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Dollar Bill and NHL Economics

The Lightning are playing the very best hockey of their short existence - they are 23 games over .500, they have 93 points, they are the first team to clinch a playoff berth in the East and in the 2003-04 season and they are in the running for the Presidents Trophy...

No, this post is not to gloat, ladies and gentlemen. This is a post made to shine some blackness on the positives of the season. The very best Lightning team still is a business question mark to owner William Davidson - sometimes refereed to by LightningNation members as "Dollar Bill". Davidson is not sure if Hockey can survive in Tampa Bay as he and his Palace Sports and Entertainment company complain that the team has suffered 50 Million dollars worth of loses since they bought the team in 1999.

Some of you have already read that stuff in the news. Some will gloat that this is just proof that hockey in the south is a mess. This is proof - to others, but probably a minority - that owners are liars. I bring up that liar bit because Palace Sports / Davidson bought the Lightning mostly for the Ice Palace / St. Pete Times Forum and not the team - and his company has had great success with the venue while not having a very rosie tax deal with the city with regards to the arena's value.

Can Hockey survive in Tampa Bay? When you look at Fan support -- raw fan support, we'll get into other economics in a moment -- the Tampa Bay area is one of the most loyal regions for sports in America. We stuck with (and loathed) the Buccaneers during their years of sub-mediocre play from 1983 through 1996 where the team continued to draw 30 thousand in a terrible stadium and with a terrible team. The Lightning are another case of this, as the team continued to draw crowds between 8-15 thousand with the occasional sell out during 4 straight years of 50+ losses. Only hockey-mad towns such as Montreal - where the Canadians have a long history with the region - Toronto and New York could host larger crowds consistently while their team was playing abysmally. There's also the fact that the Lightning hold the #2 regular-season attendance record (which had been the all time attendance record up until the Heritage Classic this fall in Edmonton) as well as the playoff attendance record. Fan do turn out for the Lightning, and it's not like they are an unknown commodity to the region.

But, that goes back to economics and the game of hockey. We go back to fan support and one can bring up the vice that Tampa Bay fans dollars are stretched between the Bolts, Buccaneers and abysmal Tampa Bay Devil Rays (along with AFL's Tampa Bay Storm and other sports pastimes throughout the Bay area that may cost money). With the NHL's skewed economic system, seating prices that mirror top markets will not float in Tampa Bay and that is part of the reason Davidson is one of the owners stone-walling for a salary cap and other economic changed in the new CBA. In fact, this becomes a topic of all NHL teams and their viability under the economic system where player costs are currently 75 percent of team income and ticket prices are sky-high in order to regroup costs. How does the game of hockey stay relevant if fans can't afford tickets? This isn't an issue just with Tampa, this is an issue with every market.

Yes, Canada, that means you too. I know i have come across plenty of ultra-nationalists online that believe every American team that is south of the Mason-Dixon line should be contracted or relocated to Canada / a northern market in the US. If you did that, you would still run into the same economic problems that the league is facing now with a fan base that doesn't expand, but laterally moves. Some of these I have come across believe that it's a sign of weakness when a market like Tampa or Carolina or Dallas or some other city in the south is not drawing sell outs nightly. Yet from these same people's lips, it's ok in markets such as Boston, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Ottawa and elsewhere to not sell out nightly, or during the playoffs. Why? The logic given to me vary from how big the market is, to how long the NHL season is, to how much (!) ticket prices are. The main excuse, however, is just length of existence of those franchises. At no time could a northern team not selling out nightly, or in the playoffs for that matter, be in danger as long as they are in a northern / traditional market, even if the majority of the NHL is losing money hand over fist - including these markets. :rolleyes

Fans in the north won't always be willing to pay outrageous ticket prices -- and most hockey fans will agree they would rather not pay outrageous ticket prices for games. Ticket prices have to increase to make teams viable with cost escalation of player salaries, marketing, arena upkeep, etc, etc... Bill Davidson's statements aren't so much a decree that the Tampa Bay market is not viable as so much as questioning the viability of the NHL in the market in it's current economic configuration.