Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 10: New American Arenas Proclaim NHL Hockey: We’re Number 4

If you dig deep and read between the lines, the current home of the New York Islanders in Brooklyn, the Barclay’s Center provides valuable lessons about the status of NHL hockey in the United States, how to build sports arenas, and even about the future development of the NHL. And none of it is good.

To re-summarize, the New York Islanders have been treated badly since their glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their original home, the Nassau Coliseum held just over 16,000 seats at its peak. That was okay back then when the median seating for the NHL was in the 16,000-17,000 range but it is not acceptable now when the median is probably over 18,000. As the years passed, the Coliseum became the second smallest arena in the NHL ahead of only Winnipeg. The Islanders more than merited a bigger, more modern arena but nothing has ever come from it.

islanders

Eventually the Islanders moved to the Barclay’s Center which has even less seating than their old home and to make matters worse, has bad ice, and obstructive view seats for hockey. The Islanders found they could not sell out even this reduced seating venue and had the second worst attendance in the NHL last season, ahead of only Carolina. And as long as they remain in the Barclay’s Center, it is unlikely attendance will improve.

The Barclay’s Center was built for the NBA Brooklyn Nets. It was not meant to be the home for an NHL team. In fact there is talk that the arena wants the Islanders gone soon. The NHL franchise is in peril. The options are build a new arena, return to Nassau, or move to Hartford.

The NHL will always be at a disadvantage when arenas are built when compared to the NBA. Basketball seating will always be greater than hockey because more seats can be added to the floor of the arena. The Barclay’s Center provides several important lessons for building arenas. First, it is possible to build a bad arena for both sports. Second, it is possible to build an arena that is good for basketball but bad for hockey. Third, it is impossible to build an arena that is good for hockey but will be bad for basketball. And fourth, when designing and building sports arenas, the architect should think hockey first because basketball will always fall into place.

There is no problem building arenas in Canada where hockey is number one. Arenas are always built with hockey in mind. If new arenas are built in Calgary and Ottawa, these cities automatically become contenders for a new NBA franchise as well as their current NHL teams. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman paid his first visit to the new Edmonton arena, built for hockey, he was so impressed he has vowed to reward the city with an All Star Game and to be the host of the NHL draft.

edmonton

If only there was the same attitude in the United States. The new Detroit arena that will open next season will be satisfactory for the Red Wings. And the new Las Vegas franchise had its arena designed for the Knights. But in the United States, that’s as far as it goes.

San Francisco

Right now there are two new arenas being built in Milwaukee and San Francisco and they only have the NBA in mind. The new arenas have been designed for basketball which could make any new NHL expansion team face the same problems the New York Islanders have. The new San Francisco arena will have approximately 18,000 seats, meaning a new NHL franchise will have seating well below the NHL median. The new Milwaukee arena will only have 17,500 seats for basketball which translated to the NHL could make it the third smallest arena in the league.

Milwaukee

It is clear when American arenas are built in this manner, what the status of hockey in the United States is. And with the NHL folding the Atlanta Thrashers and the potential debacle in Phoenix, the American environment is not conducive to building hockey-friendly facilities. The NHL wants to stay in Phoenix but pulling out of an arena that is only 13 years old and was built specifically for the inglorious Coyotes is not going to induce the locals to build yet another new arena in the Phoenix area. And if they did, they would more inclined to reward the NBA Suns, not the Coyotes.

Another potential mess is Seattle. They were the front runner for an NHL franchise in the recent expansion, but lost out when they could not resolve their arena issue. How would a new Seattle arena be built? Most of the talk has been about getting back the Supersonics. Almost all the talk has been about a new NBA owner being the owner of a new arena with an NHL team as tenants. Would a new Seattle arena be suitable for hockey under this arrangement?

Seattle

Commissioner Bettman listed the arena as being one of the three most important factors to be considered when offering terms to Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford to return to the NHL. If arenas in the United States are going to be built to accommodate the NBA first, it also brings into question the future development of the NHL. Under Bettman, the NHL has followed a pro-American path, with expansion and relocation mostly in the United States, mainly to get a good American television contract. But NHL hockey cannot grow in the United States if new arenas are built like the Barclay’s Center. Bad new hockey arenas could mean that the growth of the NHL in the United States is at a dead end.

Would that mean a significant change in direction in NHL policy? Expanding the NHL in Canada or starting a new branch in Europe? Right now the future of the Arizona Coyotes and New York Islanders are unresolved. And the NHL wants to expand to at least 32 teams in balanced conferences so that it can realign. The arena problem is tangled up in these issues. Certainly the Barclay’s Center and the new arenas in Milwaukee and San Francisco confirm that in the chase for status in the United States, in a four league race, the NHL is in fourth place.

