Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 3: Low Status Played A Key Role In NHL Expansion/Relocation

When Gary Bettman became NHL Commissioner in 1993, one of his priorities that he was probably specifically charged with by the NHL Board was to raise the status of NHL hockey in the United States. And in tangible terms, this meant getting a much more lucrative contract from American televison, one that at least approached that of football, baseball, and basketball.

Bettman initiated a controversial policy. He would expand the NHL into unfamiliar markets in the United States where the game in many cases had to be taught to the new patrons. By expanding the NHL all over the United States, he hoped that the NHL would at least give an illusion that it was one of “America’s games”, a “big 4″ professional sport that merited an American television contract on par with the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. In addition, he sanctioned the move of 4 existing franchises from traditional hockey loving markets to new territory. These shifts were Minnesota to Dallas; Quebec to Denver; Hartford to Raleigh; and Winnipeg to Phoenix. Of the four shifts, only the move of Quebec to Denver could be said to be a move from one hockey loving market to one with any familiarity with hockey.

There have been 7 expansion teams during Bettman’s tenure; Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta, Columbus, and now Las Vegas. All except Minnesota and possibly Anaheim have been non-traditional hockey markets. In the end Bettman did get a better contract from American television, but not one that compares favorably with those given to the other three leagues. And there would be low moments like the OLN/Versus episode.

Expansion to unfamiliar markets came at a price. In some years, it was reported that as many as 10 American teams were losing money. The lowest moment so far was the shifting of Atlanta for the second time to a Canadian city, this time Winnipeg. Right now Arizona is another potential major embarrassment.

There was a bitter reaction elsewhere. American cities in the northwestern United States, specifically Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle – three sure money makers – were ignored. The shift of Winnipeg and Quebec and the NHL’s refusal to put a second team in southern Ontario, specifically Hamilton, accounts for much of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada, even though he was probably right that the smaller Canadian cities needed bigger and better arenas with much more solid ownership.

Bettman himself is probably NOT anti-Canadian, though most Canadians believe it. He opened the door for Winnipeg and Quebec to return in 2010 and expressed regret at the loss of the franchises. And the limited number of Canadian teams probably has more to do with the existing Canadian franchise owners unwillingness to share their markets and Canadian television revenue than any “anti-Canadian” policy initiated by Bettman and the American owners of the NHL. But the “low status” problem in the United States has dictated much of his policies about where new NHL expansion teams should be located.

Would it have been better to put new teams in Milwaukee, Portland, and Seattle, cities that Canadians can hardly object to that have a love of hockey, instead of many of the unknown American markets? Certainly NHL television and attendance records might have been better, leading to a better American television contract. Some of the new American franchises have worked; Dallas, Anaheim, and Denver. Hopefully Nashville, after coming close to being shifted to Hamilton by Jim Balsille has turned the corner.

But hockey remains number 4. The NHL has made progress and revenues are up during Bettman’s time as Commissioner, but he has not solved the status problem. Right now Arizona, Carolina, and the arena of the New York Islanders are major problems. Columbus and Florida are precarious franchises. Will Las Vegas work or become another Phoenix? Can it really be said that hockey is “America’s game”?


5 thoughts on “Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 3: Low Status Played A Key Role In NHL Expansion/Relocation

  1. Well the TV contracts is where it’s at also. The Hockey salary cap has hardly moved where others raise by leaps and bounds and it’s all about the TV contract.

    NBA 24 Billion
    MLB 12.4 Billion
    NFL 20.4 Billion
    NHL 2 Billion
    There is your problem. You can see where it ranks its clearly #4. And I understand this does not take Canada into account. Thats 5 billion. So its clearly still number 4. But you can see that it’s number 4.

    NHL salary cap 44-55 million
    NFL salary cap 155 million
    NBA salary cap 99 million.

