Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Your time is up, Mr. Bettman

“You know, too much is made about franchise issues at a particular point in time. Our goal is to keep all our franchises where they are. That’s always been our goal and that’s what we try to do.”
Gary Bettman - December 6, 2010

If only Gary Bettman said these words on February 1, 1993.

Lost revenue. Low ticket sales. Discount tickets and package deals that include hot dogs, nachos, drinks and free parking. These things have become the normal way of doing business in order to lure fans to NHL games in the Southern US. That's how bad things have gotten.

At the helm of the NHL is Gary Bettman, who has proven time and time again that he has nothing but contempt for hockey. He insists that keeping dysfunctional teams in the Bible belt is a great way to build support and make money. But the facts show the exact opposite.

So let's talk about the NHL's appeal to the Southern US.


In 1979, the Winnipeg Jets entered the NHL after the Western Hockey Association was merged into to the NHL. They enjoyed moderate success, but were typically the proverbial punching bag for their rivals, the Calgary Flames, and especially, the Edmonton Oilers. The Flames and the Oilers were two of the most powerful teams throughout the '80s, affording little opportunity for the Jets to excel when the playoffs rolled around.

Adding to the Jet's problems, the Winnipeg Arena could only seat 15,565. Compounding the problem still, was the growing US market. When the Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995, the Winnipeg Arena became the smallest venue in the NHL. With such a small venue and all the money heading into the US, the Jets followed suit in 1996 and made the trip from the cold plains of Manitoba to the arid deserts of Arizona.

The main reason the club moved was because of financial woes. Ironically, the team moved from one cash-strapped venue to one that's even worse. Since 2001, the Coyotes have lost about $200 million, and this year they're in a $20 million deficit; money that could have been spent moving the Coyotes to a new home where they could prosper. Instead, they filed for bankruptcy in May 2009. Billionaire Jim Balsillie offered to buy the team and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, but that offer fell through when a Phoenix bankruptcy court said that moving the team would violate league rules.

In a desperate and obscenely stupid move, under the direction of Bettman the league bought the Coyotes in 2009 for $140 million to keep it from moving. To make matters worse, the league even loaned the team $35 million after purchasing them. Bettman even joked that he wouldn't let his name appear on the Stanley Cup if they ever won under his watch.

Last month, Matt Hulsizer, a Chicago businessman, took steps to seal the deal on purchasing the team. Even Hulsizer seems to regret his purchase of the club saying "It's not going to look smart for a long time. This has not been a home run investment for us." But don't get your hopes up that they'll move to another city -- the deal is to keep them in Phoenix, because Gary is dedicated to the fans, after all. Which fans, however, remains a mystery.

Ice hockey should never be played where ice doesn't form naturally for more than a day. And since Phoenix rests in the northeast corner of the Sonoran desert, that pretty much seals the deal for me -- the NHL should never have set foot in Phoenix. Here's hoping that the day will come that the team will return to Winnipeg where they belong.

On May 16th, 1995, a rally was held in Winnipeg by 35,000 Jets fans to keep their team. A couple of years ago when Jim Balsillie expressed interest in moving the team to Hamilton, Phoenix fans held a rally of their own. 200 of them. Which city wants hockey more? You do the math.


Few expansion teams from the 90s have enjoyed more success than the Lightning. They won the Stanley Cup in the '03-'04 season, and have made the playoffs five times. They made history in 1992 when they played the first female hockey player in the NHL, Manon Rheaume, who played goal.

But like other teams in the Southern US, Tampa Bay, has some troubling attracting a sell-out crowd. So far in the 2010-11 season the team averages about 85% in attendance. Last season average attendance was about 78% and in the '08-'09 season it was about 86%. In '06-'07 they averaged over 100%. So their attendance, while inconsistent, is not a reason to move. However it was learned in the '08-'09 season that the Bolts were taking money from the league. To add a little salt to the wound, fans in Tampa Bay can catch a game for as low as $15 a pop.

So, are the Lightning a team a candidate for contraction or relocation? Maybe. Although Tampa Bay is currently enjoying a 24-11-5 record for a total of 53 points and are one of the best teams in the league, attendance has dwindled from 100% in '06-'07 to 85% this season. Last season their attendance was 78%. If things don't pick up, they might disappear.


