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Pass or fail: Bettman’s expansions and relocations

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Gary Bettman became NHL commissioner on February 1, 1993, and has been in this position for almost 20 years. Under Bettman, the league has seen three work stoppages, but also unparalleled growth. While many believe the league over expanded in the Bettman era, it’s worth evaluating each move/relocation to see where the faults/successes were.

There were six new teams added to the league under Bettman’s reign –keep in mind that San Jose (1991), Ottawa (1992), and Tampa Bay (1992) all joined the league before Bettman took over as commissioner, so they are omitted from this evaluation– and five relocations. The grades (Pass or Fail) are based on both team success and financial success.

1993 – Anaheim Mighty Ducks enter league

It took the Ducks three years to make the playoffs following expansion to Anaheim, and they even made it to the second round in 1996 before losing to the Red Wings. Following the acquisition of Scott Niedermayer and (re)acquisition of Teemu Selanne in 1995, the Ducks became a legitimate Stanley Cup contender behind their two leaders and J.S. Giguere, who had single-handedly taken the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003. The Ducks won the Cup in 2007, but have been relatively irrelevant in postseason hockey since.

Despite their successes, the Ducks have been losing roughly $8 million per year and average roughly 86% capacity in attendance numbers. A second team in the LA area likely wasn’t a good idea. Grade: Fail.

1993 – Florida Panthers enter league

While the argument can be made that SoCal could support a second NHL franchise in Anaheim, based off the Wayne Gretzky popularity build, the thought that Florida could support a second NHL franchise –TB entered the league in1992– was a complete gamble. Outside of a very passionate core of fans, the Panthers have had trouble drawing fans. The fact that they haven’t been successful until last year (aside from 2000) didn’t help either.

The Panthers lose an average of $7 million per year, and like the Ducks, draw fans to an 86% capacity. Grade: Fail.

1993 – Minnesota North Stars relocate to Dallas

The move to Dallas was a risky one, considering Minnesota is an incredible hockey market. But the Stars were incredibly successful in Dallas, both in the standings and on their bottom line. Solid ownership and shrewd hockey moves have kept this team in the hearts and minds of the fans in Dallas. It wasn’t until recently –when the Stars saw fan favorites Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, and Marty Turco either leave or retire– that the Stars fell on to bad times. Still, it’s been proven that if the team is successful, the fans will show.

The Stars lost $1 million two seasons ago, and only managed to draw fans to a 76% capacity. However, I’m going to give them a mulligan on the past few years. Rebuilding in a non-traditional market isn’t exactly easy. Grade: Pass.

1995 – Quebec Nordiques relocate to Colorado

Economics drove the Nordiques to Colorado, and that market has been great to the Avalanche. Like the Stars, they saw immediate success upon relocation, and parlayed that into a very nice fan base. Also like the Stars, the Avalanche have seen a changing of the guard, and it’s affected their attendance at games. Despite that, they still make a profit.

The Avalanche make $6 million and draw fans to an 86% capacity. Grade: Pass.

1996 – Winnipeg Jets relocate to Phoenix

Without spending too much time on this, let’s just say that a relevant and successful team in Phoenix may have resulted in a different result. It wasn’t until very recently that Phoenix became a solid hockey club. But that doesn’t matter, this team is now in an ownership mess, and it’s clear the city of Glendale doesn’t want them there anymore.

Revenues ($24 million loss) and attendance (72%) are the lowest in the league. This move should never have happened. Grade: Fail.

1997 – Hartford Whalers relocate to North Carolina

If I didn’t make enemies with my Anaheim grade, I will with this one. Carolina is a very well run organization, and has had some success since the relocation to Raleigh. It isn’t the best market, as the Hurricanes draw fans to an 86% capacity and still lose about $4 per season.

That said, Hartford (the city, not the fans) didn’t do much to keep the Whalers. They needed a new arena, and they didn’t get it. Much like the Islanders, the team would have worked had the city coughed up the necessary commitment. Grade: Pass

1998 – Nashville Predators enter league

It’s amazing what smart ownership and shrewd team management can do for a franchise. The fans in Nashville love the Predators, despite the fact that they have seen every single star player (save for Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber) leave town for greener pastures. The Preds are still a solid team, and proof that hockey can work in non-traditional markets, in terms of attendance at least.

