It’s been little more than five weeks since the Vegas Golden Knights hit the ice for the first time in franchise history, becoming the NHL’s first expansion franchise in more than 15 years, yet talk has persisted that the league could be in line for another round of expansion in the near future.
The frontrunner in those conversations, of course, is Seattle. Long rumored to be a choice destination of the league, and seemingly on the road to finally getting an arena in place, it would seem only a matter of time before the NHL pulls the trigger and puts another organization in the Pacific Northwest. Up there, too, is Quebec City, in the minds of many a ready-made market that could host a team — expansion or otherwise — at the drop of the hat. There are other locales believed to be worth considering, as well, such as Kansas City and Hamilton.
But there appears to be a new potential destination for an expansion franchise, and, while not a traditional market, it's one that isn’t unfamiliar in hockey circles.
On Wednesday, The Athletic’s Katie Strang reported that, at some point over the past few weeks, a meeting took place between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Tilman Fertitta, who purchased the NBA’s Houston Rockets in September, and the topic of conversation was the potential to bring an NHL team to Houston. Speaking with The Athletic, Bettman said that while the league doesn’t intend to relocate any teams at this time, if Houston was “to express an interest in having an NHL franchise, under the right circumstances, it's something we might want to consider.”
And, to be sure, Fertitta has expressed an interest in bringing an NHL team to Houston. Shortly after his $2.2-billion purchase of the Rockets, along with the rights to operate the NBA team’s home arena, Toyota Center, Fertitta said that he wanted to find a tenant that could help fill the building throughout the year, packing the house on the nights the Rockets are off. On several occasions, the NHL was brought up, and Thursday afternoon, following the report of the meeting between he and Bettman, Fertitta made it abundantly clear that he’s exploring the option of bringing the league to Houston.
“As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very interested in the possibility of bringing the NHL to Houston,” Fertitta stated via Twitter. “But it will have to be a deal that works for my organization, the City, fans of the NHL throughout the region and the NHL Board of Governors. We are in the very early stage of evaluating what opportunities may exist but look forward to a thorough process.”
When it comes to the viability of a team in Houston, it would seem that the city checks many of the major boxes that would make the NHL intrigued by the possibility. First and foremost, the facility is in place, with Toyota Center acting as a more-than-suitable home. The building, which can seat nearly 18,000 for hockey, opened in October 2003 and has hosted AHL hockey in the past. From 2003 to 2013, the AHL’s Houston Aeros, then an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, skated at Toyota Center.
Additionally, Houston, with nearly 2.3 million people, is the fourth-most populated city in the United States, and the television market is the eighth-largest in the country, according to Nielsen. One hangup for Fertitta and the NHL, however, may be what portion of the population would turn up or tune in to watch an NHL team based in Houston, especially with the sports fan’s dollar stretched with the NBA’s Rockets, MLB’s Astros and NFL’s Texans, not to mention the MLS’ Dynamo, NWSL’s Dash and several minor league teams.
“I need to find out, for sure, if people will come out to an NHL game in Houston,” Fertitta told Fox Houston’s Mark Berman. “It would be disappointing if they wouldn’t, we’re the fourth-largest city in America, and we’ve had people move from the Northeast and the North my whole life. It’d be hard to fathom that we couldn’t support an NHL team.”
The attendance totals for the aforementioned AHL Aeros would seem to back Fertitta’s belief that Houston could support an NHL team, though. During their 10-year stay at Toyota Center, the Aeros’ lowest average attendance was 5,362, which came in 2003-04, and peaked with an average of 7,324 fans passing through the gates during the 2011-12 campaign. Over the course of the team’s tenure at the building, the average attendance was comfortably above 6,000 per game, often making Houston one of the top 10 draws in the entire AHL. It’s also worth noting that the other three sports in the Big Four, which is to say the NFL, NBA and MLB, all had teams in Houston during the Aeros’ tenure at the Toyota Center.
Putting a team in Houston does come with one benefit for the NHL, as well, which is a chance to again achieve balanced conferences. Presently, the Eastern Conference has 16 teams while the Western Conference, following the addition of the Golden Knights, is up to 15 clubs. The only way to do get an equal 16-16 split would be for the franchise in Houston to be an expansion franchise, however, or, in the case of an expansion team landing in the NHL ahead of Houston, the city could become a destination if a Western Conference team is forced to move. With Bettman’s comments on relocation, though, moving an existing team to Houston might be the last option.
So, while Seattle may still be considered by some to be the frontrunner for the league’s next round of expansion, it would seem that Houston, with Fertitta at the helm, has an opportunity to jump ahead and become the top contender for the NHL’s 32nd team.
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