Houston could get an NHL team, or could just be used to extort other NHL cities for cash

If you’ve always wondered why Houston, the United States’ 10th largest media market, didn’t have an NHL franchise, this is your week. Starting last Thursday, when The Athletic (citing the ever-popular “multiple sources”) reported that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had met to talk about putting a team in the city, there’s been increased blind speculation about the possibility, to the point where the Houston Chronicle ran an entire article about what the phantom team would be called.

Most recently, the Houston Press, a newspaper that recently canceled its print edition and laid off its entire staff except for its editor-in-chief, who now works solely with freelancers, reported that now that Fertitta owns the Rockets and their arena, bringing hockey to Houston is “just a matter of when.” And lawyer-by-day-sports-journalist-by-night John Royal, citing the less-popular “it’s become my understanding,” says that the NHL isn’t considering expansion for the moment, but instead would prefer to “stabilize” one of its existing franchises by moving it to a new city:

There are numerous candidates for relocation to Houston. No. 1 on the list is the Arizona Coyotes which is begging the Phoenix-metro area to build it a new arena after failing to attract fans to the taxpayer-funded arena built for the Coyotes in Glendale and which is currently playing on a year-to-year lease. Then there are the Carolina Hurricane which have been struggling at the gate. The New York Islanders are unhappy in a new arena in Brooklyn and are seeking to move, and the Calgary Flames are threatening to move if a new arena is not built by Calgary taxpayers.

(Yes, “the Arizona Coyotes which is.” Clearly they laid off all the copy editors, too.)

All of this makes sense, sort of, though for the Islanders and Flames in particular you have to wonder whether giving up strong media markets that are hockey hotbeds in exchange for a city in the South would work as well as … well, as the Coyotes and the Hurricanes, which let’s not forget are in this predicament because they used to be the Winnipeg Jets and the Hartford Whalers. The Coyotes, in particular, couldn’t really do worse than in Arizona, where they are about to have no arena lease and have never drawn well in any case.

On the other hand, when you see all the unnamed sources involved, you have to at least ask the question: Is all this sudden Houston talk in part an NHL whisper campaign to rattle move-threat sabers in other cities? So far nobody appears to be freaking out — Fansided’s Flames blog briefly mentioned and dismissed the possibility of Calgary’s team heading south, for example, despite Sportsnet’s John Shannon insisting that “Calgary’s name has been added to the list of teams facing possible relocation” — which is good, but nobody has yet hopped on a plane to Houston or anything.

And really, even if Fertitta’s interest in a team is real — and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, though it is a bit puzzling that former owner Les Alexander figured he made more money on concerts and the like than hockey, but Fertitta calculates otherwise — it’d be dumb for the NHL not to use this as an opportunity to shake down other cities for arena cash or other concessions. Houston as an NHL city would be somewhat valuable, if only for its market size, though again, it’s only slightly larger than Phoenix and that worked out spectacularly poorly; Houston as a bogeyman to frighten other cities (along with Seattle once that city’s arena deal is finalized) could potentially be the gift that keeps on giving. Watch the blogs and sports talk radio, I guess, to see how this will all play out.


16 comments on “Houston could get an NHL team, or could just be used to extort other NHL cities for cash

  1. I’m of the opinion that hockey is better off in markets that are more natural cultural and climatic fits rather than just going after the largest markets. Of course there are markets that don’t seem like natural fits for hockey that have worked out well: Bay Area, greater Los Angeles, Tampa.

    I’d like to see the Coyotes, Panthers, and Hurricanes be moved to Portland, Seattle, and Quebec City. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

    • I’ve seen Seattle and Portland referred to as “natural” hockey markets a number of times… are they really, though? Just because those cities are in the northern part of the US doesn’t automatically mean the locals have nothing but love for the game, let alone enough love to where they’ll shell out thousands of dollars for NHL season tickets year after year.

      I actually think the NHL (along with every other pro sports league) could do with *fewer* teams, but that’s just me.

      • Lei I definitely agree with you on the fewer teams.

        The nfl and nba should close up half the teams. Not sure anyone except the media would even notice.

        Baseball could lose a third and hockey could go with half to a third less.

        I don’t need every game to be game seven but these leagues have watered down the teams by spreading the great talent to thin except if you are 2-3 nba teams like the warriors and Celtics.

        I would be much more interested if the games were competitive and highly talented.

        Also fewer games please. In every sport.

        • You know that fewer teams wouldn’t mean more competitive games, right? Yes, you’d eliminate the weakest teams, but then their decent players would be redistributed to the stronger teams, and it wouldn’t happen evenly. So you’d still have powerhouses and patsies, just at an overall higher level of play.

      • The Portland Winterhawks, a junior team in the WHL (not even at the level of a minor league team), average over 6000 attendees per game.