    MLB does not have a cap they have a lux. tax and revenue sharing
    Now you know that NFL steals the money and puts in the owners pockets.
    NBA gives the players too much. but the NHL doesn’t have the numbers no cash. As for the moving teams I have never understood why Minnesota lost the stars they had fan support they were a good team. I suppose it was just like the other teams that left the those cities behind. There was a larger city with larger pockets.

    Minneapolis metro 3.5 million
    Dallas metro 7 million

  2. Thanks for the statistics, Josh. They certainly proclaim why the NHL is number 4 in the United States by a wide margin. Given your statistics, the real surprise is that the NHL dared to set an expansion fee so high that bears no relevance to the value of an NHL franchise in the marketplace. And of course Foley and Quebecor continuing to pursue an NHL franchise to the bitter end, despite all financial logic.. Compared to the other 3 sports, the NHL is on a small but respectable scale in the United States.

    Anything about Canada is considered separate by Americans in any sport. Since before I was born, Canadians, (who mostly live near the American border) can get at least all the major free American networks. But viewership from Canada is never counted by American networks. Ratings are based on viewership within the United States only and programming on these networks is geared to American viewers. That is why you do not see many Canadian teams on American hockey broadcasts.

    It is different in Canada because of its devotion to hockey. Between the CBC and TSN, it is possible for Canadians to see every playoff matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs regardless of country. And while Canadians might enjoy watching the “Battle of Pennsylvania” (Pittsburgh-Philadelphia), the “Battle of Los Angeles” (Los Angeles-Anaheim), etc. American networks do not share the same opinion about Americans watching Canadian teams. So it is doubtful you will ever see a playoff game of the “Battle of Alberta” (Calgary-Edmonton) or “Battle of Ontario” (Toronto-Ottawa), etc.

    Occasionally a Canadian team may become popular in the United States. When Wayne Gretzky was playing for Edmonton, Americans wanted to see the Oilers play American teams. So my prediction for the future is that the Canadian team you will see the most of in the future will be the Edmonton Oilers because of the next great Canadian player, Connor McDavid. And Americans might want to see Toronto because of Austin Matthews.

    I am not sure about the Minnesota move but it was probably much like the shifts of franchise by the NFL. The owner could see a “better deal” in Dallas and with that dangling before him, he acted accordingly. And probably there was a dispute about the arena with the owner wanting a new one built. The arena that the North Stars played in was built for the original expansion of 1967 in Bloomington. The current team, the Wild, play in a new arena built for them.

    • Honestly the only games I watch are the ones that my team play. Save for the fact that I did continue to watch the playoffs this year just to root for what ever team Nashville was playing. I really hate them.

      They call Yankee Stadium the house that Ruth built. Well we called the Kiel Center(now the Scottrade Center” The house that Hull built.” The reason is simple without him we would not have it. The St. Louis Arena (The Checkerdome as it was also know.) Was built back in 1929. The first St. Louis hockey team played there The St. Louis Eagles. They were the 1st Ottawa Senators. It lasted from 1929 to 1994. So I could see something happening where Minnesota’s owner used a 26 year old arena and ran. They demoed the Met center the year after they left and built the new one starting in 1998. Seemed longer than 7 years without a team in Minnesota though.

  3. The real shock, Josh is that the NHL abandoned excellent markets in Minnesota, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford for in most cases, highly questionable markets. And again it reflects the unreal world of professional sports where rich owners expect that the taxpaying public, including poor people “owe” them a free sports facility. And since when is a building “old” or outdated at only 26 years of age?Maple Leaf Gardens , the Boston Garden, the Chicago Stadium, etc lasted as long as your Checkerdome. Do we tear down the Empire State Building because it is no longer the tallest building in New York and it is 86 years old? It just reflects the greed and distorted values of the times.

  4. The checkerdome was falling apart but I agree. The US population is since the 1950’s and the advent of A/C is moving south and to places it would not be able to before like Dallas , Atlanta, Las Vegas ,Phoenix and L.A. And the population of those cities have exploded because of this. I mean who in there right mind would live in a desert? Well if you have A/C then well it’s not so bad.

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