Sunday, May 10, 2009

The NHL in Hamilton

It seems like this comes up every year, doesn't it?

CEO of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie, is in the middle of making his third attempt to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, Ontario. This after failed attempts to do the same for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators in 2006 and 2007 respectively. However, this time it seems a little bit more serious. Everyone knows that the Coyotes are hemorrhaging money, and that the NHL had to assume control over them in the fall (despite having denied it for months) and despite this, Balsillie is willing to put up $212.5 million dollars to purchase the team and move them to Hamilton, which he insists is a viable hockey market.

To put it simply. I don't get it. I don't understand why Balsillie offered so much money for an NHL team, especially for one with as much debt as the Coyotes. And more importantly, I don't get why the NHL is being so difficult here. Here we have an enthusiastic owner, who wants to take a team that is losing money, and have them make money, in this economy no less.

I don't get why the NHL is standing so tough on defending the Coyotes, insisting that the NHL can be viable in that market. I mean, they have had 13 years now to make money, and they still haven't. Surely, at some point, someone has got to pull the plug, right?

The most interesting twist in this has been the apparent desire for someone else to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Hamilton as well, but apparently the mayor of Hamilton is only in talks with Balsillie. Atlanta, and Phoenix, coupled with Nashville, make an interesting trio of teams on the brink of bankruptcy (or in it with Phoenix, depending on who you ask) that may just end up being sold and/or relocated.

All three of these teams have came to be during the Gary Bettman days at the front of the front office. He saw the expansion into Atlanta and Nashville, and was a key part in the relocation of the Jets to Phoenix. From 1991 to 2000 the NHL saw a huge change in its landscape with nine franchises added and four relocations, let's have a look at them all, shall we?

San Jose: Strong fan support, even when their team was pretty bad in its early years.
Ottawa: Incredibly strong fan support, even this year when their team was very bad. Almost moved to Houston in late 90s, but have benefited from the new NHL.
Tampa Bay: After a brief love affair with the team in the early 90s, fan support dwindled. Won the Cup in 2004, nobody cared.
Dallas (from Minnesota): Consistently high attendance, very successful, despite everyone thinking that they wouldn't be. Probably the reason that the NHL became so convinced that they could succeed in non-traditional markets.
Anaheim: Have high attendance since their 2007 Stanley Cup victory, but horrible attendance and apathy before then.
Florida: It all went downhill for them once they weren't allowed to throw rats on the ice.
Colorado (from Quebec): Usually high attendance suffered a set back this year due to poor on ice results.
Phoenix (from Winnipeg): Losing money all over the place.
Carolina (from Hartford): Have gone from toast of the town to afterthought and back again so many times its hard to keep track. Averaged less than 89% attendance three seasons removed from the Stanley Cup, certainly not a good thing.
Nashville: Have never made money. Had low attendance, even when they were among the best teams in the league a few years ago.
Atlanta: Only team to have less than 80% attendance this past season.
Minnesota: Have been among the league leaders in attendance since they came into the league, despite inconsistent results.
Columbus: Have been near the bottom of the NHL's attendance, but have never had a playoff team until this season.

Now there are some obvious successes in there namely Colorado, Ottawa, and Minnesota, which should really surprise nobody. However, of the southern teams, the only ones which can be declared a true success are San Jose and Dallas. Carolina, and Anaheim are in between, and the jury is still out on Columbus, but the others have to be seen as failures. Atlanta's attendance is horrible, the Predators fans are non-existent, and really, who thought that two NHL teams in Florida was a good idea?

I'll tell you who: Gary Bettman's pride.

He has visions of the NHL being a first rate league like the NBA and NFL, but the point remains that it is an afterthought in the United States, especially in the south. People get more passionate about a sport if they can play it, and really, how can someone in Miami or Atlanta skate on a pond and pretend that they are Sydney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin? It simply doesn't work that way. The mechanics of the game make it impossible. You need ice to play hockey, and you need cold weather to have ice in your backyard. Sure people can play road hockey or go to a rink, but it is really not the same. Compare this to the fact that anyone, can pick up a ball and start bouncing it at any time. As much as I love hockey, it's just something that people en masse in the South are going to get into, it's harder for them to identify with.

Now I am not one of those traditionalists who says that the NHL should not be anywhere in the south, it obviously has it's places (i.e. San Jose, Dallas, even Los Angeles) but the fact remains that it is not working in a lot of places, and that puts the NHL in jeopardy of losing more money than it can afford to lose.

The other factor in Bettman's pride is that he simply does not want to admit to making a mistake. He received a lot of flak for moving the Jets to Phoenix, and so much of his image, and legacy, is tied up to that franchise succeeding. The Jets had a loyal fan base, and while they struggled financially in the old NHL, they could easily succeed in the new one, just like Edmonton and Ottawa are doing now.

Lastly, there is the image thing. There seems to be an important part of the league's image to have teams in certain large markets, like somehow not being in them makes your league appear "second rate". There is also concern that the NHL will look bush league if the lights on Madison Square Garden read "Tonight Rangers vs. Hamilton", although how that looks any less professional that Nashville or Columbus is a bit beyond me. What the NHL needs to realize, is that it's ok to retread from big name markets if they are not making any money. In the 90s the NFL moves two teams out of Los Angeles, and one out of Houston (the 2nd and 4th largest cities in the US), and they maintain one in Green Bay (the 261st largest) and they are doing just fine. Meanwhile, the NBA has moved a team from Charlotte to New Orleans (19 to 62) and from Seattle to Oklahoma (24 to 31) and they are doing just fine (all figures come from the source of all knowledge).

My point being, that image is nothing, results are everything. The NFL, North America's most successful sports league does not have a team in Los Angeles, because it simply did not make any money, yet they are doing fine. I think that the NHL can do just fine without a team in Phoenix, Nashville, or Atlanta (the 5th, 25th, and 33rd largest cities in the US), especially if they are all losing money.

Gary, please, it is time for you to swallow your pride and get that team out of Glendale, if you really don't want to move them to Hamilton, consider places like Kansas, Portland, or even Winnipeg. And besides, it's not like anyone in Phoenix would notice.

Until next time,



Anonymous said...

hamilton doesnt derserve anything, the hamilton bulldogs just played to a crowd of 3000 "loyal" fans. not to mention you cant put a team so close to toronto and buffalo, toronto is an HOUR DRIVE FROM HAMILTON. give the team back to WINNEPEG, hamilton is a horrible hockey market.

Anonymous said...

hamilton bulldogs... yeah Im sure hockey fans are dying to watch an AHL game when you can tour, like you said, an hour away to watch an NHL game. Hamilton would be a great spot. A true hockey fan wouldnt abandon their beloved team to cheer for a new one. It would just creat more rivalries.