News broke Wednesday that the NHL is close to finalizing plans to add new franchises in Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City and Toronto by the 2017-18 season.
Whenever talk of NHL expansion crops up, there are concerns about how increasing the league’s size will dilute its talent pool and damage the quality of play. But it’s also worth pondering the amount of hockey demand in the markets the league has apparently chosen, and whether the game wouldn’t have been better served by relocating a handful of existing teams to new cities.
Last summer, as part of an investigation into why Canadian teams haven’t been able to win the Stanley Cup since 1993, FiveThirtyEight estimated the number of avid NHL fans in an assortment of major markets (including existing franchise locales and potential expansion sites). In our study, Toronto easily had the largest number of avid NHL fans; with a shade over 5 million, their total was double that of any other metro area in North America. Even if the new Toronto franchise lures just 20 percent of the area’s hockey enthusiasts away from the Maple Leafs, the expansion club would instantly have about as many devotees as the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings or Calgary Flames. It’s clear that Toronto has the fan base to support a second NHL franchise.
The same can be said of Quebec City, albeit to a lesser extent. Our research found that an NHL club’s operating income (as estimated by Forbes) is closely correlated to the number of avid NHL followers in its media market, and that the break-even level of local fandom for a profitable franchise was about 300,000 to 400,000 fans. According to our estimates, Quebec City, the former home of the Nordiques, has about 530,000 NHL fans. So, a good comparison for Quebec City would be Winnipeg — another Canadian market that lost an NHL franchise in the 1990s, only to see the league return in recent years. Winnipeg has roughly 560,000 NHL fans, and despite the area’s relatively minuscule population, the franchise has turned a profit in each of the past two years (per Forbes’s data).
Teams in markets with fewer than 300,000 hockey fans, however, have tended to lose money, and that’s where the wisdom of adding franchises in Seattle and (especially) Las Vegas gets iffy. We estimated that Seattle contains about 240,000 NHL fans — fewer than that of Phoenix and Florida’s Tampa Bay, home to two franchises that have struggled to turn a profit for many years. And if Seattle is an enigmatic choice by this metric, Las Vegas would be a disaster. According to our estimates, there are only 91,000 hockey fans in the Vegas media market, which is nearly 40 percent fewer than even Nashville, Tennessee, the least-avid current NHL city, has.
The unique characteristics of Las Vegas might make the city a special case, but if it follows the league’s heretofore-established relationship between fan base size and financial success, it might be all but impossible for its new team to turn a long-term profit without a change to the underlying economics of the NHL as a whole.
And it isn’t as though the NHL was lacking for other options. Our research showed that, in addition to Quebec City and a second Toronto franchise, the Canadian cities of Kingston, Halifax and perhaps even Moncton, Sherbrooke or Sudbury could each reasonably hope to support a team. From the standpoint of fan avidity, all were more attractive markets than Seattle — not to mention Las Vegas, which was sandwiched between Milwaukee and Kansas City, Missouri, as the least hockey-mad of the potential expansion sites we examined. Each of those seven Canadian municipalities also contained more NHL fans than five current NHL cities: Phoenix; Columbus, Ohio; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Miami and Nashville.
As the reports stand, though, the NHL is instead sticking with what we originally argued was a suboptimal distribution of teams.