For the better part of the last decade I have said that Seattle would be a great location for an NHL franchise. Over the last couple of years, a number of articles have been written that more-or-less say the same. Let’s dive into the issue and explore what has been said and where the issue stands today.
First let’s start by simply examining how Seattle generally stacks up to other NHL franchised cities.
If we approach it from a metropolitan population size, Seattle would rank 13 out of 28 with a little over 3.6 million (the New York metro area supports three different teams and Los Angeles metro area supports two). From a population size perspective, Seattle comes in around the middle of the pack – not bad.
If we look at NHL cities around the United States and their respective hockey programs (both youth and adult leagues as one indication of interest in hockey), Seattle would also rank in the middle from a pure number standpoint. From a percentage of the designated metropolitan area, Seattle would again rank in the middle. Another part of this story is also the stark difference between the northern United States’ interest in hockey when compared to that of the southern United States. It comes as no secret that hockey in the United States has generally been focused in more northern states. That is not to say that the NHL and hockey haven’t found success in the south, but rather that northern territories and regions have generally found more success for a number of factors – Seattle checks this theoretical box as well.
Population size and hockey programs are only parts of the equation when it comes to finding and building a sustainable fan base to attend games. A recent 2014 study (which you can view here) on fan demographics for the NHL revealed a fan base that is the richest of all sports. Not only that but a demographic that is 63% between the ages of 18 and 54, 92% white, and 33% making over $100k.
Would Seattle take kindly to another professional sports team? If so, where are the fans going to come from?
There are a few things to consider here. 1) Is Seattle considered to be a sports town, and 2) would the existing sports fans in Seattle adopt the sport of hockey?
I don’t see much debate over whether or not Seattle should be considered to be a sports town or not. The city is currently home to 3 of the major 5 sports leagues in the United States – the MLB’s Seattle Mariners, the MLS’s Seattle Sounders, and the most recent Super Bowl Champions, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. In some respects, one could make the argument that interest in Seattle sports hasn’t been this high for the last 35 years since the former NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics brought home the NBA title back in 1979.
To some degree we’ve already touched on where the fans would potentially come from in first few paragraphs when talking about the general population of Seattle. Aside from the existence of hockey programs and a demographic profile that appears to fit-the-bill, there are still additional avenues to consider when assessing where a new franchise into the city is going to attract fans from.
In regards to current hockey fans already living in and around Seattle, the Vancouver Canucks are probably the most visible team from a live broadcast perspective although the San Jose Sharks are closest in proximity. Data over the last several years suggests that although many from Seattle would like to see a professional hockey team in their city, general interest in the NHL is somewhat low due to the proximity of Seattle to the closest NHL markets. To me this seems to present a great opportunity to grow a fan base from scratch. In the event the articles and data I’ve read through are incorrect and there is indeed a strong rooting interest in a current NHL franchise, I counter with more recent examples in which new professional sports franchises come to a market with an already heavy rooting interest elsewhere. In particular I think of the MLB’s Washington Nationals. Baseball in the Capital City had been all but extinct for 33 years since the Washington Senators left to go become the Texas Rangers. The majority of fans looking for a consistent rooting interest went 45 minutes north to the Baltimore Orioles up in Maryland. The Washington Nationals (midway through their 10th season back in Washington, DC) have been fairly successful in building their fan base from scratch and stealing back a considerable amount of “market share” from the Orioles. Yes, there is a rather complicated broadcasting rights issue that exists between Washington, DC and Baltimore, but is not something that need be covered here. In fact, some quick research into the broadcasting rights in and around Seattle doesn’t appear, at least on the surface, to present the challenges faced by the Nationals.
Although we just focused on NHL fandom in Seattle, believe it or not professional hockey already exists there in the form of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Although the team falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of attendance (4-5 thousand average a game), the team has found a home in Seattle since 1977 (first as the Seattle Breakers before being renamed the Thunderbirds in 1985).
