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NHL in the Pacific Northwest: The Cases For and Against

Monday, February 13, 2017

 

It was reported earlier this week that representatives from the Arizona Coyotes, the undisputed least profitable and least attended team in the NHL, recently toured the arenas in both Seattle and Portland. This came from several unverified sources, amid the vehement denials of the Coyotes Executive Vice President of Communications Rich Nairn. Likewise, Kevin Phelps, City Manager in Glendale, Ariz. where the Coyotes play in the Gila River Arena, insisted “It would appear to be a step backwards for the NHL to vacate the 12th largest metropolitan market in the U.S. It makes more sense for the league to expand into the Northwest market with a new franchise.”

Rumors of the Coyotes migrating north are nothing new; talks of a forced move for the franchise go back to 2015, and a sale was mooted back during the summer of 2013. It seems that since the club filed for Chapter 11 in 2009 that the hockey organization has remained in the desert despite increasing venue issues. The city of Glendale lured the Coyotes ownership out of Phoenix in 2003 with a new $180 million arena that still won’t be fully paid for by tax dollars until 2033. The team also has received a subsidy from the city on their lease agreement. A large part of the move was the supposedly more fertile market, but recent attendance numbers don’t agree.

More recently, the Coyotes announced late in 2016 that they were partnering with Arizona State University to fund a new venue in Tempe. That building was estimated at a cost of $400 million, and the plans appear to already be nixed. Coupled with the tour rumors at Key Arena and the Moda Center, it doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched that a move is being considered.

Hockey fans in Washington and Oregon might rejoice at the idea--as a matter of fact, they continue to do so at every mere whisper of it--but there are many angles to consider before supporting or rejecting the hypothetical athletic windfall.

The Case Against:

Hockey is not nearly the mainstream sport that football and basketball are in the U.S., and success is far from guaranteed in even the best markets (fans of the wayward Winnipeg Jets can attest to this). The Coyotes averaged 13,433 attending fans for their home games during the 2015-2016 season, and that is considered low. Meanwhile, the Portland Winterhawks have held steady at 7,000 attendees on average for three years running. For a city with such a storied hockey tradition, there may just not be enough repeat customers to keep a pro-level franchise afloat, especially with the additional costs of operation.

Even if the NHL were looking to add an expansion team in the Pacific Northwest, the arena situation is perilous. Seattle’s KeyArena, while largely vacant since the departure of the Seattle Supersonics, is not suitable for NHL games and would require extensive renovations. It is doubtful that a market that includes Major League Baseball, the National Football League would shell out that kind of money for hockey when they declined to do so for a seasoned basketball franchise. Portland, on the other hand, has an opposite problem from Arizona: too many venues all in the same market. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum was a grand old palace once, but it cannot sustain a modern NHL team. The Moda Center would be the obvious choice, and the city would be faced with the inevitable cost of shuttering the older building (a price tag avoided until now thanks to the Winterhawks).

And the most divisive issue is the potential fate of those lower level organizations. While Seattle might see fit to keep the Thunderbirds, their WHL team housed out in Kent, the profit margin would effectively disappear. Portland, meanwhile, would almost certainly have to bid the Winterhawks adieu. There is no way the city would keep the lights on in the VMA for a junior league team with the NHL across a courtyard in the big arena. Would diehard fans rather have their affordable, historic minor teams or pay big bucks and move on?

The Case For: 

It is almost certain that more of the public would, in fact, attend a pro game. Per a 1989 study by Hal Hansen and Roger Gaulthier published in the Journal of Sports Management, pro league teams have an inherently bigger draw than amateur leagues for a variety of reasons, and consequently can demand a larger premium from fans who are willing to pay more for a perceived “world’s best” level of play. So, profits would likely rise well above the WHL numbers. 

And among the reasons for higher attendance cited in that study is the potential for a wider audience; an NHL game is broadcasted on ESPN, there are streaming apps and merchandising rights that shout the brand far and wide across the entire region, potentially. Take it from me, a Vancouver Canucks fan by geographic convenience, that the region is more fertile for a franchise than the individual cities appear to be.

As far as the WHL teams, there is plenty of correlative info to suggest that they aren’t completely doomed. Take, for instance, the soccer teams in Portland. While the Portland Timbers enjoyed an average attendance of 21,144 people last year, the less exposed women’s club, the Portland Thorns, had a staggering 16,945 average. With ticket prices low and fan access to the players and staff much higher, a team like the Winterhawks could easily find a place in the market.

At present, with the Arizona management denying all rumors and both cities reluctant to spend funds to entice a team, this could all be purely academic. Words are wind, as the saying goes, and the lack of sources regarding the recent visits could make this another case of dashed hopes for hockey fans in the area. But hope springs eternal, and these talks are often more transparent during the offseason.

 

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