NHL expansion? Oh yeah, it's happening.
Despite much tut-tutting from the league this week in the wake of the Las Vegas rumors, there's no denying that the NHL's deep thinkers are eyeing two evenly balanced conferences. Since contraction is out of the question, that means they'll have to plant two more flags in the soil.
Which begs two questions: When? And where?
The timing is difficult to suss out, but the sense is that we're talking years, not decades. The conditions for expansion have rarely been more favorable, with the league having brought in record revenues of $3.6 billion last season. Also, franchise valuations hint at vast riches to be had by team owners. It's a market that appeals to both the buyers and the sellers.
As for locations, well, that situation is fluid as well. But if a decision is made in the next 12 months, here's how we see the top 10 favorites shaking out:
1. Las Vegas
Pros: Construction is underway on an NHL-ready arena. There are several parties interested in ownership, including Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer. The city offers unparalleled corporate ticket/sponsorship opportunities and the location is ideal for Western Conference rivalries with the Kings and the Ducks. Plus an NHL franchise would be the only major league team in town.
Cons: The team could be overlooked amid Sin City's myriad of entertainment options. There's a limited history/demand for sport in the area. A significant portion of the population works the night shift. And the stigma of gambling would have to be overcome.
Bottom Line: The location works, a rink is on the way and money seems to be no problem. Despite the loud concerns of naysayers, Vegas is the most viable Western option in the two- to five-year time frame.
Pros: There's nearly a century's worth of hockey history to build on in a sports city that is fanatical, as evidenced by league-leading support for its MLS club. The team would have a natural rivalry with Vancouver, and there have been multiple expressions of interest by prospective owners. It's a Western Conference-friendly location, so the Pacific Northwest is ideal for expanding the league's footprint.
Cons: No suitable building is in place. Barring a change in the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and prospective owner Chris Hansen, construction of a new arena is contingent on Hansen first acquiring the rights to an NBA franchise. He recently lost a major partner after Steve Ballmer bought the NBA's Clippers. Also, two previous expansion bids (in 1974 and ’90) failed.
Bottom line: Multiple sources say that Seattle is the NHL's first, second and third choice for expansion because the city can check off so many boxes. The problem is that Hansen got there first and has stated that he has no desire to own a majority interest in a hockey club. Unless he and the city allow the MOU to be altered to allow a hockey franchise to become the initial tenant of the proposed SoDo arena, the NHL will be forced to wait for the NBA to show up first.
3. Quebec City
Pros: An NHL-ready arena will open its doors in 2015, billionaire Pierre Karl Peladeau is in line to own team and there is the expectation of nightly sell-outs and strong TV revenues. A rivalry with the Canadiens would be revived. Quebec City has deep historical ties to the league and to the sport. A franchise here would also provide another Canadian revenue stream to help support the league's have-nots.
Cons: The Eastern Conference location, and Peladeau's dedication to Quebec sovereignty, could be problematic for the league.
Bottom line: Quebec City should be first in line for readmission to the NHL by almost every standard except one: Any expansion plan likely will be linked balancing the conferences. So barring an Eastern club generously (and inexplicably) offering to play in the West, there's no chance that the league's next two clubs will set their clocks by Eastern Standard Time.
Pros: There are passionate supporters of the junior league Winterhawks, a team that averages nearly 7,500 fans a game, and which tops 10,000 multiple times each season. The Moda Center is NHL-ready. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen is interested in becoming an owner, and he reportedly made a bid to bring the Coyotes to Portland before the franchise finalized its deal with city of Glendale. The Western Conference location is ideal and offers a geographical rivalry with Vancouver.
Cons: The expansion price tag (in the neighborhood of $275 million) is said to be too rich for Allen's tastes, and insiders say that it is more likely that he would buy a distressed franchise for relocation.
Bottom Line: The city sets up as an ideal market, but the one man with the money to make it happen is more passionate about a bargain than bringing hockey to town. Seems like a long shot at this point.
5. San Antonio
Pros: AT&T Center is smallish, seating 16,000-plus, but it is NHL-ready, and there would be a natural rivalry with the Stars. It's a top-40 TV market and its population has grown more than 30% since 2000. There would also be no competition with MLB or the NFL. It's an ideal Western Conference location.
Cons: The current home of the AHL's Rampage has a limited hockey tradition and the town is owned by the NBA's Spurs. There's also no apparent owner-in-waiting.
