshing to see the opposite opinion in Hackel's article.
After wonderfully encapsulating, decorating and amplifying (David) Shoats’s findings, (Stephen) Brunt writes that the Coyotes are merely “the first domino.” In Brunt’s view — and the view of many who bemoan the N.H.L.’s ambitious move to the Sun Belt of the last two decades — the missionary work that bum-rushed hockey out of traditional markets and into the American South in order to save it, has in fact, torpedoed the league.
“Historically, the Coyotes are a symptom, not the disease,” Brunt writes. “They exist in their current straits because of the N.H.L.’s rose-coloured aspirations to conquer America, aspirations that had been kicked around for decades but really took flight after Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 and set off hockey mania in Southern California. The Phoenix franchise shifted from Winnipeg because the league had in theory outgrown that city and the market. The question of solid, grassroots hockey interest was beside the point; the sport packaged properly, the conceit was that the league could sell it to anyone.”
Well said. Except that’s not exactly the way it happened when it came to N.H.L. franchise relocation.
The Winnipeg Jets, like the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers — and nearly the Pittsburgh Penguins — all relocated in the mid-’90s, but not entirely because of the league’s desire to expand its footprint in the warmer climes of the U.S. (although that was certainly a main plank of the early Bettman regime). These teams, well rooted as they were, didn’t outgrow their cities “in theory,” but in fact.
One fact forgotten by Brunt and others is that the business of hockey changed drastically when Alan Eagleson (whom Brunt skewers in his excellent book, “Searching for Bobby Orr”) was ousted as head of the N.H.L. Players Association — a move few of those who now rail against Sun Belt teams would condemn. But his ouster set off a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events that changed the course of the league and set it southward.
When the Eagle was replaced by Bob Goodenow, the union’s accommodations to ownership were gone too. One brief strike later (in 1992), and salaries began to skyrocket. That was followed by one half-season lockout (in 1994), and the rocket’s booster kicked in. The N.H.L.’s trajectory completely changed.
To cover those escalating salaries, owners needed new revenue. Since hockey was an arena-based gate-receipts business — as it always has been and continues to be — the owners found that they needed more seats, more amenities, more luxury boxes and, yes, even better parking revenue. Many owners got those things. Not all did.
When owners didn't that's when the teams moved. Hackel goes on to explain the Winnipeg Jets owner and Winnipeg city government couldn't get a deal done. He cites Thin Ice written by Jim Silver.
“There were more pressing needs in Winnipeg to which public funds could be applied than building a new arena that differed from the old one primarily in having luxury suites which would be the exclusive and tax-deductible preserve of the corporate elite.”
Hackel also puts forth that each franchise is a unique case.
The real story of the current N.H.L. map and how it came to be, as we have seen, is not quite as simple as an American commissioner with little feel for the game’s roots manifesting his desires by forcibly transplanting teams to where he sees fit to grow U.S. TV ratings.
What I also found interesting were the readers replies, and Hackel's rebuttals to people who disagreed with him.
Puckster: Contraction is a disaster politically and economically for the league, the owners, and the players who will lose their NHL jobs. The only people who can potentially benefit by contraction are the fans in the remaining cities who will, at least in theory, see better hockey.
Rick: Relocation I can see as a solution but contraction would be damaging to all owners as it would surely lower the hypothetical “market value” of all franchises.
Hackel: I certainly can’t disagree that the NHL sought a larger Sunbelt presence after what appeared to be the Kings success during their Gretzky era. But first, Bettman really can’t take credit / be blamed for all those Sunbelt expansion teams. The Lightning, Ducks and Panthers all pre-date Bettman. Atlanta and Nashville both joined during his tenure, but the long range plans for expansion were set out by NHL ownership in the late 1980s. Markets were not specifically identified, as I recall, but certainly the desire to move into new areas existed prior to Bettman becoming commissioner in 1993. So to hang Sunbelt expansion on him is just historically inaccurate.
When it comes to franchise relocation, the Hartford situation was, like the Winnipeg situation, one where the club did not have the kind of revenue generating building at the Civic Center necessary to compete in the new era NHL. Hartford was the smallest market in the league at that time as well, so the chances of generating sufficient revenue even with a more modern building were questionable. If Mr. Bettman played a role in their departure to Carolina (they did not go to Raleigh immediately because the building was not completed; they played two seasons in Greensboro in front of many empty seats) it was only after efforts were made to keep the team in CT. and have them relocated in a new arena, which never came to fruition. Mr. Karmanos, who still owns the team, promised he’d stay in Hartford for four years after he bought the club, but only stayed for three. My recollection was there was a target number of season tickets that needed to be sold that was not reached, but there were no partial plans or any creative efforts made to meet the goal; it seemed half-hearted and Mr. Karmanos wanted to relocate to a more lucrative market. If Mr. Bettman did nothing to stop him, well that is part of his job as commissioner, to help owners maximize their franchise value. Tthe owners are his bosses, after all. He wasn’t going to ask one of his owners to continue to lose money.