In 1972, the New England Whalers were a fledgling team in the WHA. After having trouble playing in Boston due to the presence of the Bruins, the team moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1979. The team never faired well, typically coming in last place or darn near it in the Norri...errrrr!...Northeast Division, and only enjoyed three winning seasons from '79 - '97.

The team began to experience financial woes in 1994 after they were bought by IT entrepreneur, Peter Karmanos, who promised to keep the team in Hartford for 4 years. But after disappointing ticket sales, he reneged on his promise and moved the team to to North Carolina at the end of the '96-'97 season where they became the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team has faired much better in Raleigh than they ever did in Hartford, but they have only averaged about 88% in attendance over the past 5 years. Even when they won the Cup in '05-'06 they failed to fill seats.

The Hurricanes are one of the teams in the South that parade scantily-clad eye candy in order to attract fans. If this is what they need to do to keep people coming back, then the team might have some serious problems. But despite soft ticket sales and gimmicks, the Canes are doing pretty well in the NHL, and it appears they might stick around for a while.


The Nashville Predators have been a hell of a team as of late. But why the hell Bettman gave an NHL team to a city with the 25th largest population in the US I'll never know.

Although they started out weak in their first six seasons, the team is now a top contender in the Campbe....errrr!...Western Conference. Even though the Predators are doing damage to other teams in the league, their fan attendance has been sub-par since day one.

In order to attract fans, the Predators are doing what a lot of Southern teams are doing -- employing gimmicks like package deals complete with cheap eats and drinks -- even discounts on gas. I went to the Preds ticket site and found this little stunt to try to get fans into the seats:
The Nashville Predators are dedicating Tuesday night games to the fans! Daily's Super Tuesday packages include 2 upper level tickets for $42 or 2 lower level tickets for $92. There will also be special concession stands (one in the upper level and one in the lower level) where all items are just $2, as well as a reduced $2 ticket service fee. In addition, Daily's is offering a $5 coupon good towards gas or merchandise to fans who purchase Super Tuesday tickets. Certain restrictions apply.
Things are going bad for the Predators, and they're only going to get worse. The Predators were bought in 2007 for $174 million, but today the team is valued at $148 million and is likely to continue dropping. There have been talks of moving the team for years now, who, like the rest of the teams in the Southern US, are losing money by the boatload. But will that force Bettman to consider relocating the team to greener pastures? Nope! Gary has a lot of damage to do to the league, and in order to do that, he intends on keeping the Predators in Nashville.


The 1993 expansion introduced to new teams to the NHL -- the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (please) and the Florida Panthers. While the Panthers have had moderate success, just like other teams in the South, they have troubling filling seats. The trouble of getting fans into the seats is becoming quite an issue for the Panthers (whom I affectionately call the Kitties), so they have resorted to covering up 2,000 seats with tarp in an attempt to keep it from looking worse than it really is. Two other teams have also done this in the past -- the Lightning and the Hurricanes (shock!).

Since the '06 - '07 season the average attendance has hovered between 75% and 81%. That's nowhere near enough to keep the Panthers in Florida, and Bettman knows it. Things have gotten so bad for Florida that they've actually reduced themselves to offering refunds if attendees aren't completely satisfied. How this is going to increase revenue escapes me.

But Gary probably do his best to kick the rest of the league in the kahonies by leaving the Panthers in Florida so they can bleed out whatever money they have left.


When the Minnesota North Stars made the move to Dallas in 1993, there were only a handful of ice rinks. Since then, the number of ice rinks has grown to 20. All because of the arrival of the NHL.

Despite this, the club is experiencing money trouble these days. The current owner, Tom Hicks, bought the team in 1995 for $84 million. Today, the team is valued around $227 million, but hicks is having trouble paying off loans, so he might have to break even by selling the team to keep from going in the red.

In spite of the Stars performance, there are talks that they might relocate in the not-too-distant future. Some are suggesting that the next stop should be in Houston. That's a bad idea. You'll find out why below.


