Rivalries are the fuel of the National Hockey League and somehow, somewhere along the path of expansion, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman felt a regional match up between Florida municipalities was more important than investing in a virtually untapped US-Pacific Northwest market. The ‘Sunbelt’ movement has continued to drag down the league’s finances (and respect among major league sports) but Bettman and his minions have continuously proclaimed their unwavering support for the ‘growth’ of hockey in those markets. And now we have an almost guaranteed expansion into where – Las Vegas, Nevada? Where no other major league sport will go.
It’s hard to understand how the NHL has yet to see that there are many markets with significant hockey influence that don’t have clubs. Why throw the Panthers organization in a doomed fight to the death with the Miami Heat (NBA) or Miami Dolphins (NFL) when you could place them in a market that actually supports hockey? Not to mention the disastrous situation in Phoenix where the team is facing relocation every single off-season and the embarrassingly low attendance in Dallas, Raleigh and some days even New Jersey. We’ve got problems that need to be addressed in the league but instead, the NHL is looking to cash in on outrageous expansion fees, whatever the consequences are.
Las Vegas will be a thriving NHL market and will assist in reviving the Phoenix organization by creating a regional desert rivalry, right? Think again Bettman – you’ve missed out on a huge untouched market and your price tag has just scared off your two biggest and baddest suitors.
Reality of a Region: The Pacific Northwest Could Have a Three-way Rivalry
Just 143 miles to the south of Vancouver, British Columbia is the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, boasting a growing population of 3.6 million residents. Seattle is currently experiencing a growth rate of between 2.5%-3%, making it one of the fastest growing big cities in the nation. If we travel even further south we find Portland, Oregon just 174 miles down Interstate 5. Portland is benefiting from a similar situation as Seattle. A current metropolitan population of 2.3 million people and a growth rate of 5.2% in the last five years means Portland is also one of the nation’s fastest growing large-scale communities. These two cities have been regularly ignored as viable destinations for the National Hockey League simply because they require the NHL to invest itself in the commitment to creating an infrastructure within these cities. Sunrise, Florida was easy – there was an arena, a wealthy guy who wanted a hockey team and well… the rest is history.
Think of the how incredible the Northwest would be in terms of hockey value if there were NHL squads in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Have we not learned from the successes of Major League Soccer? The teams they have placed in those three markets are competitive on a worldwide scale in terms of club following, value and fan engagement. Vancouver would no longer have to travel at the rate they do and teams in Oregon and Washington would create a chain of West Coast franchises that would make a true realignment of the league possible.
With a few million dollars of renovations, the Moda Center in Portland is NHL ready. Seattle would have to invest money to make the Key Arena temporarily respectable while constructing a dual-purpose NHL/NBA venue and Vancouver would benefit immediately from less travel, more regional involvement and an intuitive response by its fans to jump on board to demonstrate the team’s dominance over its regional opponents – as would fans in Portland and Seattle.
The MLS’ Cascadia Cup atmosphere (which has the Portland, Seattle and Vancouver compete for a regional trophy) would surely transfer to hockey so long as Portland and Seattle’s initial ticket prices were comparative to that of their soccer franchise.
The Western Hockey League Thrives in the Northwest
The United States division of the Western Hockey League is one of the circuit’s most lucrative. In Portland, the Winterhawks have averaged between 6,000 and 8,000 fans per game in the last three seasons. More impressive is the state of Washington which houses four WHL teams within driving distance of Seattle. In the Seattle metro area there are both the Seattle Thunderbirds (avg. 4500 in 2014-15) and Everett Silvertips (avg. 5000 in 2014-15). Two hundred and twenty miles (or a 3 hour drive) to the east is the Tri-Cities area where the WHL’s Americans averaged 4,000 in 2014-15. Two hundred and eighty miles to the Northeast of Seattle is Spokane, home of the Western League’s Spokane Chiefs who averaged 6,000 fans per game in 2014-15.
This is all for minimally marketed major junior hockey, think about the possibilities of an NHL franchise with the resources to market itself like a true professional sport. Just look at what the city has done with the Seahawks, Sounders and even the Mariners who struggle consistently. People in Seattle love their teams – why would hockey be any different?
You would have a significant hockey fan base already built through the longtime major junior connection and with both Seattle and Portland continuing to grow, there are enough people to comfortably support NHL hockey. Seattle’s club would draw interest from Washington’s four WHL markets and Portland’s team would more than likely include a fan base as far-reaching as Boise, Idaho and Southern Oregon who are yearning for professional hockey.
Bottom Line: The NHL Needs to Do What it Takes to Place Franchises in Seattle and Portland
Whether it be lowering the expansion price tag, eating crow and relocating struggling sun belt teams or going out of their way to accommodate the needs of the markets, it would be worth it. Major League Soccer has seen an explosion of interest from cities looking to buy into the league, players looking to come to America to play and with that, massive growth in their fan bases majorly because of the incredible successes of the Pacific Northwest.
I am sure MLS Commissioner Don Garber would be glad to give Bettman a few pointers on how to tap the NW market. Make the call Bettman. Let the NHL chapter of the Cascadia Cup Rivalry begin.