NPF: ED SAVES CANADA

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on February 5th, 2010 by Ed

Among other failings I happen to be a huge hockey fan. The aughts were a rough decade for Lord Stanley's game, especially when labor disputes (fueled largely by an uncapped, wildly inflated salary system that nearly bankrupted a handful of teams) canceled the 2004-2005 season. The game came back strong after the lockout thanks to a group of young superstars worthy of the Gretzky era. A Pittsburgh team that was nearly folded by the league has won the Cup and Chicago has risen from the Bill Wirtz-era dead. But the league is still in trouble, paying dearly for bad business decisions made in the 1990s.

Unlike the other three "major" sports in North America, hockey has no TV revenue to speak of. The economics of the game are attendance-driven. But in 1990 the league had a national TV contract, albeit not a huge one, and throughout the decade that fact drove expansion and relocation. In short, the league and its existing owners felt that it was in their interest to put teams in large, rapidly-growing American TV markets without hockey. Bigger TV markets meant more revenue from the national contracts. And of course just about all of those cities were in the south. You know, big hockey towns.

Thus the Minnesota North Stars were split in two, half of the team founding the San Jose Sharks and the other half moving to Dallas. Expansion happened in Tampa, Anaheim, Denver, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, and Columbus. The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. Hartford became Carolina. Quebec moved to Denver. While the league made some decent expansion decisions – putting a team back in Minneapolis and a new one in Ottawa – overall this has not been a rousing success.

The TV contract disappeared with the lockout (it was never worth much to begin with) and suddenly the league found itself with a bunch of teams in places with no hockey history playing to 1/3 capacity. Look at the bottom 10 teams in attendance in a 30-team league. Note that these figures represent tickets sold and not actual butts in seats, which for all of these teams is far less.

Notice anything? And these teams aren't even bad. Phoenix, a zombie franchise basically being run by the league after its baffling refusal to allow a Canadian billionaire to move it to Hamilton, is going to make the playoffs. Tampa, Colorado, Anaheim, and Carolina have all won Stanley Cups in the last 10 years. Atlanta, last seen auctioning off Ilya Kovalchuk (the latest superstar to get sick of playing in front of 1800 people, a la Marian Hossa and Marc Savard in Hotlanta and Jay Bouwmeester in Miami), is one win out of a playoff spot. Nashville and Columbus made the playoffs last year. The explanation here is pretty simple. The economy is terrible and the teams don't have deep enough roots in these cities to weather the downtimes.

The league's strategy for drawing fans in these places centered on A) retirees and B) a fast-growing young population. They assumed the retirees in Phoenix and Florida would come out a few times per year to see their Boston Bruins or Detroit Red Wings visit and they thought the hip, young dot-com generation would adopt the home team. Unfortunately the retirees didn't follow through and the young people have no money. Hence a bunch of moribund franchises regularly playing in front of nobody. If the league is going to be financially viable as a whole these teams badly need to be returned to "hockey markets." At least the small, no-TV-revenue Canadian teams managed to fill the stadiums before they were boxed up and shipped to the Sun Belt.

So here's what we're going to do.

First, let's not overreact. Tampa led the league in attendance for the first half of the decade. Colorado has a strong fan base. Carolina's draw is decent but they're terrible this year. Anaheim is strong but they'll miss the playoffs and we know how messed up things are in Southern Cal. These teams are probably viable in the long run.

This brings us to the zombie franchises. Let's start with Phoenix. I hope the league is happy with its pig-headed decision to protect the old-money Toronto Maple Leafs block the move to Hamilton, Ontario. After the team filed bankruptcy last summer, the NHL found to its great embarrassment that it had no bidders willing to accept the condition of keeping the team in Phoenix. So the NHL bid on its own team. Now it's holding it until a Phoenix-friendly buyer is found. Good luck with that. The league is having the Coyotes play five "home games" in Saskatoon next year. Problem solved. Sell those games out, find a Canadian owner, and move this sinking ship to Regina/Saskatoon.

Atlanta is done in Atlanta. Now that Kovalchuk has been auctioned off to the New Jersey Devils whatever minimal interest in the team exists in ATL will disappear. The team has actually been in Federal court for five years trying to determine who actually owns the damn thing. That has to be a first. Meanwhile, the criminally inept Don Waddell has been running the team in aimless circles in front of "crowds" that could fit in my car. Let's right a historical wrong and bring back the Winnipeg Whiteout. It's a small market but at least they'll give a crap about the team.

The Florida Panthers haven't drawn flies in South Florida since making it to the Cup finals in 1996 despite spending on stars like Pavel Bure. Nobody cares about the team and the players can't wait to leave. Meanwhile, Quebec City is still missing its Nordiques. They're a stadium away from getting another team. Make it happen.

That leaves us with Columbus and Nashville but no viable Canadian cities left. Kansas City has been trying hard to land a team for years but I can't imagine that would turn out much differently than a place like Atlanta – the KC Scouts didn't last two years there. New England is already saturated and a return to Hartford seems like a poor idea. Baltimore is Washington Capitals country. Milwaukee is too close to Chicago. Ditto Seattle and Vancouver. In Canada, the only other option is Halifax – which simply lacks the facilities. So what happens with these teams?

Gary Bettman is stubborn and hasn't quite learned his lesson about shoehorning teams into markets that do not give the slightest shit about hockey, so Columbus will end up in Las Vegas. It'll last for about five years and we'll end up right back where we started. We have to think outside of the box for a market for Nashville. Here's an idea: Anchorage. The metro area has a mere 350,000 people but Alaskans like hockey and they'd be the only game in town. Maybe play a few home games per year in Fairbanks. Could it be any worse than the crowds in the south?

To recap: Florida becomes Quebec City. Atlanta becomes Winnipeg. Phoenix becomes Saskatchewan. Columbus ends up in Vegas. Nashville either sticks it out in Tennessee (they're the least awful of the zombie teams) or moves to Anchorage. Fewer teams play in empty arenas and the solvent teams have to direct less revenue-sharing money toward their southern cousins. More teams play in cities in which someone cares. More players get to trade warm weather and indifference for hard winters with hardcore hockey fans.

I will not even charge the NHL a consulting fee for having saved it. Canada, on the other hand, owes me big time. You're welcome.