In 1972, the NHL expanded into American deep south with the birth of the Atlanta Flames. From the time they arrived, they were a team with ups and downs and couldn't keep fans in the seats. Though they had some success during the regular seasons from '72 to '80, their performance in the playoffs were disappointing. Lackluster appearances in the playoffs and poor ticket sales finally forced the Flames move. In 1980, they packed up their things and headed to Calgary.

Nineteen years later, the NHL returned to Atlanta in the form of the Thrashers, named after the brown thrasher, the Georgia state bird. Just like the reception from Atlantans of the NHL the first time around, the second time around has been lukewarm. The Thrashers' performance has improved from their first game in 1999 against the Devils, which they lost 4-1. The Thrashers finished the '99-'00 season 14-61-7. Low ticket sales have ranked the Thashers' attendance record to 29th in the NHL for the 2010-11 season, averaging a little over 10,000 per game. They made the playoffs only once during the '06-'07 season in which they were easily swept by the New York Rangers in the first round.

The Thrashers have been hemorrhaging millions of dollars since they arrived. This year they're operating on an $8 million deficit alone. Hoping to remedy the situation, the league is trying to land a new television contract in the US. Since Atlanta has one of the largest populations in the country, some people naively believe that this will bring the much-needed infusion of money that the team needs, and that the Thrashers are here to stay. But the entire city of Atlanta already knows that the city has an NHL team and games are already televised. They don't need another TV deal to know that. If there really was a healthy fan-base in Atlanta, they should rank at least 15th in attendance, not near dead last. Sooner or later, Atlanta will say good-bye to the NHL again. Hopefully for good this time.



As if pushing the NHL farther south will be anymore successful than Dallas or Atlanta?

The Houston Aeros are the IHL affiliate for the Minnesota Wild and are a pretty successful team at that. But in spite of their performance, the average attendance for the 2010-11 season is just a little over 5,300, while the all time record is a little over 13,000. But the kicker is that the Toyota Center has a 17,800 seat capacity for Aeros games. The record is well under seating capacity by about 4,000 seats. Hockey just isn't popular in Houston.

Fans say that if the league strikes a major television network deal then that will be all the impetus needed to bring the NHL to sixth largest city in the US. But this is a town dominated by the Astros and Texans. Could the NHL find a home in Houston? Maybe. But if you're a hockey fan in Houston, I wouldn't hold my breath.


In 1974, the NHL arrived in Kansas City. It was hoped that the team's name would be the Mohawks, but the Chicago Blackhawks had a tizzy over that because it so closely resembled their name, so the team became the Kansas City Scouts instead.

The first eight games were dismal for the Scouts, dropping seven and tying one. They finished the '74-'75 season with a 15-54-11 record. The next season was even worse at 12-56-12. The very next season they packed their bags and moved to Colorado and later would become the New Jersey Devils.

During their time in Kansas City, the Scouts failed to fill the seats, averaging a little over 8,000 seats out of 17,000 seats at the Kemper Arena. Even after the owners tried to hold a ticket drive, they only sold 2,000 tickets.

My nightmare scenario almost came true a couple years ago when talk of the Pens moving to Kansas City grew. Thankfully, Mario Lemieux made one more save to keep the Pens in Pittsburgh. But if they had gone to KC, there is little doubt that they would have done any better than their predecessors. Like the rest of the relocated/expanded teams under Bettman's watch, they likely would have lost millions.

Kansas City had their shot at the NHL, and their shot only lasted two seasons. Of course, if Gary has his way...


Las Vegas, NV lies about 250 miles northwest of Phoenix, AZ as the crow flies. Sin City has played host to a number of professional sports teams, including a few hockey teams. Currently, the city hosts the Wranglers, the ECHL affiliate of the financially-troubled Coyotes.

The Wranglers are doing well for themselves, but like the Houston Aeros, they just can't get fans into the seats. One would figure with all the money and transient hockey fans going in and out of the city, that the Wranglers could get at least a few of them to catch a game. The Wranglers have only averaged an abysmal 3,704 fans this season, which is about 21% of the capacity of Jobing Arena where the Coyotes play. Attendance has been as low as 3,168. Even Bettman knows that Las Vegas is a terrible location for a hockey team because the city just doesn't care about it.

