The NHL's new alignment plan, which has been signed off on by the NHLPA and should be approved by the NHL Board of Governors later this week, makes it pretty obvious that the league is preparing for expansion. Especially with the fact that they're planning on "revisiting" the league alignment in a couple of years' time, just to make sure that it works. That's particularly interesting because the NHL rarely cares after the fact if something works or not.
But I'm not going to go off on speculation about what cities ought to be getting a team. Instead, I'm going to talk about what the NHL should do before granting expansion franchises. Not that they will, but still.
I'm a geographer by trade; that's my day job. It's more than just making maps, however. Human geography is the study of populations across the surface of the Earth, while physical geography is the study of distributions of things across the surface of the Earth. It's the human aspect of geography that applies here.
The very first thing that the NHL ought to do is create a baseline from its current franchises.
There are a lot of numbers - mostly demographics, actually - that need to go into that. One is general population. Another is income. And a big one that gets left out of a lot of fan speculation that needs to be figured in is the number and net worth of local corporations. Teams get a lot of money from advertising and promoting local companies. Another big one is the location and accessibility of the arena itself.
After that, an analysis of individual team fan bases ought to be done. This includes the general location of ticket buyers, the median incomes of those general locations, travel times to the arena, the number of tickets sold, the prices of the tickets sold, and frequency of attending games - which can also include the particular popularity of certain teams. All of this information can be had through Ticketmaster and season ticket holder databases, with the sensitive information scrubbed, of course.
That doesn't include necessary team expenditures or media exposure, of course.
Once these things - among many others, like figuring in team records and such - have been established, then the NHL can have a concrete number in determining why some cities are doing better than others. And this shouldn't be done over the course of a single season, but over many seasons. I'd say a good period of time would probably be 10 years for every the team in the NHL.
Then, after this analysis has been done, the average or the median or simply who's in the black financially can be decided upon as the deciding factor. And any new NHL team's expansion application can be measured using the same criteria that were used on the current NHL teams. If a city doesn't meet the minimum requirements, then they shouldn't be granted a team. It's really as simple as that.
This sort of thing is how most companies operate. They look at a variety of pre-determined criteria, create a metric, and then decide where to place their next franchise or office based upon that methodology. They don't put company outposts in places randomly or where they think the best customers or fans are. They go about things methodically in order to minimize failing businesses.
As a geographer, I could come up with the necessary criteria for such a massive study, though it would take me months to complete even if it were a full-time job. That would include coming up with the strategy, acquiring the data, sorting the data, and then finally plugging the information where it needed to go. And, frankly, it would have to be a full-time job for at least a solid year for it to be done right.
But the NHL doesn't work like a regular company. Instead, they decide that they like certain cities, and hope a potential owner comes forward so they can place a team there. Or, potential owners approach them, and if they like them and their city, then they'll be granted an NHL team if it fits into their concept of the league. From the outside looking in, there doesn't seem to be a lot of serious analysis involved in what city is granted an NHL team, whether through expansion or relocation.
Of course, the big problem that comes out of doing things the methodical way is that some cities that people feel are ‘deserving' (whatever that means) may get passed over, such as Quebec City. After a taking cursory look at the city's demographics and local companies, I'm not sure they'd make such a cut when compared with the current teams in the league and other potential sites across North America. And that could cause the NHL some public relations problems in Canada.
But if the NHL were actually run like a successful business instead of run like they currently are, then maybe a little bad PR wouldn't be such a bad thing for the long-term health and stability of the league.