Three elements have to be present for a professional sports league to move to a new city:
1) An arena/facility
2) An owner
3) A team
Right now, Seattle is one-for-three with Chris Hansen’s SoDo Seattle arena project receiving city council approval last month. Hansen, a passionate basketball fan, has no interest in owning an NHL team. However, he does have a great interest in finding someone as passionate about hockey as he is about basketball. He doesn’t have a team yet, either. Would the NHL relocate an existing franchise to Seattle, or would they go the route of expansion?
First off, Katz is not a legitimate candidate to bring the NHL to Seattle.
The Edmonton Oilers won’t relocate to Seattle. Daryl Katz took a trip to Seattle a few weeks ago to check out the new arena, but he was merely attempting to put some pressure on the city of Edmonton to pony up a few more bucks to help pay for his proposed downtown arena. This Seattle visit, in addition to being completely ill-timed and poorly thought out, wasn’t the first of its kind. Mario Lemieux made a similar trip to Kansas City when he was battling with the city of Pittsburgh over a new arena for the Penguins, and there have been other instances of NHL owners flirting with other cities to gain leverage in negotiations.
Katz’s group released this statement regarding the Seattle meeting:
“Nonetheless, and as the City of Edmonton is aware, the Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential NHL markets for some time. After more than four years of trying to secure an arena deal and with less than 24 months remaining on the Oilers’ lease at Rexall Place, this is only prudent and should come as no surprise.
“We are extremely grateful to Oilers’ fans for their patience and loyalty as we work through this process towards what we sincerely hope will be a long and successful future for the Oilers in Edmonton. We have no further comment on the status of our discussions with other markets at this time.”
He apologized to Edmonton fans after the fact, but it was a case of too little too late. A lot of damage was done to his image in Edmonton.
“There was probably a little too much (bare-knuckled Mark) Messier and not enough (graceful Wayne) Gretzky in the way that we conveyed things,” Katz said Monday in a radio interview.
“What we didn’t consider was how our supporters or our fans would feel and that was wrong and I apologize for it.”
Again, to reiterate, Katz is not a legitimate contender to bring hockey to Seattle.
Don Levin, however, is a very real player in this conversation. The current owner of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves has been after an NHL team for quite some time now. And he hasn’t been quiet in sharing his thoughts on the Seattle market, either.
“It’s probably the best market in the United States that does not have a hockey team demographically.”
Levin also predicts that an NHL franchise in Seattle would attract fans north of the border, much like the Buffalo Sabres do for fans in the Greater Toronto Area.
The Vancouver Canucks were eighth in NHL attendance last season, averaging 18,884. Rogers Arena averaged 102.5 percent capacity despite an average ticket price of $68.38 that is nearly $10 higher than the NHL average, according to Team Marketing Report. “I imagine there’d be thousands of Canadians that would come to every game because they can’t get into the building in Vancouver because it’s sold out and it’s such a good team. That would give them an opportunity to come to the city for a weekend to see hockey.”
Asked if he would be willing to work with Hansen in bringing NHL hockey to Seattle, Levin was quick in his response.
“I’d be interested in teaming up with anybody. It’ll happen with me, it’ll happen with Chris Hansen or it’ll happen with someone else. It’s going to happen. It’s just when whichever city decides they want to pull the trigger.”
Relocation vs. Expansion
Levin believes that expansion is the best route to pursue with the Seattle market, but that may just be posturing on his part. He doesn’t want to come out and say he is targeting a current NHL team to move to Seattle – we saw with Jim Balsillie that strong-arming the NHL doesn’t work. Levin spoke with ESPN’s Craig Custance on the issue in September.
“I can tell you there are not teams for sale that are available to move. My understanding is that the Phoenix deal, [Greg Jamison] has come up with the money,” Levin said. “The answer to the Islanders moving is never. They’re not moving out of that market. No chance that’s going to happen.”
There are no doubt a handful of NHL teams that are in a dire financial situaton (or are on their way there). Phoenix’s ownership situation is still up in the air, while the Islanders have failed to secure funding for a new arena. Their current lease expires in 2015, and owner Charles Wang has gone on record saying that the team won’t play one more game in the Nassau Coliseum once the lease expires.
The NHL is a gate-driven league, meaning that most of their revenues are generated from ticket sales. They don’t have a massive television contract or the sponsors that the MLB or NFL do. Seattle is home to many large American corporations, which bodes well for the addition of another professional sports team or two.
And as you can see from the below table, attendance figures are waning in many markets (from NHL to Seattle).
And the Seattle metro population is also comparable to several NHL markets – some successful, some struggling.
Assuming the Islanders don’t secure the funding for a new arena, what happens with them? Do they move to Brooklyn to play in the new arena there? It would be hard for the NHL to justify moving a club with such a storied history, but it could be a perfect storm for Seattle. New York’s lease expires in 2015, right around when the new arena could be completed (although 2016 is likely a more realistic completion date). The Brooklyn arena was not constructed for hockey, and may not be able to seat enough people with an ice rink configuration to generate sufficient revenues.
Kansas City was often thought of as a fall-back option because of their NHL-ready facility (the Sprint Center), but the Kansas City market is the 31st largest in the United States (compared to 14th for Seattle). The NHL has toyed with the idea of expansion to the Greater Toronto Area (a second NHL team makes a ton of sense in the Markham area). Expansion is preferable for the league as it generates additional revenues (expansion fees), and the league doesn’t have the black eye associated with having to move a struggling franchise. Bettman has fought tooth and nail for many of his struggling/failing southern markets, and that, not three lockouts, may ultimately be his undoing.
Regardless of who steps in to help Hansen bring the NHL to Seattle, it sounds like there are too many reasons for the NHL not to ignore Seattle once again. The largest hurdle has been overcome, and although there are still many others in the way, the momentum is building.