I think I lied. Expanded revenue sharing via a luxury tax isn’t the only way for the National Hockey League to fix its core economic issues.
The reality that nobody in these negotiations wants to touch is that the league is too big. It grew too much in the mid-1990s, the John Ziegler expansion an obvious sign of greed. The best market to apply for a team, Hamilton, was passed over for Ottawa and Tampa Bay because both of those places had owners willing to cough up a $50M expansion fee.
If there was a clear moment in time the NHL had become too big, that was it. That was when owners realized that they could use expansion as a quick cash grab. When the possibility of two new expansion teams was brought up earlier this week, the thought was “expansion fees” and also “there’s no way this can be right.”
It’s a way to quickly inject the league with cash. Expansion and relocations fees don’t count against hockey-related revenue, so these work as a one-time payout. The name of the game is greed, at the expense of diluting the talent of NHL, further divvying up of the league’s star players and making fans even less likely to be able to watch them in person.
The dirty little secret from the mid-1990s and early 2000s is that the NHL was overall a bad product, and only the diehards had good reason to watch. The game was so slow and diluted that there was very little to interest the casual fan. Part of the NHL’s growth out of the lockout comes from the fact that the number of marketable stars was closer to par with the teams in the league. Before expansion becomes feasible, there needs to be the right amount of worldwide talent to load up those clubs.
Again, we’re not past the “strong speculation” phase, but franchise relocations or expansion are going to have to be a topic discussed sometime soon. Forget about the empty Sprint Center in Kansas City—Seattle’s getting a new arena. Markham’s getting a new arena. Québec City is getting a new arena. All four are places that could legitimately hold an NHL team.
That’s all well and good, but the NHL expanded too rapidly, and re-located to too many non-traditional markets that it’s only now that the minor hockey programs in those cities are beginning to pump out future NHLers. Certainly, that was the end game and it improves the overall product, but look at what it cost us: A season of hockey, potentially a second, and a stagnant era of hockey between 1995 and 2003 dominated by trapping, hooking, holding and fighting.
If we’re going to make use of those rinks, and we should, it should be in the interest of a tiered NHL. Jesse Spector has hit the idea of an NHL and a lower-tier NHL2. Currently, there are 60 NHL and AHL franchises in North America. Raise that number to 64, and you create a four-tier league with promotion and relegation between them.
The upper echelon, the National Hockey League, where 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup, should be uncapped. There, the most successful teams at drawing revenue would be able to sign the best players the world has to offer for whatever they’re willing to pay. Keep in mind the NHL isn’t at this “50-50″ crossroads because Toronto and Philadelphia and the New York Rangers don’t want to spend money, it’s because other franchises in the NHL simply can’t afford to.
This is the only way you can really make expansion work. When I was growing up, the NHL expanded or re-located seemingly every year, which was real cool for a kid who was collecting hockey cards and getting to see all these new jerseys and looking up where all these new cities were in my atlas (Ottawa, where the heck is that?).
But it was a get-rich quick scheme, and the NHL would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling players who merely asked for their fair cut. This got all player salaries to boom and created an unsustainable business model.
Does the NHL want to go back to that model? I’m not entirely sure, but the problem is, seeing as it would increase union membership and money in the NHLPA, and how expansion fees give ownership a few extra dimes that they wouldn’t have to share with their players, who really at the bargaining table is going to oppose any expansion?
It’s like a line I’ll keep going back to: “the game of hockey has no advocate at the bargaining table.”
Promotion-relegation make sense to me, as does an uncapped top league, but it doesn’t make sense for any of these people running this sport as a business. I kinda want it to be about the “hockey” again at some point, ya know?