 

The NHL Is Committed To Becoming A 40 Team League

If as reported last year, Hartford either suitably renovates the XL Center or replaces it with a new NHL-ready one, it will seal the commitment of the NHL to becoming a 40 team league. There will be no turning back. Unlike the NFL which prefers to strip cities of their franchises instead of expanding beyond the current symmetrical 32-team league (see St. Louis-Los Angeles), the NHL is determined to reach the next symmetrical number of 40 teams. That will mean realignment into the same structure as the NFL, 2 conferences with 4 divisions, only there will be 5 teams to a division, not 4.

Of course the NHL could also shift weak franchises, but considering how it fought tooth and nail to keep the Arizona Coyotes out of Hamilton, moving teams is probably the last option to be considered. Besides if it is able to get away with its $500 million entry fee, there’s at least $4.5 billion to be made in expansion fees from 9 new teams.

The current situation for NHL expansion is like the situation that existed in Europe when World War 1 broke out: Once one country went to war, that triggered the others to come in. In the NHL’s case, there are commitments that will trigger expansion to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams in a revised NFL-like structure. Symbolically, a new Hartford arena and a suitable owner will have the same effect on NHL expansion that the murder of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo had on European politics in 1914. To see what will happen, it is necessary to examine the things the NHL is currently committed to. Note that shifting franchises can blunt expansion, but as stated above, that is not a preferred option of the NHL.

1. Commitment #1: Restore Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford

In 2010, Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission: great fan-base (which all three cities have); suitable owner; and a proper NHL arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee). This was the first open sign that the NHL was interested in expansion since the last expansion in 2000 and if all three cities came back that would increase the number of teams to 33, one more than the symmetrical 32 limit. Instead Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift of Atlanta. Quebec is trying to come back but is stuck at the ownership level (The owner of the Quebecor bidder is unsuitable to the NHL).

But the admission of Quebec or Hartford by expansion instead of by franchise shift is awkward because they are eastern cities and that infringes with the NHL’s next two commitments:

2. Commitment #2: The NHL wants balanced conferences
3. Commitment #3: The NHL does not want to shift an eastern team back to the west

The NHL wants a balanced league with an equal number of happy franchise owners in each conference. But Detroit and Columbus were not happy being in the Western Conference because of travel expenses and time infringements and were shifted east. Now Quebec and Hartford whom the NHL is unofficially committed to want back into the league tilting the imbalance between the conferences even further. Adding Quebec and Hartford by expansion makes an 18 team Eastern Conference meaning that 3 more western cities have to be added to balance things. And neither Detroit, Columbus, nor any other eastern team wants to be shifted west for the reasons listed above unless it was a temporary measure that would be resolved within a year or two.

By adding Quebec and/or Hartford to the league by expansion, the NHL is now either a 32-33 team league and the resolution of the balance problem means that league is automatically committed to expanding to either 34 or 36 teams to restore conference balance. This automatically triggers commitment #4:

4. Commitment #4: Once the league reaches 32 teams or better, realign into a NFL-like structure

Although this has never been stated and is therefore unofficial, realigning the league into the NFL structure listed above makes the most sense. It is an easier structure for fans (and everyone) to understand and follow; divisions with 4 or 5 teams in them instead of large unwieldy conferences. The playoff structure will become more understandable and easier to follow as well. And realigning the NHL into this pattern allows the league to easily expand to 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division).

Now that the NHL is either 34 or 36 teams, it makes sense to continue expanding to fulfill commitment #5:

5. Commitment #5: Balance up the new divisions

It makes no sense to have some of the new divisions with 5 teams and other divisions with 4. Assuming that the NHL now has 36 teams, four more teams, two eastern, and two western will be added making the league a symmetrical 40 teams. Don’t worry about lack of markets. There are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada so all four major professional sports leagues are only a fraction of what they could be. And some extremely large metropolitan areas might end up with more than one team, like New York and Los Angeles currently are in the NHL.

Just for fun, here are some of the possible contenders for an NHL franchise. (This is my opinion. There are lots more potential bidders. This is who I think will make the most sense as new NHL members.)

East: Quebec, Hartford, Hamilton, second Toronto, second Montreal, Providence, Baltimore, Birmingham, Louisville, third southern Ontario, shifted Nashville, and Memphis

West: Seattle, Saskatoon, Spokane, Victoria, Portland, San Francisco, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and second Chicago

There are plenty of contenders but the NHL scared most of them away with that $500 million entry fee. But with NHL’s unofficial commitment to becoming a 40 team league, the door is wide open for 9 new teams.

“Calgary Next” Better Be Built Right

Now that the new arenas in Edmonton and Quebec are opened, what’s next on the new arena front in Canada? The is talk about two new projects; a new downtown arena in Ottawa and “Calgary Next”, a joint arena-stadium project costing $890 million (according to the official planners) or costing as much as $1.8 billion (the realists?).