        • True. But Winterhawks tickets range from $14-31 (for the upcoming Giants game).

          NHL tickets tend to start in the $50 range in average to good markets (yes, you can buy Coyotes or Panthers tickets much cheaper), and mid range tickets in top end markets tend to start in the $100 range. It could be that Portland fans would buy NHL tickets in similar (or greater) numbers, but we can’t necessarily extrapolate because of the vastly different price points.

          If good support for minor league hockey always meant good support for “big league” hockey there wouldn’t be a problem in Phoenix right now.

          • Lest we forget, Paul Allen the Trailblazers’ owner, did bid for an NHL team but just missed the cutoff date. Afterwards he had a hissy fit of Trumpian proportions and refused to allow the NHL in his building (can’t recall what they’re calling the Rose Garden these days). There was a similar situation with Les Alexander in Houston, compounded by the fact that before the Summit/Compac Center/Joel Osteen’s church was replaced, an AHL team, the Houston Aeros were the Rockets’ landlord. They did not get along well, indeed the Toyota Arena thing was pretty much intended as vengeance of sorts. Indeed after the new building happened, the old Aeros’ owners sold the team to the Minnesota Wild and they got the team to Iowa as soon as they could. I guess my point is that being a pouty millionaire is at least as much a determinant in this sort of thing as making more money

  2. Shannon is a former NHL employee, let’s not forget. He also (falsely) claimed on a recent radio show that the City of Edmonton had put “$125m” into the Edmonton Arena… Which, I guess, is only off by 200% or so. He gets a participation ribbon for that one at best.

    I don’t mind him as a talking head on other sports, but where the NHL is concerned you will hear absolutely nothing but the party line from NHL HQ from him.

    • You can say “the Coyotes franchise is,” but not “the Coyotes is.” And either way that doesn’t explain “the Carolina Hurricane which have.”

  3. I think the NHL would absolutely love to expand. What they lack is neither the will or capability, but a rich enough fool to plunk down $500m on a franchise again. As soon as one shows up, you can count on the expansion wheel being spun once more…

    Houston is probably the ‘ideal’ location for the Coyotes from both a geographic and support position. Dallas was an unexpected success for the NHL (if you recall, the owner of the North Stars was facing some very unpleasant litigation in Minnesota and needed to skip town in 1992…taking his team along), and there are legitimate gains to be made by having a local/natural rival in state. Houston also has a lengthy history of hockey as an entertainment option over the last 50 years (then again, so did Phoenix). They would probably end up swapping divisional spots with Colorado if this came to be. I don’t think they would be a financial powerhouse for the league in a crowded sports market, but they would be a major improvement over Glendale – who are rapidly running out of options it seems.

    The Carolina situation is harder to resolve as, at least at present, there appear no viable and NHL approved destinations. I don’t think the league wants another team in Canada, but Quebec is an option if Karmanos and Co are willing to sell. If Seattle settles on an arena plan they would be on the list too (and given the market size, almost certainly way ahead of Quebec or KC), but that’s an even more crowded sporting marketplace than Houston’s.

    Always in the back of the NHL BoG’s minds, of course, is that they can’t use up prospective expansion locations for relocations… that’s, that’s like setting $400m on fire (expansion less relocation fees) each time you do it, right?

    • The Hurricanes made money last year, so, aside from the low attendance, there’s no real “situation” to “resolve” – Karmanos is in no particular hurry to sell.

      • The made money because of revenue sharing, as I understand it (they are not alone in only being profitable because of the NHL’s RS plan however).

        I am sure Karmanos can operate the team indefinitely. He is a wealthy man. But the fact that he’s had it for sale for some time suggests he does not want to operate it for the long term.

  4. I can say this as someone who lived for 2.5 years in NW Oregon and the last three north of Seattle, the region can def support two NHL clubs. The hockey culture is surprisingly present. Granted, soccer is #1 in OR and WA, but compared to CA (where I’m from) and the sunbelt, hockey could have a successful base here. I’m a baseball / football guy so it won’t affect my choices. But, WHL is really big here and the news covers the SilverTips (Everett), Thunderbirds (Seattle aka Kent, WA) and the Winterhawks in Portland. I’ve met quite a few people who love hockey are really into it. I like hockey, but I’m very casual about it and don’t watch or attend games, but I know many who do. Heck, I never knew they were real, but I have met a handful of Washingtonian Canucks fans. A team in Seattle or Portland would be successful.

  5. Metro Houston has 6.5 million people, about 50% larger than Phoenix and almost as large as metro Dallas. We’re also larger than most other NHL cities like Boston and Washington, DC.
    Really only New York, LA, Chicago, and Dallas have more people.

    • Houston is only about 30% bigger than Phoenix in TV households, per Nielsen:

      http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/public%20factsheets/tv/2016-local-television-market-universe-estimates.pdf

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