The Predators lead the way among new NHL franchises with a whopping 96% capacity average for attendance. However, they still lose about $7 million a year. Nashville is one of two teams (Minnesota) on this list where a new CBA is actually the only option. The cap floor system doesn’t work for them, despite their success. For more on the good things the Predators are doing from a business perspective, check out a post The Suit wrote hereGrade: Pass.

1999 – Atlanta Thrashers enter league

Hockey failed once in Atlanta (Atlanta Flames), why would they try it again. Grade:Fail.

2000 – Columbus Blue Jackets enter league

The Blue Jackets are the toughest team on this list to really evaluate. They hemorrhage money ($13 million a year) and barely average an 80% attendance rate, but their lack of success on the ice hasn’t exactly helped them. The CBJ fans I’ve corresponded with believe that their franchise would be in much better financial shape if they could get someone in there that can actually run a franchise. Grade: Incomplete, pending a competent GM.

2000 – Minnesota Wild enter league

Minnesota is another place where hockey should have never left. Bettman did the right thing when he added another franchise here, and the fans (98% capacity) have rewarded his decision. That said, Minnesota is a small market, and the salary cap floor doesn’t exactly help them out. The Wild, despite their attendance rates, still lose $6 million a year, which is why Leipold is playing hardball with the negotiations. Minnesota is the only other franchise, aside from Nashville, that needs revenue sharing and the elimination of the cap floor. Other than that, hockey works in Minnesota. Grade: Pass.

2010 – Atlanta Thrashers relocate to Winnipeg

Hockey should have never left Winnipeg to begin with. Grade: Pass

Timeline source: Detroit Hockey.net: http://www.detroithockey.net/nhl/timeline.php. NHL Valuation Source: Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/nhl-valuations/list/

For more on NHL Relocation, check out this series from The Suit.

7 Responses to “Pass or fail: Bettman’s expansions and relocations”

  1. Matt Josephs says:

    I think the league should honestly have 28 or 26 teams. There were rumors a few weeks back that the league was looking to expand. Really? The well being of the league would be better served, and the talent pool will improve play a little bit.

    I don’t think the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing particularly well which begs the question, why are there two hockey teams in Florida? Florida sports in general don’t do great in any sport. More of a college sports place along with most of the south.

    A place i’d like to see a team relocated to is Wisconsin. I don’t even know if they have a stadium or not, but I think hockey is an easy sell up there if your freezing all the time.

  2. The Suit says:

    Disagree on the Ducks assessment. They’ve actually done well at the gate and TV viewership until recent years, which sort of puts them in the same category as Dallas and other non-traditional hockey markets. Plus they do well from a corporate sponsorship perspective, which is half the battle these days.

    Also disagree with Matt on Tampa. Jeff Vinik is a fantastic owner and isn’t afraid to give the team resources. Plus they drew over 18K per game last season.

  3. Jess says:

    Actually Dave what I think you should grade Gary Bettman on is the quality of people he has recommended to become NHL owners.

    Suit no question that Tampa finally has an ownership that is stable but at same time; can you say the same for the Panthers?

  4. The Suit says:

    South Florida is a tough market to be consistently successful in. The Dolphins, Heat, and Marlins have all seen high churn rates in their season subscriber base only a few short years removed from championships or winning seasons. There is just no loyalty down there.

    I’d move the Pathers to Quebec in a NY minute, but I doubt Sunrise will ever sell them. Seems like Yomark is in it for the long haul.

  5. rob sahm says:

    instead of writing this article just say that bettman has done more bad then good for the sport and it is time for a new commish. i would take barry freakin melrose or don cherry as commish over this outdated pompus asswipe

  6. Rickyrants13 says:

    Garry Bettman has been the worse thing that has ever happened to the NHL. Who cares if it grew Growing has been one of the negitives. No one should go back to see an NHL game untill he is fired I for one will not be going this year. If they even have a season

  7. mhurley says:

    Makes me really angry that the
    greedy bastid (spelled wrong intentionally
    want to expand to 32 teams and dilute the talent pool futher.