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Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of the NHL's Inevitable Expansion

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 22:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media prior to the Philadelphia Flyers playing the New York Rangers in Game Three of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
Len Redkoles/Getty Images
Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

It’s August, which means that anything approaching real news in the NHL is going to dominate the media landscape. When the story is something as explosive as a massive new wave of expansion teams, as reported by SportsBusinessNews.com's Howard Bloom, the attention of the hockey world is assured:

The argument for and against expansion is long and complicated, with some clear benefits, some equally clear drawbacks and some outcomes that can fall in one category or the other depending on an individual’s vantage point.

What is not—and cannot be—disputed is that at some point in the not too distant future, it is going to happen.

We don’t say that because of this most recent report, which, for what it's worth, deputy commissioner Bill Daly has denied to French-language TVA Sports (h/t CBC Sports), or any other. We say it because it’s an economic slam dunk. NHL teams can command outrageous sums in exchange for their willingness to grant a new franchise; if Bloom’s dollar figures are correct, it’s a sum exceeding $300 million per team. That’s money that gets carved up by the league’s 30 owners, money that isn’t included in the pot of revenue shared with the players.

Using Bloom’s total, that gives each NHL team the option of getting $45 million and change right now. If there’s a question there, its answer is a foregone conclusion, even if it means settling for a 1/34th share of central revenue rather than a 1/30th share. For a primarily gate-driven league, the upside is obvious. 

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 26:  Seats are covered with fan appreciation towels for the Phoenix Coyotes last home game against the Colorado Avalanche at Jobing.com Arena on April 26, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

We haven’t seen more expansion because the situation is a little more complicated than what’s laid out above. Owners can make the most money when franchise values are highest, and those values peak when there is labour peace and lucrative long-term television pacts in place. That hasn’t been the case over the last few years, but it is now.

Further, nobody wants to see another situation like the one in Phoenix, where the NHL has had to prop up a dysfunctional team; there has to be a reasonable expectation that any new team will be able to stand on its own two feet.

But beyond those basic considerations, the case for owners is obvious and highly favourable.

It’s more of a mixed bag for fans.

Talent dilution is always represented as a concern, and legitimately so. Any expansion of the number of NHL roster spots means that a bunch of guys who couldn’t make the cut previously now suddenly can. The league’s 30 teams employed 983 skaters last year (a little under 33 per team); the addition of four new clubs means that we’d expect to see 130-odd players in at least one game who would not otherwise have touched NHL ice.

That can’t help but reduce the quality of the product.

There’s also a trickle-down effect. Those players suddenly moving to the NHL makes for a talent vacuum in the AHL and European leagues as older players make the grade. It weakens the junior level as guys who might have been sent back will now make professional rosters. For a fan of pretty much any significant team, that makes for at least somewhat inferior hockey.

But there are benefits, too.

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 10:  Members of the 'Nordiques Nation' converge on Prudential Center prior to the game between the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins on April 10, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Fans in Quebec City lived through lean years, saw their team develop great players, then had to watch as Denver landed an instant contender and won two championships. Do fans elsewhere have any right to deny those people the opportunity of seeing NHL hockey in their city again?

There is a pretty big hockey market in Seattle that has to put up with travelling across the border to Vancouver if they want to see major league hockey. Toronto has a team, but overwhelming demand makes for insanely high ticket prices that are out of the range of many fans.

Each expansion team opens the door for diehard fans outside a current NHL city to enjoy the highest-level hockey at home. It paves the way for new fans to find and embrace the sport, too.

Additional expansion also translates into increased attention from the national media, something that's always welcome, particularly in the United States. It gives current teams a competitive advantage, too, as weaker teams enter the league, and the financial boost can't help but make those existing clubs more secure. 

It’s a mixed bag, in other words. But fans may as well focus on the positives because, one way or another, it’s coming.

 

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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