This proposal first saw light of day in 2015. Naturally NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned up in January urging the project be accepted.

(Note to Bettman: Straighten out your Quebec City mess first and get a proper owner for a returned Nordiques team before urging new NHL arenas elsewhere.)

But such projects need to be well thought out before anything is built. Such projects are so complex they can become meaningless and when they are finally built, problems that were not envisaged come to the fore.

Here are two good examples in Canada. When the Olympic Stadium was built for 1976, it was assumed it would be the permanent home of the Montreal Expos and Montreal Alouettes. But nobody liked to watch football and baseball games there. Today the Alouettes play in a much more modest stadium and the Expos are gone, in part because Montreal would not build a new stadium to replace the Olympic Stadium.

The Skydome in Toronto was a similar project that blew up in the faces of its creators. First of all it was built to house the Toronto Blue Jays, the Toronto Argonauts, get the Olympics and an NFL team. But the initial seating, 48,000 was too small for the Olympics or an NFL team. And for baseball, there are some seats in the outfield in the upper deck where it is impossible to see if the fielder catches the ball if it is hit to that side of the outfield. Then it was decided that nobody liked watching a football game in the Skydome and now the Toronto Argonauts play at BMO field.

So if Calgary wants to build a new home for the Flames and Stampeders it had better be done right. This is a long term project and you had better get it right the first time or you will have to live with serious, costly consequences for a very long time. Here are some factors to consider before accepting the project. Remember that the thinking should be for the long term and not just for immediate needs.

FOR WHO

Arena

The arena section is said to be the new home of the NHL Calgary Flames, the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, and the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse League. But what about the NBA? Is there a market for professional basketball in Calgary? A new arena would certainly make Calgary a serious contender for an NBA expansion team. Until the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed all four major professional leagues in North America, NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB were headed to 40 teams, meaning two conferences of four divisions each with five teams in each division. Currently there is no talk about getting an NBA team but it should be a factor when considering this project.

Stadium

The new stadium is supposed to be big enough to house a CFL field for the Stampeders, a soccer field (a new Major League Soccer team?) and serve as a field house facility for the general public. But has anybody considered bringing a MLB team to Calgary? Because of the cold weather, any baseball team would have to play indoors, so this is an ideal project to build a stadium to bring Major League Baseball to Calgary. Currently there is talk of returning baseball to Montreal again if the city builds a suitable stadium. Why not bring baseball to Calgary (and Vancouver) too? Remember, you only get one shot at this so take in all the factors and possible tenants too.

WHERE

There is talk that this complex should be built on reclaimed contaminated land, but factors to consider should be parking, accessibility from public transit, and the impact of the complex on nearby neighborhoods.

SIZE AND DESIGN

It almost goes without saying that the design of the arena-stadium should allow all patrons to see the entire field and not have fiascos like the SkyDome seating. Size is a trickier factor. Is the seating for the hockey/basketball arena enough to generate enough revenue for the Flames to sign top draft choices, stars, and free agents? In today’s NHL/NBA you cannot win by being able to sign one good player. A professional team has to be able to afford to sign several star players. The stadium is said to be anywhere from 30,000 to just over 40,000. Is that big enough? Is that big enough to get an MLB baseball team? Calgary is no longer the city of 500,000 it was back in 1980. It is Canada’s fifth largest city with a population of over one million. Do you want to host the Grey Cup game and if you do, do you want attendance to be 50,000+? Do you want the Summer Olympics? They want a grand march-in stadium of 60,000+. So does the NFL, if you want it. All these factors have to be considered.

COST

The official cost is listed at $890 million but I have seen figures as high as $1.8 billion. If you consider all the possible factors and potential tenants (and they have not been so far), the cost could be much higher. Unforseen factors could be discovered and of course there is the “corruption” factor that nobody ever takes into account. The recent Toronto Pan American Games did not come in under budget.

“Calgary Next” is an exciting project that could solve the long term facility problems for the Flames, Hitmen, Roughnecks,and Stampeders, and perhaps bring Major League Soccer, the NBA, and Major League Baseball too. Calgary should take its time to consider everything before accepting a project of this size. It should be prepared to ask for major modifications, especially if it wants to bring in tenants as yet unconsidered like the NBA and MLB. Take your time to consider everything and get it right. Remember, you only get one shot.

NHL/America’s Attitude To The Olympics: They Are An Alien Concept

Besides news about the daily games, what’s the news on the NHL’s website? It is said that the NHL’s participation in the next Winter Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea is in danger. At the latest NHL Board meeting, many club owners, voiced several grievances against the games of which there are some of legitimate merit. There is the problem of shutting down the NHL for two weeks and revising the schedule. There is the problem of insurance and injuries to players.