Outside of current NHL and WHL fans latching on to a new team, there would still need to be significant amounts of fans coming from elsewhere. For this, you'd have to concentrate on non-hockey fans and split this segment into two additional groups.
People that become sports fans when a new team moves into their city
People that are sports fans that get cannibalized from other teams or leagues in the area
I won't go into the analysis now (look for a post in the future), but studies that pertain to building a fan base for new teams that move into a new market and studies on what leagues have the most cross-over (MLS and NHL fans are eerily similar) suggest a NHL team in Seattle would do well.
Expansion vs. Relocation of an NHL team
One question that is generally discussed is that if the NHL does come to Seattle, would it be through expansion or relocation? My gut tells me that Seattle is more likely to get a team through expansion than relocation of a current team, and let me tell you why. I’ll touch on this more in depth later on, but one reason is simply because the city of Seattle is strong leverage for the NHL right now in getting less financially stable teams throughout the league to make an effort in stabilizing their organizations. Long-story short “you still want to have a team in your city? Great, do what you need to do or we’re putting your team in Seattle.” The entire situation reminds me of the MLB putting the Washington Nationals in Washington DC, which went through a similar ordeal for a number of years before happening.
Expansion on the other hand seems to already have been hinted at in a number of instances both verbally and not. One non-verbal signal may be in how the current conferences are currently aligned. If you look at the NHL’s realignment of the league and its conferences starting in the 2013-14 season, you immediately notice that there are two less teams in the Western Conference (16 teams in the Eastern Conference, 14 in the Western). Both the Central and Pacific divisions in the Western Conference only have 7 teams whereas the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions of the Eastern Conference both have 8. It sure would seem to make a lot of sense to even out the conferences by adding two teams to the Western Conference, perhaps Seattle into the Pacific division slot.
So why all of this hold-up on putting a team in Seattle?
In reality your guess is probably as good as mine since I’m not behind the closed doors of the NHL or part of any of the potential investor groups that are trying to put a team in Seattle. However, here are probably a few or the more likely causes:
1) Need of an NHL and NBA packaged deal or assurances
Aside from a small handful of the US-based NHL teams, most venues can be described as multi-purpose venues in regards to their ability to host several different types of sports under the same roof – primarily this has been basketball. Generally the reason for this is because it’s a lot cheaper to run one venue for two teams than it is for two venues for two teams. During 2012 and early 2013 Seattle seemed all but primed for an NBA and SuperSonics return when the Sacramento Kings were up for sale. When a last minute negotiation was struck that ensured the Kings staying in Sacramento, it seemed that hope for an NHL team coming to Seattle was also delayed. So could one come to Seattle without the other? Sure, there are plenty of instances (especially in Canada) of venues hosting only a single professional NHL team. It does however become a bit more difficult from an investment perspective. Now I’m not privy to what is being said behind closed doors at the NBA or NHL league offices, but I imagine any venue that would have to be constructed will 100% be designed to hold both an NBA and NHL team.
2) Where are the players going to come from?
Great question and something I had to do a bit of research on since the rules of expansion have gone through several iterations and changes throughout the last few decades. To make a long story short, expansion franchises are more or less able to draft from current players and prospects around the NHL. Yes, you could see some of your favorite players from around the league more or less shipped off to Seattle if an expansion team comes to the city. But before you start panicking over some of your favorite stars being forced to relocate, consider the fact that current teams have the ability to put parts of their rosters on a "protected" list. Here's a quick breakdown on how it would probably play out:
Each team will more or less be allowed to protect one (1) goaltender, five (5) defensemen, and nine (9) forwards. There are also some other slight iterations such as two (2) goaltenders, three (3) defensemen, and seven (7) forwards. From here there are all sorts of other rules that come into play and if you're really interested in reading more then I suggest clicking here (an article that I feel explains it well).
