NPF: DOUBLING DOWN, APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH

I haven't used the "Skip this" tag in over a year, so if it applies to you just bear with this post.

Gary Bettman has done a lot of good things for the NHL. When he became commissioner in 1993 the league was struggling to attract revenue beyond the gate (i.e., other than ticket sales) and it was a niche sport in the US on par with soccer or tennis. He thoroughly modernized the league, something even his biggest detractors admit, and in the process has probably been a net positive.

His Achilles Heel, though, has been the insistence on bringing hockey to the Sun Belt in the US. On paper it makes sense, although owners in 1993 were rightly incredulous. He had the foresight to point out how much of the US population would move to the Sun Belt, and his predictions came true. Unfortunately expanding to the Sun Belt has been a mixed bag at best because the fundamental premise – that Midwest / New England transplants to the South will want to see their favorite teams come to town for road games – is badly flawed. If the team can't build a local fan base because local fans simply don't care about hockey, the franchise is doomed. Atlanta lasted all of seven years. The Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes have been a ward of the league several times and don't attract flies to their expensive Glendale arena even though the team has been good recently, making the playoffs multiple times and even knocking off the 3-time Cup winning Blackhawks in 2011. Florida has been a basketcase / zombie franchise in a Miami market that could not care less about it for over 20 years now.

The two teams that succeeded in the Sun Belt – Tampa Bay and Nashville – did so because their ownership groups were intelligent enough not to rely on old fans coming to see their team on the road as a fan base. They both sustained huge short term losses by giving away tickets (especially to kids, knowing that the parents would have to come too) by the bushel. For every 10 free tickets, 1 person came and realized "Hey, I like this!" and they slowly built a local base. Having good teams helped a lot too (TB has won 1 Cup and runner-upped a second). So Bettman will, with some justification, point out that Sun Belt hockey can work.

And now he's doubling down on Las Vegas. Las Vegas is going to be a goddamn disaster. My suggestion on a popular hockey site for the team nickname (which ended up being the atrocious "Black Knights", as generic a name as you can find) was the Nordiques, because this team is going to be in Quebec in ten years or I'll eat my hat. Las Vegas has nothing that suggests it can ever support a pro sports team, and especially not hockey.

The obvious flaw in the Vegas market is that even the local population is transient. People, usually younger people, move to Vegas to work for a few years before burning out on the "Sin City" atmosphere and moving somewhere normal. It's not a place any sane person can take for very long. The other part of the population is retirees who are only going to care inasmuch as they can see the Bruins or Blackhawks come to town a couple times per year. It is beyond unlikely that a hockey team – assuming for a second that anyone in the desert even is predisposed to care about hockey – is going to build a strong local following in a place where the population is constantly churning.

They'll sell out in year one for the novelty factor – At the very least the league will strong arm casinos into gobbling up season tickets to give away for free – and I'm guessing that by the end of year two there will be more people on the ice than in the seats. Even if the team is good, which isn't likely given the expansion draft rules adopted last summer, this has all the makings of a non-starter.

Winnipeg's new team, the ex-Atlanta Thrashers, proves that when in doubt, NHL teams belong in Canada. Statistical analysis suggests that even though it is the 4th largest city in the US, Houston (pop. 6,500,000) has fewer people who like hockey enough to buy tickets than Saskatoon (pop. 260,000). Insiders were floored that Quebec City, with its billionaire ownership group willing to self-fund an arena and where the Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche) are still missed, was not awarded an expansion team in favor of Vegas. Something tells me that they'll be getting their team soon enough. Despite the US/Canadian exchange rate issue, which Bettman blamed for the QC group's rejection, can't override the basic fact that people in Quebec will go to the games and nobody in Vegas will.

The worst outcome will be Bettman choosing to die on the hill of a Vegas franchise as he has stubbornly refused all attempts to relocate Phoenix or Florida despite them both being clear failures and money losers in their current markets. Bettman's getting old and he could decide to dig in his heels. But if 10% of the league's teams – 3 of 30 – are money losing Bettman pet projects, I think the owners are likely to rebel. So it's time for Hamilton and Quebec City to make sure that the local owners' groups and arena plans are ready to roll because this Vegas adventure is likely to be as short lived as it is poorly thought out.

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19 Responses to “NPF: DOUBLING DOWN, APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH”

  1. Retired Labor Thug Says:

    Tampa Bay has a Cup under its belt? Meanwhile, the Blues, a team I watched in my youth (moved away a couple years after they started up) have never won one. Now that's Upside Down World. Or not.

  2. Spacegeek Says:

    They're actually called the "Golden Knights", and I'm not sure if that's better or worse. The logo is incredibly bland, even if I do kind of like the opening of the helmet forming the letter "V".

    You're right, though; they won't last.