The Sonoran desert already has an NHL team. It needs another one about as much as a fleet of snow plows. No-go for the NHL in Vegas.


The real losers since Bettman took the helm of the NHL are the fans. This entire debacle of moving teams to the South is the NHL version of a lap dance. Bettman gives these cities a team, gets them excited, and they end up losing their money. In the end, they wonder what the hell just happened.

During Gary's time as commissioner, the league has gone through 2 lockouts, forced relocations, and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. The argument could be made that when he took over the league was starving for cash, but since Bettman arrived money has come flooding in. But a giant chunk of that money comes from agreements with corporate giants like Reebok, not so much ticket sales.

On the flip side, if you took just 3 teams with disappointing attendance records and lost revenue, and moved them to the Northern US or Canada, the league could gain $100 million a year from each team.
They might as well sell tickets in Quebec, Seattle, or Winnipeg, because nobody's buying them in Miami, Nashville, or Phoenix.

My advice? Contract teams that aren't filling seats and increasing revenue.
Either that or move them back to places where hockey belongs like Quebec and Winnipeg.
If teams can't average more than 85% attendance over a 10-year span, then they should go the way of the dodo.
The South has made it crystal clear that overall they couldn't give a rat's rear end about hockey.

The money left over from vanished teams could be distributed across the league, and the best players from each team could be sent to places where they're desperately needed like Long Island and New Jersey. Better yet, take the best players from three teams and just send them to Quebec or Winnipeg.

I'm sure you could make an argument against this, but the expansion teams since 1993 have diluted hockey and made it less competitive, in spite of the recent shake-up by the league to increase scoring. 30 teams are too many for any professional sports league, especially the NHL.

A recent poll among players reveals that the next stop for the league should be Quebec. Personally, I couldn't agree more. I'd love to see the Nordiques come back. As a matter of fact, the next Pens/Whichever-team-is-on-the-chopping-block, I'm going to wear a Nordiques jersey as a sign of solidarity.

Other than Quebec and Winnipeg
, t
he only other logical possibility of another NHL team in Canada may be Hamilton. Copps Arena has a capacity of 17,383.

Personally, I'd like to see Seattle get a team. The city has the Seahawks and Mariners, but they also have the Thunderbirds. The bad news is that they play at the ShoWare Center, which only seats 6,000 -- in order to entice the NHL to come back, the city has to build a new venue with at least 18,000 seats. The good news is that there's seems to be solid support for the an NHL team in Seattle.

With a metropolitan population of 3.3 million, Seattle could be the next stop for the NHL. After all,
Seattle has bragging rights as the first US city to win the Stanley Cup with the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917. And since the Supersonics left town, this could be an ideal time to re-introduce Seattle to the NHL and give the Canucks a rival.

Matt Reitz is right; i
f an executive that you hired to run an entire organization that kept losing tens of millions of dollars per year due to poor planning, would you keep him around? Neither would I.
The NHL is facing a lot of a problems these days, particularly financial problems.
Even teams that have deep hockey traditions like the Islanders are suffering greatly as of late. A
nd leading the NHL on a collision course into these problems is Gary Bettman, a guy who thinks he can make hockey as important to the American South as football is.

Before he joined the NHL he was the senior vice president of the NBA, and he apparently thinks that he can do with our beloved sport what he did with basketball.
Hockey isn't for everyone, and not every major city in the United States is going to be receptive of it, as is painfully obvious in the Southern US (to everyone except Gary, of course).

In the '08-'09 season, network ratings and attendance to games actually did increase, that is, except for places like Atlanta, Nashville, and Phoenix, where ratings and attendance continue to decline. In the '09-'10 season, that trend continued. The same is true for this season; ratings and attendance are up in traditional hockey markets (with a few exceptions), but steadily falling in the South.

The Southern US has NASCAR -- the Northern US has hockey. There's no great mystery to understanding this, Gary. So do the fans a favor -- stop pimping out the NHL to people who just don't want it, and give the keys to someone else. Your turn to drive is over.

No comments: