Seattle Expansion Team: Steps to Take Before First NHL Season

When the 2021-2022 NHL season begins, Seattle will officially have an NHL team of their own and will become the 16th team in the Western Conference, which had one less team than its Eastern brethren after the 2017 addition of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Speaking of the Golden Knights, they had the most successful inaugural season of any North American professional sports team, and it wasn’t even close. While people expected a half-empty arena in the desert, assuming fans would rather hit the penny slots than watch a team destined for the basement, T-Mobile Arena welcomed standing room only crowds on a nightly basis. The fact they capped off their first season with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final helped as well, but despite everyone’s predictions, Vegas has become one of America’s greatest hockey towns.

Ron Francis

With Seattle’s arrival on the horizon, the still unnamed franchise should take some notes on what Vegas did right. Sure, articles have been written on how the expansion draft was rigged in their favor and all that jazz, but I’m talking about business. Ron Francis can worry about putting together a competitive team and hiring the right coaching staff, and fans can participate in way too early mock expansion drafts, but here’s some moves the team can make to build up their fan base and fill every seat at Key Arena as the calendar inches towards October 2021.

Make the Most of Social Media

The Golden Knights have been successful on the ice, but they’ve also had success engaging with their fans. The team’s Twitter account has emerged as the gold standard for social media, in any sport. Whether it’s asking for puppy pictures after a devastating loss, humorous intermission polls, or showing off pets named after their All Star goaltender, the Vegas social media team has captured audiences far beyond its fan base.

Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights celebrate after a goal against the Colorado Avalanche (AP Photo/David Becker)

The greatest thing about the Golden Knights’ Twitter feed is that it’s humorous and informative. Humour is the vehicle to attract followers, who then stick around for the hockey content and analysis the account posts as well. Even before the Golden Knights played their franchise’s first game, the account was making headlines for getting in internet feuds with their soon to be division rivals, like the Los Angeles Kings who received the brunt of the 140 character abuse.

The Golden Knights’ Twitter account also started building their following well before the team had players or even a name. Advice to Seattle: start engaging your fans online early. Build that following, because the more you do, the more people will pay attention.

Embrace Your Minor League Heritage

Fun fact, Seattle was home to the first American team to win a Stanley Cup, back in 1917 when the Seattle Metropolitans claimed hockey’s top prize. Granted, that victory was over 100 years ago, so it’s unlikely that any Metropolitans fans remain, but that doesn’t mean hockey hasn’t been present in the region. Even though Seattle has been the site of multiple failed NHL expansion and relocation attempts prior to the anticipated expansion 2021, minor and junior hockey is prevalent.

1917 Seattle Metropolitans, first American Stanley Cup Champions. (THW Archives)

The two most prominent non NHL franchises to call Seattle home were the Seattle Totems from 1944-1975 and the major junior team, the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, who moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1985. The Thunderbirds have produced NHLers such as New York Islanders superstar Matt Barzal and former All-Star Patrick Marleau. The Thunderbirds also have a sizable fan following, averaging around 4,700 fans a game, putting them in the top ten of WHL attendance.

Seattle logo

Seattle can follow in Vegas’ footsteps, who went from a minor league to a major league hockey city. Vegas had a spotty and somewhat inconsistent minor league history, yet developed a niche community of fans and a legacy that lives on through players like Deryk Engelland who made the city his permanent residence. Seattle may not enjoy the benefits of being the only major league sports ticket in town like the Golden Knights, but they already have a decent-size market of hockey fans to tap into. That brings us to our next, and final, point.

Know Your Audience

Unlike Vegas, which seemed as nontraditional a hockey town as they come, Seattle checks all the boxes, of everything the NHL could want in an expansion site. A 2013 study ranked the city as the best United States option for NHL expansion, six places ahead of Vegas (a Canadian city also ranked ahead of Vegas, but for this purpose, we’re only counting American cities).

Seattle (Credit: Spmenic, at Wikimedia Commons.)

Comparing Seattle residents to the NHL’s demographic is also favorable. Almost every poll ranks the NHL as the sport with fans who have the highest earnings. The median income for a family in Seattle is just over $100,000. The NHL has the highest percentage of fans who make over $100,000 of the four major sports at 33%.

What’s Seattle Missing?

The only factor that plays into NHL expansion that Seattle seems to be missing is a brand new arena. While the Golden Knights had the new T-Mobile Center to show off, Seattle will be using the heavily renovated Key Arena. Granted, after extensive renovations it won’t look like the same arena the NBA’s Seattle Super Sonics left, but it’s still an interesting footnote.

KeyArena Seattle NHL
Artist Rendering of renovated KeyArena in Seattle Washington. (Photo – Office of the Mayor, Seattle, WA)

There’s an ongoing debate about what arenas can add to fan experience and attendance levels, mostly in sports outside the NHL. It looks like Seattle’s residency at Key Arena could resemble the New York Islanders’ triumphant “return” to Nassau Coliseum last season.