  3. jtr Says:

    The NFL is looking to tap Vegas as well, as the Oakland Raiders have spent the last year creeping closer and closer to getting Vegas and Nevada taxpayers to cough up a bunch of money for an arena. I totally agree that its a mistake to put a team in that market for the reasons you listed above. At least for the NFL, the league as a whole is such a big draw that they can probably half-fill a stadium with tourists who get tickets thrown into vacation packages and high-rollers who get tickets as casino comps. It's going to suck for the players and the handful of local fans they cultivate, because its going to be waaay more away fans than home fans at any given home game, even worse than the current transplant-market teams in Florida and Arizona.

  4. Combat malamute Says:

    I never understood why the NHL doesn't set up in Seattle. We're close enough to Canada it would make sense, some people areally actually born and stay here, and hockey isn't exactly a novelty. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than going into a place that's uninhabitable without air conditioning.

  5. democommie Says:

    If it had anything to do with fans or players, it would not happen.

  6. Bitter Scribe Says:

    As perhaps the only Greek on Earth who doesn't gamble, I have always been fascinated by Vegas. The most parasitic economy imaginable. They produce next to nothing; virtually all of their revenue is based on dumb greedheads flying into town, getting their pockets vacuumed, and leaving. It's barely even a city in any conventional sense. Sports would seem to be no more a priority there than classical music or art museums.

  7. Sarah Says:

    The Mets AAA team is now located in Vegas and don't draw well and the "Las Vegas 51s" have had so many different major league affiliates and maybe owners should accept that Vegas just isn't great for sports for obvious reasons.

  8. Khaled Says:

    Finally a topic where I can talk with some confidence!

    (yes that was sarcasm)

    Quebec City has a nice new arena. How else do you think that the Panthers were able to get that blackmail money from Sunrise? The critical key to understanding sports ownership is realizing that the relocation game is all based on getting a free arena/stadium paid for by the local taxpayers. It's pretty easy to make money when you can get revenue when you don't pay rent. It's also the reason why the league kept the Yotes in place when they literally had to buy out the old owner and run it by the league. They had an almost new arena that wasn't working, so rather than admit that a new arena doesn't fix all the team's problems, they claimed the old owners didn't know what they were doing (which might be true) and kept the team in Arizona. Part of the bankruptcy proceedings for the Coyotes revealed that yes, a team in Hamilton would make money, as would a team in Quebec, etc. Internal NHL studies already show that. But the leverage to get a new arena out of the suckers in each of the cities that already have teams is based on cities that *want* a team and have/ or are willing to build an arena.

    Seattle doesn't have a team because the Key Arena was designed to be a terrible arena for hockey because the NBA wanted to keep them out. The NHL desperately wants to put a team there, but the arena deals in Seattle hinge on getting the NBA back.

    The Atlanta Thrashers only existed so that the Hawks could get a new arena. They would have sold them before but all the owners of the Hawks/Thrashers kept suing each other. As soon as it was all settled, the league let them go to Winnipeg because they didn't care, Winnipeg had a new arena.

    The current favorite to move is the Carolina Hurricanes, as the owner, Peter Karmanos, just settled a lawsuit from his kids, since he raided their trust funds (that he set up to avoid taxes, not because he actually cares) to fund the team. The Canes are dead last in attendance in the NHL, and struggle to outdraw the Hershey Bears, the AHL team in Central PA. The arena is on the campus of NC State, and it's primary purpose is for NC State BB, not hockey. Karmanos already moved the team from Hartford to Raleigh and he promised to not move the Whalers right before he moved them to Raleigh. I figure he didn't realize that while there are no professional teams in Raleigh-Durham, a hockey team is less important in that area behind Duke, UNC, and NC State BB, college football and the NFL/NBA isn't very far away in Charlotte. I'm sure both of them pull dollars and eyeballs away from the Canes.

    NHL teams have gotten a boon from the rise of local sports TV channels. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, etc., are near the top of the rankings. Anaheim gets bad ratings, but they're in the LA market, so even a small amount of people is still a lot of eyeballs. Last time I checked, the Panthers were getting TV ratings of less than 5,000 households in Miami along with less than 13K at the games. But the team makes money from managing the arena since it's always booked with concerts and other events.

  9. Joseph P. Says:

    I would go see a team called "The Las Vegas Nordiques."

  10. cheechoo Says:

    The two teams that succeeded in the Sun Belt – Tampa Bay and Nashville – did so because their ownership groups were intelligent enough not to rely on old fans coming to see their team on the road as a fan base.

    U 4GOT ABOUT THE SHARKS

  11. Katydid Says:

    @BitterScribe; to me, Vegas is the epitome of the very worst of America. Fountains and swimming pools in the desert, why not? Electric lights and roller coasters and other electricity-eating things for no good purpose. Food, alcohol, and drinking water trucked in from outrageous distances, wasting petroleum. Fancy boutiques selling "designer" crap nobody needs. A place marketed to people to be irresponsible assholes whose every whim is catered to by an army of the desperately poor and working homeless. It rivals Disney for sheer crassness, and just like Disney, the sheep gobble it up.

