Like Jay Gatsby, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman never stops chasing after that green light. “Gatsby believed in the green light,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, in what may or may not have been a report on the NHL’s latest attempt to make a go of the Arizona Coyotes, “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning –”
So the National Hockey League beats on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the Sunbelt.
Back when the NHL was a six-team cottage industry headquartered in Montreal’s Sun Life Building, those blue-skying league expansion would not have had Phoenix on their draft card. The Greater Phoenix metropolitan area of the 1950s was neither great nor metropolitan. It had about as many people as Winnipeg. For a sport played on frozen water and looking for new markets capable of filling 18,000-seat arenas, Phoenix might as well have been the moon.
But that was then, and this is now. Phoenix is now the 10th-largest metro area in the United States. It has more than five million people, and it’s growing fast. That’s why, despite setback after setback, the NHL is so reluctant to move the Arizona Coyotes to somewhere immediately profitable – like, say, Quebec City, with an 18,000-seat arena that could be sold out tomorrow, and a provincial government eager to grease the return of pro hockey.
More than a quarter century after the league shipped the original Winnipeg Jets to Arizona, it appears determined to keep the team there. Canadians hoping for a repeat of what happened in the spring of 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers exhausted their options and moved to Manitoba, are not likely to have their wishes fulfilled any time soon, or ever.
Canada is the NHL’s backup prom date. Or more precisely, we’re the backup date behind several more attractive, U.S.-based backup dates. Sorry.
Last week, the day after taxpayers in Tempe, Ariz., declined to fork over the cash to build the Coyotes a new home, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly quashed talk of the moving, telling ESPN, “I don’t envision a scenario in which the Coyotes are not playing in Mullett Arena next season.”
The Mullett is the tiny, 4,600-seat venue where the Coyotes play – having been evicted from their previous taxpayer-supported nest by the citizens of Glendale, Ariz. The franchise, long subsidized by revenue-sharing from more profitable teams, is on the dole for at least another season.
But the Phoenix area remains in the NHL’s sights because, while it may not have many hockey fans, it has a lot of people. The population centre of the United States has been steadily shifting south and west. The NHL has spent decades trying to stay in step with the trend, chasing the Holy Grail of big-league status with U.S. audiences – and the multibillion-dollar TV contracts that have come to the truly big-league NBA and NFL.
The NHL’s quest has not been without its successes. That old six-team league is now 32 teams, and revenues are way up since the 1990s. Of 25 American teams, half are outside the Northeast and Midwest. Thanks to local arena subsidies, a salary cap, revenue sharing to prop up weaker teams and a growing fan base, the vast majority of franchises are in no danger of moving. This spring, the final four teams vying to claim that silver cup donated by a 19th-century governor-general are all from the Sunbelt.
And the league keeps chasing the Arizona dream, though the other 31 team owners presumably have their limits – which is how the Atlanta Thrashers ended up in Winnipeg. Atlanta is also a Sunbelt city, it’s fast growing, and it’s bigger than Phoenix. Yet when no better options presented themselves in 2011, the Thrashers quickly decamped.
But with the Coyotes, the NHL may have better options. The market for pro sports teams keeps sending valuations to new heights – media reports claim bids for the Ottawa Senators are as high as $1-billion – making them potentially attractive investments. There are also U.S. markets such as Kansas City that have long chased a team. It has an empty arena, and three times as many people as Quebec City.
And there are a slew of big, fast-growing U.S. Southern and Western cities without an NHL team. The list includes Houston (fifth-biggest U.S. metro, with 7.3 million people), Atlanta (eighth-largest metro; population 6.2 million), San Diego (3.3 million), Orlando (2.8 million), Portland (2.5 million), and Austin and Sacramento (2.4 million each).
One place that could clearly support another NHL team is Toronto. The Greater Golden Horseshoe has around 10 million people, in hockey-mad Canada. Keep in mind that Greater Los Angeles has two teams and the New York area has three. But unless the NHL and the owners of the Maple Leafs have changed their minds since Jim Balsillie tried to move the Coyotes to Hamilton, southern Ontario will remain a one-team market.
And if the Coyotes ever exit Arizona? It would take a rare alignment of the planets to bring them to Canada.