The Phoenix Coyotes may play their last game in the desert on Wednesday, but there is one big reason why the NHL has fought long and hard to prevent a possible franchise move to Winnipeg: Television.
A survey of several current and former NHL governors - who would not speak on the record because commissioner Gary Bettman frowns on public discussions of league business - highlighted the league's need to keep the Phoenix market (the 12th-largest in the United States, according to Nielsen Media Research) in order to maximize a U.S. TV contract.
(Sources said other factors included a league with 24 U.S.-based owners preferring to see the game grow within that nation's borders, the image of having a large U.S. market rather than a small Canadian one, and a desire to eventually move a couple of Eastern teams, like the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators, out of the Western Conference.)
The NHL announced Tuesday it had signed a 10-year, $2-billion (U.S.) television contract with NBC and its cable network, Versus. The governors surveyed did not know if the possibility of losing Phoenix as a market played a role in the price of the contract, but all were sure it played a role in the negotiations.
"It's not that they don't want to go back to Winnipeg, it's that they want to keep the Phoenix market," said one governor, who believes Winnipeg will be the next city to get an NHL franchise even if the Coyotes stay in Arizona. "All our broadcast partners want to keep that market."
One former governor said the new NBC contract probably calls for "a credit back and forth" depending on what happens in Phoenix.
At this point, it looks like the Coyotes will return to Winnipeg, from whence they came in 1996. None of the governors interviewed were optimistic the municipal bond deal that is supposed to pay for Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer's purchase of the Coyotes from the NHL can be saved.
One governor said Canadians may not like it, but the NHL is a U.S.-based league, with only six Canadian teams, so the 24 American franchises are more interested in developing markets at home.
"That started with the original expansion, when they didn't add any Canadian teams in 1967," he said. "That never really changed, right or wrong. The hope was they could make the game national in the USA and, eventually, there would be some television dollars there.
"To be truthful, we hate to lose a big market like Phoenix. That's it in a nutshell."
That governor also said it would be hard to sell a team from a small Canadian city, like Winnipeg, to fans in his market, "especially on Tuesday and Wednesday nights."
Other governors said a reluctance to move back to Winnipeg on the part of the owners is not a major factor. However, all agreed expansion will not be how Winnipeg or Quebec City get teams.
The 2008 recession also wiped out any plans for NHL expansion because prospective owners in U.S. cities like Las Vegas could no longer expect bank loans to build arenas.
"Today, there is no interest in expanding by the owners, none," one governor said, adding the NHL has financial woes that need attention with teams like the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers and New York Islanders.
If an NHL team is to move, most owners prefer it to be the Thrashers because that will ease another of the league's problems.
Both the Blue Jackets and Predators were in the NHL's bottom 10 teams in attendance again this season. Part of the problem is they are Eastern cities stuck in the NHL's Western Conference, which means natural rivalries cannot develop. Also, their local television package suffers from a lot of road games late at night.
If the Thrashers rather than the Coyotes move to Winnipeg, this would potentially allow one of those teams to switch to the Eastern Conference.
The irony in the Phoenix problem is it was caused at least in part by U.S. television.
When the Fox network owned the NHL rights in the 1990s, a source said, it put tremendous pressure on Bettman to expand into non-traditional but large markets like Phoenix and Atlanta by threatening to pay less money for the rights.