But these legitimate problems seem to be playing a minor role in the current dispute. The main grievance is said to be money; the Olympics do not “pay”. What the NHL (and American television) wants are Winter Olympic Games held in the United States or Canada which can bring in big ratings and dollars. The South Korean time zone is just too much out of range for their liking. They also want their rumps kissed by having the IOC pay for their insurance, travel and accommodations. The IOC is willing to do this just like before.

The NHL/American attitude seems to be that they can step in and step out of the Olympics or any other sports or cultural event anytime they feel like it. There is no firm commitment, no sense of duty, no sense of something “spiritually higher” than themselves. This is a business decision.

This is not the first time the Olympics have been used for other purposes instead of a sporting event. Usually the reason is politics. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda and to prove racial superiority. There was the horrible Munich massacre in 1972. In 1980, the United States and other countries withdrew from the Moscow games to protest the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Then the eastern block retaliated by withdrawing from the 1984 Los Angeles games. This time the reason is big business.

The NHL participated in the games at Sochi, Russia which were also out of North American time zones. But the NHL now has a sizeable number of Russians and Europeans playing on their rosters, so it would not have been very politic to not participate in Sochi. But South Korea can make no similar claim on the NHL and it is not big enough nor as important enough as a country like China in the NHL’s eyes. So there are less qualms about telling the South Koreans to stick it.

Even if the NHL formally does not participate there may be problems. Several players have made it known that they want to participate in the Olympics whether the NHL participates or not. It will be interesting to see what happens should that come to pass.

But the NHL and the United States attitude to the Olympics runs deeper than money. They just do not understand international competition unless they win. They are still willing to brag and boast about the “Miracle On Ice” victory over the USSR in 1980 when it suits them but overall their attitude is bad and belongs with myths and fairytales. And if they pull out of the 2018 games they will have no claim to brag and boast about anything.

In 1972, Canada had a similar attitude to international hockey competition, but its near defeat and the excitement caused by the close competition the USSR gave changed everything. The Canadian public was given a choice; should the NHL stay a North American only league or admit players no matter where they came from if they were good. They voiced overwhelming support for the latter policy. That is why the NHL is a multi-national league today. That is why there are still competitions between NHL professionals at the Olympics and the Canada/World Cup.

The American attitude seems to be that they exist on their own planet except when they win. When leagues like the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL were formed, their champions are somehow champions of the “world”, not merely the United States or Canada despite the fact that none of their teams play a single international game except when teams from Canada and the United States in the NHL play each other or when the Toronto Blue Jays/Raptors participate. The current dispute about whether to play in South Korea is simply reality intruding on American fairytales. “We want the best hockey players in the world to play at our South Korean Olympics.” “Huh? What? What’s all this about?”

But the NHL’s bad attitude is nothing compared to baseball and football. On other blogs I have written many articles about the American attitude to the World Baseball Classic, an event designed to encourage the growth of baseball internationally. Instead most Americans pour scorn and ridicule the event, even questioning whether the event itself and its result is legitimate. This cleverly covers up the truth that the United States – the country that invented baseball – has never come close to even winning even a third place medal. Yet Americans still believe they are the best baseball players in the world; that they are willing to pay top dollar to MLB because MLB says that its players are the best in the world in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; and that the champion of the “World Series” is the champion of the world despite not playing a single foreign opponent.

But the worst attitude belongs as usual to the arrogant NFL. They despise “foreigners” and make little attempt to hide their contempt. When the Buffalo Bills began playing some of their games in Toronto in order to cash in on its lucrative market, the ticket prices were set so high that even the most fanatical Ontario NFL fan had to say, “Wait a minute. We’re not suckers.” Another telling event are the games played in London, UK. Usually the competition is between bottom-of-the-barrel teams or mismatches, projected meaningless games, games that would not sell out on their native soil. Indianapolis against Jacksonville? New York Giants against Los Angeles? Usually a seller hauls out his best stuff when he wants to make a good impression. The NFL is saying, “Take this crap, you ignorant foreigners. That’s all you’re good for.” And Americans wonder why they are unpopular when they travel abroad.

Is this attitude merely reserved for lowly foreigners? Ask the good citizens of St. Louis how they liked having their football team taken and gift wrapped to Los Angeles simply because their market is not as big as the second largest market in the United States. So much for their loyal support (Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston can all relate to this.) All the NFL had to do was expand by one or two teams and nobody would have been hurt. If this is the league’s attitude to its own citizens and supporters, it is no wonder that “foreigners” are given the dregs from the barrel.

Too bad the situation is not like soccer’s FIFA. Sure they like and want the American money and acclaim but they are quite prepared to live without the United States, being satisfied with the rest of the world. At last glance, there does not seem to be any attempt by FIFA to consult the United States or American television executives about which countries to award the World Cup to. Too bad the situation is not the same with the NHL and the current Olympics. What we will get whether good or bad is an American business decision.

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.