NHL Expansion Will Be Closely Watched

It is not only die-hard NHL fans who will be watching closely to see what unfolds in the upcoming NHL expansion drama. The NHL will have three other interested spectators, the NFL, MLB, and the NBA.

The expansion process has been in cold hibernation in every professional league for a long time now. At one time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that every “big four” sport league would adopt an NFL symmetrical 32 team structure of two conferences with four divisions in each conference and four teams in each division. Then they would inevitably expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.

Then came the catastrophic Mortgage Meltdown that put a damper on all business activity and enthusiasm for expansion waned. Many fans could no longer afford tickets or even buy sports merchandise and the professional sports world of unreal salaries and profits was forced to trim its sails for the time being. But after the NHL has opened the doors to expansion from two to four teams, can the other leagues be far behind? There is no shortage of cities. There are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada so all four leagues are but a fraction of the size they could be.

Certainly the other leagues will be watching the whole NHL expansion process, especially noting the NHL’s price tag for a franchise and its “consideration fee”. The NHL is considered the poorest of the “big four” leagues, with only one team, the Toronto Maple Leafs being listed in the top twenty most valuable sports franchises. The other three leagues will note what prices the NHL can get away with and plan their own expansion fees accordingly.

They will also take note of which potential owners will step up to get a franchise, how many will bid, and which cities will show the most interest and do the most (like build arenas and stadiums, and offer other special financial packages and concessions) in order to get a team.

Of the three leagues, the NFL will show the least interest. It already has a symmetrical structure and its main obsession was Los Angeles, the only city ever to yawn with indifference when its two NFL teams, the Raiders and Rams left town. Building a new luxurious Los Angeles football stadium with at least 75,000 seats was the only thing to really stir the NFL.  And the NFL has shown its usual ugly side by choosing to strip an established city (St. Louis) of its team instead of expanding the league.  So much for fan loyalty.

But the other two leagues will show the most interest. Both the NBA and MLB are stuck like the NHL at the uncomfortable number of 30 teams leading to awkward scheduling and playoff formats, especially for MLB which means that even during the regular season, one American League team must play one National League team at all times. Moving to 32 teams or more and realigning to an NFL structure makes sense for the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

But the league that will do the most watching will be the NBA because it has other reasons to do so besides the realignment issue. The NBA and the NHL usually play in the same buildings so they are well aware about which cities share the same arena and which cities do not. They automatically view cities in which there is only a NBA or NHL team as potential expansion sites. And in the case of Las Vegas and Quebec City, new cities that do not have either league.

If Las Vegas gets its NHL team and is successful, it will certainly come to the attention of the NBA. Other NHL cities that are on its radar are Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Montreal if they want to try Canadian expansion again.

On the NHL side, it would have made the league happy if the NBA cities of Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland, and Salt Lake City joined Quebec and Las Vegas in bidding for a team. But the outrageous entry fees have scared the rest of the would-be bidders

So NHL expansion is not just an event for hockey fans. It may be the opening of the floodgates when all four major professional leagues aim to be 40 team leagues in the not so distant future.

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