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Yeah, Try Not To Follow MLS, If You Can

Wanted to get to this for a couple days. One of the bigger items of news this week was that as soon as the city of Seattle reached a MOU about the redoing of Key Arena into something more modern–the second time they’ll have done this–the NHL couldn’t wait to jump in and basically say, “Draw me like one of your French girls.” This is hardly a surprise. The league has lusted after Seattle like a teenage boy with a Brazzers password for years, all the way back to when Darryl Katz and Wayne Gretzky used a Seahawks game to get Edmonton to cave on a new arena.

And in a vacuum, the NHL should obviously want Seattle. It’s a rabid sports market, and the biggest that the NHL is currently not in. It would even out the conferences, and there’s already a natural rival with the Canucks and probably another one with San Jose, as the Bay Area and Seattle continue to fight because they’re basically the same place just one has more rain.

And yet, I can’t but help and come back to this Deadspin article from a while back about the MLS. And I wonder if the NHL isn’t basically doing the same thing.

Beyond the above reasons, the real reason we know the NHL is hot on expansion is it’s free money. $650 million they don’t have to share with the players, or a cool $20.9 million per team. The players’ union doesn’t mind so much as it’s another 23 jobs that open up for it. And neither side really cares that they barely had the talent to cover another team this year, which might be a big reason scoring is up so far this season. They don’t care. I suppose the hope is that a big, shining market like Seattle will also fill the building for at least a while, juice the cap a bit, maybe even help with TV ratings in the locale… at least until the NBA shows up.

But you can’t help and contrast that with the feelings of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who I don’t think is exactly a genius but at least better than the last mope to hold the job, when asked about baseball expanding. He said they would love to, but until they stabilize places like Tampa Bay and Oakland, what would be the point?

The difference between the two leagues is obviously clear. MLB is awash in money (for now) and the NHL at least still claims that basically everyone bar the Leafs and Canadiens lose money. The NHL needs the expansion money badly, whereas MLB doesn’t have to take the risk, if there is any real risk.

And there must be some risk if baseball isn’t lusting after it like hockey. Which makes one wonder if the NHL isn’t really using the $500 million they already got from Vegas and $650 they will get from Seattle to paper over cracks (or larger) that they already have.

And the NHL has basketcase franchises. Florida is averaging 12K fans per game. The Yotes aren’t much better. The Islanders don’t have a home. And while the recent sale of Carolina is making everyone claim they’re not going anywhere, how long before a new owner isn’t exactly thrilled about the 11,000 per game they draw? Calgary is in a dumbass arena dispute, though they could easily just build their own. Don’t tell me these teams are making money or close to it, at least aside from the Flames.

Again, the NHL is still a league that drives most of its income from ticket sales. At some point all these teams drawing no one are going to simply bottom out, and they can’t all move to Quebec. And what happens when the NBA returns to Seattle, which it assuredly will? It will immediately dwarf interest in the NHL, because if you’ve ever met anyone from Seattle you know exactly what the Sonics meant to them and it’s basically all they want. Well, that and Felix Hernandez to be five years younger forever.

Of course, a profitable team isn’t always the end goal here. Franchise value is, and like every sport the NHL is fine there. The Hawks were just valued at $1 billion for example, and even the Canes are valued on either side of half that. Seeing as how Karmanos bought the Whalers for $47.5 million and sold just about half of them for $230 million or so 20 years later or so, that’s a pretty tidy ROI.

Still, one can’t help but wonder where this bubble bursts. For MLS, the hope has to be that their rabid expansion that papers over their losses can stop right about the time their popularity takes off, which seems ambitious to say the least but they have a lot more places they can go. I don’t know where the NHL’s would be.

Because you’d have to guess that with the way things are going, the NHL’s next TV deal isn’t going to be as profitable as this one, given cord-cutters and all that. When even the NFL can count on a smaller TV deal, everyone else should too. Funny how the Seattle team is plotted to come on line in the last year of this TV deal with NBC, no? And I wouldn’t count on the throbbing brains of the NH to come up with something creative to make up the difference. Perhaps this is why you’re seeing a return to international, regular season games. The NHL has to tap everything it can.

So where’s the influx of cash when you’ve expanded everywhere you can? Do franchise values keep rising when the TV deal shrinks and you have no other ways around it? What does it look like when the floor drops out from underneath?

I’m guessing the NHL doesn’t have answers to any of these questions, and thus you get already announcing expansion to Seattle.

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