Where should the NHL expand to next?
Emily Kaplan: One city makes the most sense: Seattle. Last week, at a sports business conference in Toronto, Gary Bettman said the NHL wouldn't expand simply for the sake of being symmetrical. That's fine, but it's glaring that the NHL is at an uneven 31 teams, with an imbalance in the West. Seattle fits snugly geographically -- and demographically -- in what the NHL would covet in its 32nd franchise. Advertisers love it when the league attracts young, tech-savvy fans. So why not target that audience directly in a metropolitan area that is home to six Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Nordstrom and Starbucks? Plus, Seattle entices a natural cross-border rival in the Vancouver Canucks.
Now, you've heard Seattle mentioned as a candidate before. The city was short-listed, along with Quebec City, when the league ultimately moved to Las Vegas. Seattle fell short mainly because of competing bids, but also, simply, because a plan for an arena never crystallized. Well, those issues might not be issues any longer.
Enter the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG), led by three ideal complements: someone with hockey acumen (former Toronto Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke), deep pockets (billionaire David Bonderman) and cache (filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer). Last week, the OVG received approval from the Seattle city council, an important next step in their plan for a $600 million renovation of KeyArena. It's still a process, but the important thing is this group seems to have momentum. And the NHL would be smart to latch on.
Greg Wyshynski: The NHL's main focus in adding a 32nd franchise needs to be creating new hockey fans. So while I believe Quebec City could support a franchise -- and Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson told me his team wouldn't seek a territorial fee on top of Quebec's expansion fee -- I don't think it expands hockey's footprint as much as my preferred destination: Houston, Texas.
Yes, the current belle of the ball -- one that passes, with flying colors, the three-pronged test that the NHL applies to new markets: strong local ownership (billionaire Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta), a modern hockey-friendly building (Toyota Center) and a fertile market (Houston is the fourth-most-populated metropolitan area in the United States). It's a city with considerable hockey history, dating back to the 1940s. Having the chance to claim Gordie Howe as a local hockey icon is akin to saying you once shook Sinatra's hand.
Logistically, this makes sense for the NHL. It balances the conferences, adding an additional team in the Western Conference and, more specifically, to the Central Division. That's where a natural rivalry with the Dallas Stars will live, benefiting both clubs.
The NHL has been interested in Houston for years but could never justify the interest because the previous owner of the Rockets and the arena wasn't interested in having a team there. With those issues seemingly solved by an owner aggressively courting an expansion team, the interest in Houston seems warranted.
Chris Peters: If this question was about where I think the NHL will go next, my answer would be Houston. The turnkey arena, the willing owner, the diverse and growing population of the city, all make it attractive. The current situations of the most likely American cities for the league to expand give Houston the advantage.
That said, I'm going to side with Emily on this one. Seattle, to me, has the most upside of the most likely options for expansion, assuming it gets the arena situation in order. As the prospects writer around here, you've got to know I love upside. We all know people would show up in Quebec City, but as Greg notes, you've got to be looking to expand the tent for new fans. Seattle would do that, and I think they'd do it easily, in a relative sense.
Getting into the Pacific Northwest offers the league an opportunity to stretch its overall footprint in a meaningful way, while also putting the league in a top-15 media market.
I also think there's room for hockey to grow in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Junior hockey has existed there for years, with the Seattle Thunderbirds and nearby Everett Silvertips, both in the WHL. Meanwhile, USA Hockey has just under 10,000 registered hockey players across Washington state. That's not a hugely impressive number, but it's a lot bigger than many states started with before the arrival of NHL expansion or relocated teams throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Wherever the NHL has gone, hockey participation has grown exponentially upon the team's arrival, and often keeps growing. That's good for the game as a whole and good for the local team.
I think you also can look to the success of the Seattle Sounders of MLS as an example of what Seattle is capable of as a sports market when a new team comes to town. It's certainly been a big part of the pitch for bringing the NHL to Seattle. While my brain is telling me Houston based on the facts, I'm such a sucker for the upside I see in Seattle.