Now that the NHL’s excessive $500 million expansion fee plus $10 million “consideration fee” ($8 million refundable) has separated the “men from the boys”, and whittled down the potential applicants to an embarrassing measly two, the fanatical Quebec City and Las Vegas, it is time to take stock of what all this means.
Clearly the main message (addressed to the NBA, the NFL, and MLB as well as the NHL) is that while many investors would like to own a major league professional sports franchise, few are willing to pay “sucker” fees to join a sports league. Of the 16 application forms handed out by the NHL, only the two most fanatical have chosen to carry on. The majority of the business world has said that a $500 million entry fee is not compatible with the true value of an NHL franchise. And if that is the likely true verdict, then the NHL must reduce the entry fees to Quebec and Las Vegas or wait a long, long time before trying to expand again, and “balance up” their still mismatched western and eastern conferences.
As early as a year ago, it was reported in almost all sports media and hockey websites that the NHL would expand by at least four teams by 2017, and that Quebec, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Seattle were “done deals”. But when even two “sure things” have dropped out, it is clear that the NHL will not be able to expand again unless its entry terms are suitably modified to meet true market place value. Therefore in order to be fair to Quebec and Las Vegas, their entry fees must be reduced to what the business world says they are willing to pay.
Ever since the last expansion in the late 1990s when Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta and Columbus joined the NHL, ever since Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their NHL teams in the 1990s, in 2010, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and told them they would be welcomed back if they met certain terms, there has been an avalanche of rumors about North American cities who were dying to join the league.
In fact before the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed inevitable that all four major professional sports leagues would expand to the next symmetrical number of teams, 40, meaning 2 conferences with 4 divisions each and 5 teams in every division. The NHL alone has been dancing with such expansion fee dreams in its head since then- the lost cities of Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford; spurned cities like Hamilton, Houston, and Oklahoma City; other neglected hockey hotbeds like second Toronto, second Montreal, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland; and any surprise bids like Las Vegas, Kansas City, San Diego, etc. There are nearly 60 large metropolitan areas in North America so all four leagues are but a fraction of the size they could be.
But the NHL’s greedy fee drove the most hopeful applicants away and instead of having an abundance of bidders to chose from, now the NHL must settle for what they can get. In any order, here are some of the more significant cities who declined to make an offer once they saw the NHL’s excessive terms.
This is the most desperate city of them all. They built their arena back in the 1980s before the NHL even announced expansion in hopes of getting a future team. Hamilton hosted the famous 1987 Canada Cup and other significant sports events. When the NHL finally announced expansion, Hamilton was the front runner and it seemed inevitable they would get a team until the bidder, Tim Donut, mistakenly questioned the NHL’s terms and then saw the Hamilton franchise become the Ottawa Senators instead. Hamilton made another bid during the last expansion time and was turned down. Then came the agonizing Phoenix Coyote adventure. The city is willing to spend $50 million to expand its arena to a more than acceptable 18,500 seats plus luxury boxes. But when the most humiliated would-be hockey city does not even make an offer, you know that your expansion fees and terms are way in excess.
Similarly, the other main choice for a second southern Ontario team, has declined to pursue the matter. Toronto was having problems about where to build a second arena, but after viewing the NHL’s excessive terms, whoever was the “done deal” bidder has been happy to shelve both problems for the immediate future.
The second “done deal” city to drop out also cannot decide where and how to build a new arena and even which league it prefers to join. The Seattle bidder for an NBA team was supposed to build the arena and then the NHL bidder would be a tenant. Then the NHL bidder was going to build the arena… Then the… Then the NHL bidder saw the NHL’s expansion fee and terms and like the Toronto bidder was happy to shelve the whole mess. Seattle has joined Hamilton and Houston as a front runner NHL bidder who somehow failed to get an expansion franchise.
Houston was first a failed WHA city and then a failed NHL front running bidder during the last expansion despite three separate bids. Houston joined Hamilton as a city who seemed to have an NHL franchise sewn up and somehow lost it. Houston is the largest North American city without hockey and the NHL would love to welcome it into the fold. But the Dallas Stars’ best rival refused to make a bid, another slap in the face to the NHL’s status in the United States.
If there is another American city that is a hotbed of hockey that would be just as suitable a franchise should Seattle not get a team, it was said to be Portland. They have deep roots in Canadian junior hockey and also have the arena that Seattle lacks. They were rumored to be almost a sure bidder after the four “done deals”, but the NHL’s expansion terms have reduced them to silence.
6. Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City was one of the cities turned down by the NHL during the last expansion. They considered themselves an “upstart” city in terms of professional sports, eager to land some kind of major professional sports franchise to prove they were “big league”. So after being turned down by the NHL, they bought (stole according to Seattle sports fans) the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA instead. One might have expected another attempt to get an NHL team by this impertinent city but the NHL’s terms erased any remaining enthusiasm for such a project.
Gary Bettman laid down the welcome mat for all three ex-NHL cities to return, but unlike Quebec and Winnipeg, Hartford is nowhere to be found on the radar. Of all three cities, Hartford probably has the best market, sharing half of New England including the city of Providence with Boston. Hartford, like Quebec with a good owner and a proper NHL size arena, would be a sure-fire winner. But while Winnipeg and Quebec went out and solved their ownership and arena problems, Hartford has remained at the dreaming stage. Never mind the NHL’s excessive terms, unless Hartford gets serious about these two practical problems, the Whalers will remain a piece of nostalgia.
Like Seattle, Portland, and Hartford, Milwaukee is an American city with deep roots in hockey and would be a sure-fire winner with a good owner and NHL arena. If these two problems could be solved, Milwaukee would be a front runner in any NHL expansion. But nobody is in a hurry to rectify things after seeing the NHL’s terms.
9. Kansas City
Like Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, and Houston, Kansas City is a city where the third of Gary Bettman’s three terms for admittance, fan-base, is questionable. Kansas City was briefly an NHL city in the 1970s with the Scouts but lost the team to Denver and has gone without an NHL team ever since. They built a proper NHL arena to get both an NHL and NBA team and have even hosted some exhibition games but whatever enthusiasm there was for getting an NHL team of their own again has been squashed by the NHL’s expansion fee.
Well done NHL. Here are at least nine cities who might have joined Quebec and Las Vegas in bidding for a team, as well as possible others, but your excessive greed drove them away. All those rumors for all those years have proven to be just two. And it might be said that in the end, the two bidders might be better judged as fanatical nuts who are willing to pay too much for an NHL team instead of “men from the boys” with sound business sense.