Bottom Line: All signs point to San Antonio being a peripheral candidate for expansion, but the city has been mentioned so many times by league sources that there is definitely something more here. If an interested owner stepped up, a deal could come together relatively quickly.
GALLERY: The fates of NHL Expansion Teams
6. San Diego
Pros: The San Diego region is the eighth-largest in the country in terms of population—and still growing—and it has no other winter sports team. The city has nearly 50 years of history with the game at the minor-league level, so the sport has a strong local profile. Hockey has worked brilliantly in other California markets.
Cons: No arena is in place or planned. The city's NFL and MLB teams routinely rank near the bottom of their leagues in attendance. There's no owner-in-waiting.
Bottom Line: Geographically, San Diego is an ideal fit for the league's broadcast-focused footprint, and if even half of those “small” crowds that the Chargers and the Padres draw show up for hockey, a team would sell out every night. But until an arena and an owner are in place (hey, Ron Burgundy likes hockey, doesn't he?), San Diego remains on the back burner.
Pros: If New York and Los Angeles can support two NHL clubs, Toronto is a natural—the pent-up demand for Maple Leafs tickets suggests that there is room for another franchise there. TV and box office windfalls would lead to a massive influx of cash to the Hockey Related Revenue pot. And the line of interested owners stretches nearly the length of Yonge Street.
Cons: A recent attempt to fund an arena in suburban Markham was quashed by angry voters. Speaking during the debate, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that arena proponents should “proceed with the assumption that [an NHL expansion franchise] will never happen." Territorial rights issues would have to be resolved with the Maple Leafs and the Sabres. Non-Leafs hockey teams have struggled to carve out a niche in the community, so a second team would always be second banana to the Original Six club.
Bottom Line: The passion for hockey in the city is so deeply ingrained that it's inevitable that someone, someday will get an arena built and secure a second franchise for the area. Now, though? The money isn't there. Until that person or corporation steps up, Toronto 2.0 is nothing more than a beautiful pipe dream.
Pros: Toyota Center is NHL-ready with seating for 17,800, and there's a long hockey history in the city that dates back to the 1940s. The WHL's Aeros enjoyed solid success and the AHL's Aeros were doing well until they failed to secure a lease agreement after the 2012–13 season. Houston is a massive and growing city that has the nation's 10th-largest TV market. It has the corporate base to pick up the high-end expansion tab, and it offers a natural rivalry with Dallas. Of no small consequence, a team here would fit into the Western Conference.
Cons: The lease agreement with Toyota Center gives the NBA's Rockets and owner Les Alexander exclusive rights to put an NHL team in the building. After two failed attempts to acquire an existing team, Alexander appears to have lost interest in the league. It's unlikely that another building could be funded with an NHL team as the primary tenant.
Bottom Line: There are many reasons to rank Houston higher on this list, but one obstacle trumps them all: Alexander is apparently disinclined to be shot down a third time.
Pros: This strong Canadian market would draw from Toronto's suburbs. It has a facility ready for short-term immediate use, and multiple owners have expressed interest in Hamilton in the past.
Cons: Territorial issues with the Maple Leafs and the Sabres have silenced previous bids. FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum) is an aging relic that would have to be replaced. Hamilton failed in a 1990 expansion bid, and multiple attempts to relocate franchises there have been aborted. It's not regarded as a “major league” city.
Bottom Line: It's almost cruel to mention "the Hammer" here, considering how often it has been jerked around through the years. Truth is, Hamilton has no chance of landing an expansion club at this point. Its best hope is as a relocation option for a team that's in a hurry to get out of town and isn't too picky about facilities. Winnipeg notwithstanding, those opportunities don't come around often.
10. Kansas City
Pros: It has an NHL-ready arena—the Sprint Center—in which a hockey team would be the primary tenant. The city has shown support for preseason games, selling out the arena in 2011 for a game between the Kings and the Penguins. There's no competition from the NBA.
Cons: The NHL's previous attempt to put a team in town, the Kansas City Scouts, failed after just two seasons. There's been no expression of interest in ownership from any local suitors, and there's no grassroots hockey base to build on. Analysis suggests that the city is economically incapable of supporting another major league team.
Bottom Line: Despite promises back in 2004 from then-AEG president Tim Leiweke (what's he up to these days?) to land a team within a year, there's been little more than idle flirting between the city and various clubs that are looking for a better deal. Then as now, K.C.'s candidacy seems based more on it simply being there than on any great demand in the area for a franchise. It seems destined to serve primarily as a relocation threat rather than as a legitimate expansion option.