3) Seattle (unfortunately) is serving as great leverage for the NHL
I alluded to this earlier when talking about expansion vs. relocation. Over the last half a decade there have been several teams around the NHL that were on the brink of being moved - or so it seemed. Without going into a lengthy explanation and analysis, the threat of moving a team from a city that already has a team forces teams to restructure or find a new ownership group. Similar situations happen all of the time in other leagues. Everyone saw what happened a few years ago when there was talk about moving the NBA's Sacramento Kings. The thought was that they were going to be relocated (to Seattle actually), but a last minute deal was struck that kept the team in northern California. One has to look no further than Washington Nationals here in Washington DC. Although the team is here now, the MLB was infamous for using the threat of relocating a team as leverage for poor performing teams to get their acts together. Yes, a professional team did eventually make its way to Washington DC, but not after years and years of threatening to move one here.
4) The NHL probably hasn’t been ready until recently. Think about it - with all the lockouts that have plagued the NHL over the last couple of decades, the league has struggled to regain relevance as a major sport in the United States, not to mention trust of it's fans. Don't get me wrong, I love hockey and I love the NHL, but lets call a spade a spade. Out of what I call "The Big 5", which are the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS, the NHL has had arguably the most to prove over the last few years. Now yes, over the last half-decade or so the NHL has made a pretty decent comeback if you look at fandom growth rates, ticket sales, television deals, and just general overall interest in the sport. My gut tells me that before expanding to a handful of new cities, they probably want to first make sure that the sport of hockey and the NHL at large is back and thriving. All of this combined with the NHL finally creating a fund for franchises to borrow from (the last of the major leagues to do this by the way), the NHL is only recently finally in a position to expand.
5) Venue construction - If you build it, will they come?
Currently it's a "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" sort of problem. Plans in Seattle to construct a stadium that would be capable of hosting both an NBA and NHL team have come, gone, and come to a hault over the last several years. Investors and the city have both expressed great interest in building a new venue - so long as an NBA or NHL franchise comes to the city, but it's difficult to invest that kind of money in a project (especially one requiring a lot of tax dollars) without some guarantee that professional franchises will come based on solely building a venue. On the flip side there's nowhere in Seattle that could currently house both an NBA and NHL team - at least no where suitable.
6) Other viable cities outside of Seattle
Earlier I mentioned that the Western Conference currently has 2 less teams than the Eastern Conference that I imagine will eventually be filled to bring parity to the league and the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs each season. Just because I mentioned 2 open slots doesn’t mean that the NHL can’t add more to either of the conferences. In fact, multiple cities have been mentioned as potential locations for NHL teams over the last couple of years. The cities generally mentioned in addition to Seattle include Kansas City, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and even another team in Toronto! Although I believe Seattle is best suited to handle an NHL team, solid arguments can be made for each of these cities. I’m sure someone in the NHL has a pretty good idea of which cities they believe would be best to expand to, but I also imagine that there is still a fair amount of due diligence and market studies that are currently being conducted and not to mention investor groups being identified that make one city more viable than the other.
Other interesting facts
If an NHL team does eventually make its way to Seattle, Seattle hockey teams would rank tied for #13 out of the 30 current active teams in the NHL in Stanley Cup championship appearances. Yes, believe it or not the city of Seattle has made it to the Stanley Cup three times, winning one in 1917 as the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). The Seattle Metropolitans were the first American hockey team to win the Stanley Cup.
Other thoughts - an exciting opportunity
Whether you’re here because you like sports, business, or are currently or wanting to work in the sports industry, I have to imagine that inserting a new team into a market like Seattle would prove to be incredibly exciting. As a marketer I think an opportunity and challenge such as building a brand from scratch and having the opportunity to help define what you want your identity to be and how you interact with your city and fans would be pretty cool. So I’ll put out an APB that if you or your uncle end up being responsible for putting a team in Seattle and are looking for a marketer to get things off the ground and to the races, let me know.
Well great. After years of bottling my thoughts on the NHL and Seattle, they are finally out. By no means do I think I have either a full picture or everything right in my analysis. As such I would love to hear from you and what your thoughts are – leave a comment below or email me offline!