Yes, Mr. Bettman intervened in the Predators to Hamilton fiasco, but I’m quite certain that was done at the behest of owners as well, especially Toronto and Buffalo who had the most to lose.
As for whether the former WPG and HFD are better able to support and NHL team today than Nashville, Southeast Florida or Phoenix, I don’t know that there is any compelling evidence to prove that. Give any of these cities a winning, contending hockey club and they might be OK. But that’s not the point. As a business, any team has to be in a market that can generate sufficient revenue to succeed and neither WPG or HFD have that arena at the moment.
Hackel: I certainly agree with you (puckster) on the downside of contraction. I don’t favor it as a solution for the league’s problems, but it doesn’t matter what I think. Regardless, losing a franchise is a very damaging thing for the game, as you point out. But each of the league’s troubled teams are highly complex and unique entities and I believe it’s really impossible to predict how any of them will be effected by the current economic problems going forward. Anyone talking contraction at this moment is speaking somewhat recklessly.
The siv: For the NHL to be successful, it needs millions of knowledgable fans that can appreciate the game. It also needs a TV deal, which cannot happen without the support of those fans. Moving the league back to hinterland cities will only exacerbate the problem. And yes, I count the likes of Kansas City and Portland in the same boat as Hamilton and Winnipeg.
Donny: I’m sick of people who blame all the league’s woes on 1) the sunbelt expansion, or 2) Gary Bettman. I may never regard Gary as highly as Paul Tagliabue, but as the article says, the success of an NHL team isn’t necessarily guaranteed in places with “strong roots”, and as business ventures I’ve never believed that NHL teams had some natural advantage by simply being in a Canadian market. It’s not all about winning, because it also requires solid ownership, marketing, television, and favorable economics.
The point is that deep roots don’t mean much without deep pockets, as much as many would like to wistfully believe otherwise.
And my retort to fans who agree with the anti-Sunbelt types.
Why is it fans in the cold weather climates get a pass when they don't support their teams? It's supposedly that they're smart fans who know better than to support a weak team or it's the economy as in Detroit's case. Yet when Sunbelt fans don't show up for maybe the same reasons it's immediately an incrimination that they don't support hockey. The double standard infuriates me.
Mike Illitch had to give away cars for Hockeytown fans to show up in the early 80s. Also, not many fans are showing up this year for Islanders games.
Just last year, http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/atten
dance?sort=home_pct&year=2008 , Chicago and New Jersey were at an 82 percent clip. Above them last year, Phoenix and Atlanta, at about 85 percent.
Fan attendance goes in waves. Put a winning a team on the ice, fans will show up it's that simple. See Tampa Bay, Carolina and Anaheim.
Realistically contraction talk is a non-starter. People need jobs, it's not a time to get rid of them, and especially if ratings and attendance are up .
The League doesn't favor contraction, and the PA won't favor it either. Players won't vote to put themselves out of job. Then there's the management, support staff, etc. All those jobs lost. Contraction is unrealistic.
As for the moving southward and westward in the first place, the NHL followed the migration patterns. That's what The Falconer posted in his blog entry, Hockey Fans, Like Population, Move Southward .
One point that I think people often forget when discussing the history of NHL expansion into the south is that the US population has made a rather dramatic shift southward since World War II.
Some other salient points as he follows expansion and relocation.
By 1980 the NHL had effectively covered almost every frost belt metro area. Cleveland was the biggest exception and even that city had the failed Barons franchise for a few years.
The 2nd expansion of the NHL took place in the 1990s as the league expanded from 21 to 30 franchises most of which were located in non-traditional sunbelt markets. Several franchises were also relocated from the smaller Canadian metro areas to the US during this same time period. This resulted in a NHL covering the booming sunbelt cities where millions of Americans were moving to over time. By 2000 the NHL had covered every top 10 US market with the exception of Houston.
Conclusion: The United States population is in one of the great long term migrations (the other two being the westward frontier and the Great Migration of black people out of the south between 1870-1950.) This long running shift from the north to the southern part of the nation is unlikely to end and the NHL is adjusted to these population trends.
Many fans complain about the lack of NHL coverage. Had the League not followed the population trend, there would even be less coverage because it'd be missing a large portion of the U.S. population. The NHL needs those markets if it's to grow and flourish. Without them it's regional and a niche sport as many NHL critics espouse.