Saturday, May 12, 2007

Why the Next Expansion Team Will Not Call Winnipeg (or Canada) Home

If there even is a 'next expansion team'...

At the beginning of the week, Progressives Conservatives Party leader Hugh McFadyen pledged to bring the Jets (or another NHL team) to Winnipeg, Manitoba if his party is elected as the province's next government.

"We need to increase Manitoba's cool factor if we want our young people to stay," he said, illustrating his point by speaking in front of 15,000 empty seats at the MTS Centre. It has been estimated that the province has lost 35,000 people since 1999. "The first step is to bring back the Jets."

While that kind of a statement is the one that makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside, in my opinion, it's not the kind of statement that has any real action to back it up. There's probably some truth in the statement. McFadyen would probably love to see a team in Winnipeg, but my bet is that it's just some campaign promises pulling on voters' heart strings. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for another team in Canada. I'm just going to believe it when I see it.

Jets back in Winnipeg? Not so fast.

If the Jets, or any incarnation of a Winnipeg based franchise were to come about, it certainly would of happened by now. We would all love to see an NHL team there, I'm sure. It would be Sports Center's feel good story of the week. A small Canadian city that eleven years ago had it's heart ripped out and has since been dying for a hockey team gets it's wish? Cue the 'My Wish' music.

Over the years many pro teams have closed up shop and moved, from the North Stars to the Whalers, the NFL's Cleveland Browns and NBA's Charlotte Hornets. In all cases, the city that was vacated has subsequently received a new franchise where the league or local businessmen felt that there was money to be made. Let's face it. When it comes down to it, it's all about the benjamins, folks. Just look at what happened in Minnesota after the Stars left, Cleveland after the Browns left, Charlotte when the Hornets left.

The North Stars last season was 1992-93, and by June 1997 Minnesota had been awarded an expansion franchise, only four years since the North Stars final game. The Browns of the NFL left Cleveland following the 1995 season, and by February 1996 the city had an expansion franchise. In the NBA, the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans after the 2001-02 campaign, and the Bobcats were playing games in Charlotte beginning in 2004-05. All these cities received expansion franchises within five years of the previous team moving, and the same is true for Houston and their Texans.

The point being, it's been eleven years since the Jets final game in Winnipeg and if enough people believed they could make enough money off of a franchise in Winnipeg, there would be a team playing in the city right now. Is the fan support there? Without a doubt, but at this point that's simply not enough. A team needs local businesses strong enough to support the team and a fan base that is not only strong enough to buy tickets, but merchandise and concessions as well. As sports fans learn all too often, it's not about the fans anymore. Every year, sports become more of a business, and so is the case in cities like Winnipeg, Hartford and Quebec.

There's one more point to be made, though. What's the even sadder reality of the whole situation? That the next city to gain an NHL team, as it stands right now, will most likely be Kansas City or Las Vegas which are the furthest thing from 'true hockey markets'. Remember a couple months back when it looked like the Penguins were on the verge of a move? The names you heard were almost exclusively Kansas City, Vegas and there was a little chirping about Hamilton, Ontario. Kansas City even seemed to be far and away the best option, as it already had a brand new arena and was the only other city that Pens owned Mario Lemieux even met with. Vegas looked good too, and someday the NHL might be entrepreneurial enough (or desperate enough) to put a franchise in Sin City. Hamilton would be a choice move to the untrained eye, as tickets are always easier to sell in Canada and the venture would of been backed by Blackberry creator Jim Balsillie. Problem is, that's only half of the story. The last thing the NHL front office wants is to try and sell Americans on another small market Canadian team. I can't imagine that the Leafs or Sabres front offices would be happy about the proximity of a team in Hamilton, either. Chances are both franchises would have to approve any expansion to an already saturated market.

Hold on a minute. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Given the current state of the league, it's doubtful there will be any expansion in the next decade, unless the financial situation and popularity of the league drastically improve. We could certainly see teams moving, especially those in southern markets, as has long been rumored. Nonetheless, it could be decades until Winnipeg or any other Canadian city receives an NHL team, despite it being good for the game to add one north of the border.

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