Last season, the NHL announced an expansion team would be coming to Seattle in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd franchise. The speculation surrounding the building of the new franchise from the ground up so far has been on the expansion draft, but Seattle is going to have to establish a farm system for all the prospects that won’t be on their inaugural roster. To remedy that problem, the NHL isn’t going to be the only hockey league that’s getting an expansion team.
On Monday, it was announced that Palm Springs would be granted an expansion franchise in the AHL, with the team serving as the top development team for Seattle. Before the team takes the ice in 2021, coinciding with Seattle’s debut, let’s take a closer look at the new franchise. It may be too early to look at them from a hockey standpoint, but we can look at whether or not the AHL was right to expand in the Palm Springs market.
What Happened with Vegas
Although they’re not expansion brethren, the Vegas Golden Knights provide the best road map and template for the new Seattle franchise. Unlike Seattle, Vegas was not given an expansion AHL franchise. Instead, they signed an affiliation agreement with the existing Chicago Wolves. As of the last season, there were no unaffiliated AHL teams.
California has become an unlikely hotbed for hockey. The growth of the sport in the non-traditional market was catapulted by the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in the infamous trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Back then, the Golden State had only one NHL team; three decades later they have three, with three Stanley Cup championships between them and loyal fan bases.
In addition to the three clubs in the major leagues, California boasts a number of successful minor league teams. The Palm Springs expansion franchise will be the sixth AHL hockey team in the state. Attendance between the five existing franchises paints a distinctive picture. The San Diego and Ontario teams were top five in AHL attendance last season, with San Diego as the league’s most attended team averaging over 9,000 fans a game. Meanwhile, Bakersfield, San Jose and Stockton all ranked in the bottom third in league attendance. The Palm Springs Arena will have a 10,000 person capacity.
Instead of using an existing stadium, the new Palm Springs team will be the primary tenant in the already announced Palm Springs arena, scheduled for groundbreaking next year. Details paint the project as a unique arena experience that will be built partially underground as to not obscure the outside view of the surrounding mountain ranges. It continues the growing trend of stadiums that take advantage of the area’s natural features, much like the Oakland A’s new stadium which promises to offer views of the San Francisco Bay Area. Speaking of growing trends, there’s no word yet on if the arena will offer the “standing room only” gathering and social spaces that are becoming commonplace.
The new Palm Springs arena, however, will buck a long standing trend of new arenas that help develop the area. Here’s how the Desert Sun described it:
No restaurants or sports bars will be part of the arena build. Instead, officials want to bring business to the community and hotels.
Sharing the Arena
While the Palm Springs AHL team may be the primary tenants, they will not be the only ones. There’s already rumors swirling that the minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Clippers will relocate to the arena. The Desert Sun gave a more detailed breakdown:
Preliminary planning documents from The Mobility Group, an OVG consultant, indicate the arena could host 144 events a year, including: 39 hockey games, 31 basketball games, 39 concerts, 11 family shows and 24 other events.
If the arena’s owners have their way, they’ll host to some top-name acts. While other AHL arenas see the occasional visit from a traveling circus or Disney On Ice, expectations are much higher for Palm Springs:
“I know this is shocking but actually we think Palm Springs kinda acts a little bit like Vegas so can we find artists that will do six to eight times a year down here because they live here or live close by, and this is an easy place to come and go,” Tim Leiweke later said. “This is an easier place to get an artist excited about than Las Vegas.”
While it may not have a direct impact on the performance of the hockey team, it will have a direct impact on its value. The Oakview Group, who was granted the expansion franchise, owns part of the arena as well (the land the arena will sit on is owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians). The more diversified and bigger name acts that are attracted to the arena, will increase its value. If the arena increases in value, so will the team, much like the way the valuation of the New Jersey Devils franchise is tied to the revenue and valuation of the Prudential Center in Newark.
We already took a look at attendance for the other California-bound AHL teams. It’s fair to assume that the Oakview Group wants their Palm Springs team to have numbers that resemble those of San Diego and Ontario, and not struggle at the box office like the Stockton Heat. Assuming they could put up similar numbers (9,000 fans), sellout crowds could be a common occurrence in Palm Springs.
Of course, there’s always the concern that hockey is a tough sell in the desert. The Arizona Coyotes haven’t done enough to shatter that assumption, and even the tribal chairman discussed how hockey isn’t normal desert entertainment, but was optimistic none the less:
“It’s just something new that we can offer,” Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Jeff Grubbe said in a video after the announcement. “This is a very diverse community. We offer a lot of different things for a lot of different interests, and hockey will be a new one that people normally don’t get to see.”
Let’s take a quick look at the basic demographics of an NHL fan and those of Palm Springs, California. Most NHL fans make over $40,000 a year, while the mean income in San Jose is over $75,000. The NHL also has the largest percentage of fans with earnings over $100,000. The mean income for a married family in Palm Springs is $110,000. Hockey in the desert may remain a tough sell, but there’s a lot of money in the area to support it. It might be an experiment worth trying out.
Cammi Granato as Coach?
Last week, the Seattle Franchise announced former U.S. Woman’s Hockey Olympian Cammi Granato as the league’s first female pro scout. Without a question, Granato deserved the position, but maybe a promotion is in her future.
With women starting to break into the coaching field in other professional sports, maybe Granato will be handed the reigns of an ice hockey team. While it may be too early to predict, I wouldn’t be surprised if Granato ends up behind the Palm Springs bench and, in the process, make hockey history.