The NHL has begun the formal process of expansion, which would be the first expansion since the 2000-01 season. An expansion franchise, for the owners interested in doing so, comes with the steep expected cost nearing $500 million. That price tag alone has lost interest from many potential owners. Many cities like Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City, and Toronto have been in the talks for getting a team. Other cities like Houston, Kansas City, Hartford, and so forth have been in less serious talks about it. Some of the cities make sense for an expansion, but others, not as much.
Many people might roll their eyes when they hear Toronto mentioned in the talks for a second team, but quite frankly, it’s one of the better options out there. If you look at the number of hockey fans in each market, Toronto has the largest market by far boasting slightly over 5 million hockey fans. That is double the number of hockey fans in the New York City/ New Jersey area, who currently has 3 teams to its name. If 25% of the Toronto market were to become fans of the new team, they would stand to still have more fans than teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only does that give them the largest expansion market without a doubt, it might also prove to be the most profitable market. It almost seems like it would be bad from the viewpoint of the NHL to not award them another team.
Out of the NHL cities that have lost a team, Quebec City is right up there at the top of the list of the cities that deserve a second chance. In terms of population, they might not have an advantage over other cities, but their advantage comes with the number of hockey fans. As it currently stands, there are around 530,000 NHL fans in Quebec City, nearly the same number as cities such as Winnipeg and Buffalo that boast the most NHL fans out of any prospective market. That is more than enough of a fanbase to support a new and growing franchise and create a profitable market. To add the cherry on top, the new 18,259-seat arena, Videotron Centre, is set to open in September of this year.
Without a doubt, Las Vegas is the most talked about city on this list. They are either loved or hated as an expansion city and there are reasons for both sides, starting with the positives. So far, Las Vegas is building a new $350 million, 17,500-seat arena set to open in 2016 and has managed to get commitments from 11,000 to be season ticket holders. There are also many other residents in the city who could be interested in attending a game every once in a while, and that number surely would grow if the city were to be awarded a franchise. One of the other boosters for the team’s attendance could be the tourists. Las Vegas has nearly 150,000 hotel rooms which shows how high of a number of tourists the city sees.
As for the negatives, the numbers show that it is in fact a weak market. There are only 90,000 some NHL fans who permanently live in the city, and there are multiple markets who have more than double the number of fans and still don’t turn a profit. The tourism could help raise attendance numbers, but tourism is not something you would want your franchise to rely on. Las Vegas has also struggled to support minor league franchises and that raises some questions as it is. If a minor league team can’t stay, how could we expect a major league team to stay? Some might make the case that the games would be better attended because it is a major league team, but many other cities with multiple minor league teams have not had problems with attendance.
Seattle has many gray areas in the expansion process, which could start to make them a less serious candidate as the bids are processed and reviewed unless they begin to make some changes. As it currently stands, they have 240,000 NHL fans in the city which puts them a little bit under the number of fans necessary to make the team profitable. There is no certainty that this could happen, but that number could grow if they were awarded a franchise. Currently, the KeyArena is the only arena that Seattle could use for an NHL team and the former NBA commissioner David Stern described the arena as inadequate for an NBA team. If it was not suitable for an NBA team in 2008 and hasn’t been improved since, it is more than likely inadequate for an NHL team as well. There are talks and proposals for a new arena to be built in the city, but none have broke ground and that could be a turn off to the NHL.
Kansas City is seen by many as a dark horse candidate out of the expansion cities. It has been used repeatedly as leverage by multiple franchises to get a new arena within their current city, especially in the early years when the Sprint Center was built and still had no franchises in it. The Sprint Center is still a new and NHL ready facility, but the fan base simply is not there. According to the data, there are only 80,000 NHL fans living in the Kansas City area. Like Seattle, I believe that number would grow if they were to be awarded a team, but I do not see that happening mainly because of the ownership. Between the current owners of other Kansas City teams, none of them are willing to spend that much money to move in a hockey team. AEG, the main group who previously spearheaded the campaign to get Kansas City an NHL or NBA team, has shifted its focus to Las Vegas. Even though the Kansas City Scouts moved away 39 years ago, their short and unpleasant 2-year stint left a long lasting unpleasant appearance to the league.
Despite being the largest city in the United States to not have a hockey team, they are only estimated to have around 140,000 NHL fans which is not sufficient enough to support a franchise. The biggest question for Houston would be where they would play since that is directly affected by the Les Alexander, the owner of the Houston Rockets. His lease on the Toyota Center gives him exclusive rights to an NHL team who would play there and it is unknown whether or not he has interest in bringing one in, considering he had failed with his previous attempts to do so.
Hartford is also a possible expansion location for a new team, but there are also many questions surrounding that possibility. Hartford is only estimated to hold 180,000 NHL fans and that doesn’t fare well for their chances. Their location also does them no favors considering how close they are to both Boston and New York City, which combined hold 4 NHL franchises as it is. The Hartford Whalers left town for Carolina in 1997 due to poor attendance and financial struggle, and the current projection of their fanbase does them no favors. Before any new team were to step into town, the XL Center, former home of the Whalers, would need to be renovated to better suit a new franchise. From the current proposals given to renovate the XL Center, it is going to be around $500 million. Unless the city were to provide funding for the renovations, there is that cost to worry about along with the hefty $500 million price tag expected for expansion teams. While there are multiple Fortune 500 companies based in Hartford, it is not known if any of them would be willing to take on a task like this.