  12. doug Says:

    Hurricane's arena not on campus. A few miles from Campus, beside the football stadium which is not on campus either. State fairgrounds are beside the complex.
    NC State plays basketball there, yes. Many thought the Hurricanes were on the best end of the deal that saw the arena built. I have no idea.

    There can be more fans of opposing teams than the local one at the 'home' games. Folks can pack up their families and move from the 'north', but they can't leave 'their' hockey team behind…
    Price has something to do with low attendance..IMO

  13. mago Says:

    Yep yep. Doubling down on stupidity.

    Not a hockey fan, but like the story, I mean, for the cultural hit from a foreign world.

    Thanks for the NPF.

  14. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @Bitter Scribe:

    I highly recommend this five-part series about the misadventures of the nascent Downtown Las Vegas tech scene:

    http://www.recode.net/2014/9/29/11631348/downtown-las-vegas-is-the-great-american-techtopia

  15. Alan C Says:

    Seattle has won a Stanley Cup, albeit in 1917. I'm not a hockey fan, but I'm amused by the fact that our Western Hockey League team plays clubs from Canadian cities like Kamloops and Medicine Hat. Tells you something about the relative popularity of hockey in the US vs. Canada, I suppose.

  16. Rich S. Says:

    My problem with Bettman is that he took a blue collar game and turned it over to those who can afford $150 (and most times much more than that) for a nosebleed seat at a regular season game.
    I miss the old days when hockey was still niche sport and you would often hear the chant at MSG of "Red Seats Suck" during a Rangers game.
    Now I can't afford to buy tickets.
    He changed the names of the divisions and conferences from names from the history of the game, to generic geographical east, west, etc. Why? If you're trying to grow a fan base, why would you think that educating a new fan about who Lester Patrick was and why it's called the Patrick Division is some kind of impediment?
    Also, the NHL wants $140 per year for NHLtv. And that's with about a third of Rangers games blacked out, and if you're a Blackhawks fan, almost half of those are blacked out. Who in their right mind would agree to those terms, especially since the entire playoffs are blacked out with a delay of 48 hours?
    I canceled my subscription to NHLtv and will content myself to stealing the product on Youtube. I don't want to do this. I paid the subscription for HockeyStreams until they got shut down. It was a great service. You could watch any game from any feed including in French from Montreal. NHLtv basically sucks, but I would pay the subscription if they only got rid of the blackouts. I don't understand why it is not possible to negotiate with NBC to allow NHLtv subscribers to see the playoffs live. Many of us do not have a cable subscription.
    Bettman doesn't seem to care about long time fans. I don't think the business model that caters to rich people is sustainable. Only the rich can afford tickets, only the rich can afford to have their kids play the game. Where will they get players 20 years from now?

  17. cackalacka Says:

    Khaled and Doug-

    Re: Canes, attendance is down, not sure if price is more to blame than the fact that the last time they fielded a professional team was in 2009. The franchise started to get grounded and have a following the '02/'06/'09 post-seasons. That said, it's hard to get out your wallet if you're unsure if your team is going to be in QC. It is nice to have a local franchise that can smooth over the UNC/NCSU/Duke animosity. The Canes provided a good opportunity to tailgate with your douchebag neighbor.

    We'll see what happens to the franchise. At least it is holding on longer than Atlanta; the only American city to have given up a pro franchise to a Canadian city is Atlanta, and that's happened twice! I wonder when Calgary plays Winnipeg if the fans all pull out throw-back Atlanta crap.

    Lastly, in addition to the transient nature of Vegas, there is the Pete Rose factor.

    Hey, let's put a bunch of dudes to play professionally down the street from the worlds premier sports books. Nothing bad could ever happen.

  18. Miles Bjornstam Says:

    hockey is a rich kid sport. it is the most expensive team sport for kids and teens by an order of magnitude. It costs more to play in pee wee hockey than it does to be a competitive downhill skiier. Maybe it has 'blue collar roots' but it has been for rich kids since I grew up in MN in the 1990s. "Edina" the snootiest suburb of the Twin Cities is also the Hockey Powerhouse. GOLF is more "blue collar" than Hockey these days.

    I live in Seattle now. Seattle won't ever have NHL and they won't have NBA again either. Aside from the Sounders, sports fans in SEA are total fair weather fans and simply do not go to games. the local aristocracy is mostly nerds who do not care too much about sports, so theres never gonna be the kind of stadium deal you see in other cities.

  19. Kevin Says:

    Hey Ed….

    It would appear that the team name was announced BEFORE anyone though to get it trademarked. Not an auspicious beginning…..

    http://www.reviewjournal.com/sports/nhl-vegas/us-patent-office-denies-golden-knights-trademark