It was one of the best logos in all of sports. A green “W,” and a blue whale’s tail, neatly using the negative space to form an “H,” as in “Hartford Whalers.” Unfortunately, they don’t give out Stanley Cups for graphic design. The Whalers didn’t have a lot of success on the ice, winning just one playoff series in 18 NHL seasons before moving to North Carolina and becoming the Carolina Hurricanes before the 1997-98 season.
But now there’s a chance the Whalers could resurface. The state of Connecticut is pursuing the New York Islanders, who are in danger of being kicked out of their woefully inadequate arena at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The team would play at the XL Center in Hartford, the Whalers’ former home.
How successful might Whalers 2.0 be? In a 2013 study, I estimated that about 175,000 avid NHL fans live in the Hartford-New Haven metro area. That sounds bad, though it’s comparable to or slightly better than some of the lower-tier American NHL markets, including Columbus, Raleigh-Durham, Miami and Nashville (and better than Las Vegas, where the NHL is expanding). Furthermore, there’s potentially room for growth. According to our estimates, 7 percent of adults in the Hartford metro area were avid NHL fans in 2013. But the percentage is 13 percent in the New York metro area and 17 percent in the Boston metro area. If the Islanders or another team were to relocate to Hartford, the numbers would probably improve. The Hartford-New Haven media market is the largest in the U.S. without a “big four” sports franchise. But it’s only about one-eighth the size of New York’s media market (which includes Long Island and Northern New Jersey).
Of course, the NHL’s last stint in Hartford didn’t exactly end successfully. Between the 1989-90 and 1996-97 seasons, the average NHL team’s revenues more than doubled, increasing from $22 million to $52 million, according to estimates from Forbes and Financial World magazines. But the Whalers’ revenues didn’t increase at all during this period, flatlining at about $25 million. That doesn’t adjust for inflation, so their income actually decreased on a real basis.
Then again, fans weren’t exactly being treated to great hockey — and the trade of star Ron Francis and the talk of relocation didn’t help to build goodwill either. In the 1989-90 season, the Whalers had a slightly above-average 38-33-9 record and also earned slightly above-average revenues. But things went underwater from there: the Whalers never had a winning season again.
The question is whether the Islanders would be better off with one-eighth of a loaf in New York or a market to themselves in Connecticut. Considering the popularity of the New York Rangers (and the presence of the New Jersey Devils), the inadequacy of the Barclays Center for hockey, and all the other competition for the fans’ entertainment dollar in New York, it’s probably a pretty close call.