Bettman Made Another League Feasible

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman set the price tag for admission into his exclusive club: $500 million big ones. Aside from another blatant example of taking professional sports away from the “common fan” (a topic that merits a separate article), his expensive price has had the opposite effect of what the league intends.

The NHL (and you can include the other professional big shots, the NFL, the NBA, and MLB, they are just as bad if not worse) by setting this price and all its other conditions of admission is saying that only the purest, the richest, the most well-bred of investors is worthy to join us. And only the two cities that were the most fanatical about joining, Las Vegas and Quebec City were willing to bite the expensive bullet.

Quebec City’s reaction is understandable. Ever since their old NHL team, the Quebec Nordiques left in 1995, Quebec has wanted its team back. There was never any problem with fan base, just the arena and ownership. Quebec was one of the mainstays of the old WHA.

Las Vegas is more debatable. They have never had any of the four professional sports leagues place a team in their city and at least for now, the prospect of doing it seems a fascinating novelty.

But most (wise) investors looked closely before they leapt. $500 million is quite a jump in price from the $80 million it took to enter the league during the last expansion in the late 1990s, especially to join a league that is probably ranked fourth among the “big four” professional sports leagues in the United States and only has one franchise (ironically the Canadian based Toronto Maple Leafs) listed in the top twenty richest, professional sports franchises.

Some potential investors like the Hunt family in Kansas City publicly backed off. An ex-NHL owner, Peter Pocklington denounced the expensive price.

When looked at closely, it is a highly questionable policy. If these applicants are going to be your new partners, why do you want to burden them with an excessive entry fee? And especially with the NHL, throughout Bettman’s reign as Commissioner, many of his existing franchises have been chronically losing money. An excessive entry fee increases the possibility for an unsuccessful franchise to function.

You won’t have any problem with Quebec City. Quebec City with a proper NHL arena and owner is a sure-fire winner. But Las Vegas is the type of franchise so often favored by Bettman in an attempt to get a rich American televison contract: An attempt to spread the game of hockey by introducing it into markets where it has no roots. One would think that the NHL has had enough Atlantas, Phoenixes, and Floridas. An excessive entry fee might be the lighted match that would eventually ruin a Las Vegas franchise.

But if new investors really want to operate a professional hockey team, it might be better to join together, scrap an expensive entry fee, and start their own league. Put the $500 million to something useful like player and management salaries and new arenas.

That’s what happened in the early 1970s when the WHA was formed. Owners who found they could not buy their way into the NHL set up their own league and while nobody wants a return to the “war years”, Gary Bettman’s excessive price makes the possibility of starting a new league feasible.

Furthermore, conditions are better for starting a new hockey league now than they were in 1972. Back then, most WHA teams played in small, old, run-down arenas, but that would not be the case if a new league made its franchise choices wisely. Back then only Cleveland (a disaster of a franchise) and Edmonton (which built its existing arena for its WHA team) played in modern arenas.

The best franchise choices for a new league would be Quebec, Hartford, Toronto, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Portland, Kansas City, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Most of these cities have roots in hockey and all of them have arenas that seat at least 15,000. With proper ownership and investment, franchises with at least a half-decent arena and a fan base with roots in hockey have at least a 50% chance of survival. And except for a second Toronto team, none of them would be based in an existing NHL market.

One of the first things the WHA did was that its owners pooled their resources to pay the NHL’s second biggest star, Bobby Hull, to join the Winnipeg Jets. This gave the league instant credibility. They also prized Canadian franchises because they realized that Canadian fans were the ones most responsible for the league’s survival. At one time, there was even a Canadian division. The NHL should remember that.

There are other advantages. The new Toronto and Hamilton franchises would not have to pay any compensation to the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres for infringing on their territory. Any new innovations and any reduction in ticket prices would be welcomed by “common” fans who can scarcely afford tickets or even sports merchandise and who are fed up with the arrogance of the “big four” leagues.

Most of all, the new league could wait for a merger, just like the WHA and AFL did. It may have taken longer to get into the NHL and NFL, but in the end, it was probably cheaper.

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