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'The Slant'

 

A Backwards Way to Select a Market

by Will Moran

 

The National Hockey League’s landscape is changing; if the NHL is going to survive in a chaotic economic state, it must change as well. The story of the offseason has been the folding of the Atlanta Thrashers ( the second Atlanta team) and a return to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The relocation to Winnipeg may mark a turning point in how the National Hockey League and potential owners read markets for relocation or even expansion.

Let’s take a little history trip back to the 1960’s where the NHL was run under the watchful eye of Clarence Campbell and the 'Original Six Era' was coming to a close after 25 successful years. The unpopular choice of expansion started when the NHL required cities to come and present their city's pleas to the league. Only six of the 14 applicants would be chosen and the presentations had to be good. Although much of the jockeying was political and based on immediate readiness to support a team, the cities who survived did so because they had hockey fans there, not the potential for a market.

California Golden Seals

Don’t believe it? The San Francisco/Oakland area was chosen because CBS wouldn’t pick up the NHL’s television contract without a bay area squad. The California Golden Seals folded in 1976 after nine years of terrible attendance. So why did the NHL stay so successful in Los Angeles, just a few hundred miles away from a disaster in Oakland? It’s because when the NHL looked at LA, they saw a large number of Canadians residing, who they knew would support the product.

The rest of the teams are still in the league today, in one way or another. Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis have remained since 1967 and the NHL returned to Minnesota in 2000. When the league read these markets, they saw fans. Even when the NHL didn’t have a team farther West than Chicago, it had the ideology to find markets with hockey fans present, not base all its hope on large television presences and potential on population size. That’s why the Class of ’67 was much more successful than the failed 'Sun Belt' experiment.

While Winnipeg is a step in the right direction, the leauge may be faced with a similar problem in the future, should Phoenix not survive much longer. Funny that Atlanta and Phoenix are such perfect examples of the NHL’s failure to look past potential and find a true hockey market. The NHL saw 5+ million people, one of the largest US television markets and a hockey past. But what it didn’t see was passion and love for the game in a large enough capacity to support an NHL team; in every study, Atlanta has the potential to support an NHL team.

Nordiques

A study by The Business Journal has found that a city’s residents must make at least 37.6 billion to reasonably expect them to spend money on a professional sports franchise. Atlanta makes over 51 billion, but with 3 other pro sports teams in the city. So Atlanta has the money, the people, the media, but not the passion. The NHL still remains a gate driven league just as it was in 1967. When a markets media potential and population trump the true passion of the game, the NHL finds itself with a folded Golden Seals franchise and a twice disposed of Atlanta team, to name but a few examples.

Want to find an indicator for a great hockey market? Look to how the minors are doing. The Manitoba Moose ranked in the top four in attendance each of the last 7 years, placing second the four of the last five years. Winnipeg broke the doors down for its AHL team, showing the NHL that they can be a gate dependable league. That’s passion. Canada has six of the eight highest average ticket prices in the NHL are in Canada, which includes Winnipeg. So before the NHL tries to relocate to Kansas City or Hartford, it needs to look at the data that shows a true hockey market, with dependable hockey fans. Passion is the name of the game; the NHL needs to start playing. This doesn’t exclude the owners from making stupid moves, but the NHL needs to okay any move, and they must fight to keep hockey in it’s true markets.

 

check out more from Will at Goal Mouth Radio

27 August 2011 / Will Moran

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