Why US Hockey Markets are Important for the NHL

Imagine we have a map of North America, dotted with a pin representing each NHL city – then remove the pin representing Phoenix and proverbially leave the room for a minute.

To an executive tasked with growing a sports league, the geographic approach may be the most simple-yet-effective way of determining where your next franchise should be placed. Sure enough, if we come back to our North American map of hockey cities there is really only one glaring hole in our circuit of NHL locations – the US South of Denver, West of Dallas and East of California which is the real estate currently occupied by the floundering Phoenix franchise.

Is filling geographic holes the way to go about expanding a league? Absolutely not, but you have to believe part of the reason Bettman and company fought/fight so hard to keep a franchise in the desert is to grow the game where it barely exists currently.

What we’re really starting to see over the past few years is two emerging schools of thought as far as the growth of professional Hockey goes.

On the one hand… we’ll call them hockey ‘purists’ who believe having an NHL team is a privilege that should only be extended to cities that currently have suitable demand for the product. They tend to believe that providing the game to those who want it most is the best way to grow and prosper, and to an extent I believe they’re right. Keep a Canadian game in Canada, eh?

On the other hand are those who look at TV ratings for hockey versus other pro sports and feel the only way to truly grow the game is to at least be considered in the same conversations as other major league sports, rather than hope that ESPN will find time to broadcast half a game on ‘the Ocho’. Not only is that one reason losing the Phoenix franchise will be bad for the game, its a big reason for having several season-opening tilts in Europe each year.

Why is any of this important, now? Why on the eve of a fresh NHL season would I be talking about something so distant from the actual pucks being dropped?

This is the final year of the NHL’s contract with Versus.

While Versus came in as the only interested TV partner at a time when the NHL had no other TV options, former NHL broadcasters NBC and ESPN have been showing gradual interest in the game as we’ve had two of the best Stanley Cup playoffs in recent memory along with hugely successful outdoor games and a stable of budding stars that not only care on-ice success but understand the important of growing the game and engaging new fans. Versus is a cable channel that is not carried by some major US carriers, and doesn’t hold anywhere near the marketing sway of NBC or ABC (ESPN).

This is why US expansion is so important and remains a must for the league. If we relocated every American team losing money to a Canadian city where they were likely to sell seats we would end up with a smaller league made up of mostly Canadian teams, which would make the international draw of the Kontinental league all the more difficult for a talented player to resist. The USSR’s transition from communism to capitalism had some unexpected effects, the largest being the number of millionaires and billionaires that would emerge from the Soviet republic in such a short period of time. Could Jiri Hudler be the first of many elite players being offered more money to play overseas? I certainly don’t expect him to be the last.

I believe another Southern Ontario franchise is a must for the league, and my column prior to this one outlines why. At the same time though, its critical to understand that Canadian fans alone won’t be able to compete with the KHL, let alone other North American sports.

To grow professional hockey we need to go where the money is, despite their economic turmoil thats currently the US and Europe/Russia (to my bevy of readers within China – I know you’ve financed all of the above but expansion into your country isn’t exactly around the corner). Atlantic flights are still too lengthy and expensive to schedule games between North American and European teams, so we must look to Americans to step up and truly embrace the game if it is to prosper in a meaningful way. MLB중계