One of the narratives that were part of Commissioner Gary Bettman’s state of the league speech on Monday evening was about the National Hockey League broadening its reach once again and expanding. That hasn’t been formally put down, and as far as we know it may be pushed back even further, but the National Hockey League going to 32 teams like a given sooner rather than later… So if expanding is pushed back, it won’t be pushed back far.
There’s a lot stuff to talk about with expansion, from potential new markets to all the little details about player exposure for expansion draft, realignment and what not. Las Vegas, Nevada and Quebec City, Quebec deserve time in the spotlight for analysis and thoughts. This article is not that place.
See, another thought occurred regarding a location for a new NHL franchise, yet the politics of the league won’t allow it to truly be discussed or attempted. The board-room politics of the league and the sport of ice hockey is the reason why there should be expansion of NHL franchises in one specific market: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Stop laughing, NHL fans. Oh, and if you’re a Maple Leaf fan, stop feeling insulted / slandered / threatened. This is actually an idea to aid you and the Leafs.
Certain major leagues have multiple teams in certain large and influential markets. You can think of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles immediately in baseball and basketball. New York can be tabbed in hockey with the proximity of the Rangers, Islanders and Devils franchises (even before the Isles moved into Brooklyn they were still relatively close to the five boroughs of New York City).
The major difference between these towns and Toronto is influence over the sport in general. There are so many influential factors out of Toronto regarding the game and coverage of the sport. There’s also a single franchise representing the proverbial center of the hockey universe. On the dominant size, that adds influence for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the spot. It’s also what burdens the team oh-so-much and limits the club’s performance; they’re assured the fans and are the lone avenue for the bulk of NHL fans in southern Ontario to invest in the pro game. Yes, there’s another club in Ontario by way of the Ottawa Senators – 4+ hours and 250+ miles away. There’s also another club specifically in the city of Toronto already: The Toronto Marlies of the AHL, the Maple Leafs American Hockey League affiliate.
Competitiveness does exist for the Maple Leafs franchise but a direct competition doesn’t exist, it’s all in the mind and spirit at most. To be mediocre doesn’t cost the team exposure or business – they’ve got a lock on the market. The club also has the glut of attention from the sports media within the market. While the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays shouldn’t be considered as write-offs, they’re not direct competitors with the Leafs for fans, advertising, or media. They own that segment, mostly locked in.
It’s also worth noting the Raptors are also owned in part by Maple Leaf Sports, who control the Maple Leafs.
So what happens if Toronto suddenly had another team in the metro area as a direct competitor in business as well as on-ice? What if there was suddenly an alternative to Air Canada Centre and an alternative approach toward hockey fans? Simply put, that’s the kind of competition that the Leafs need. It puts more pressure, in a competitive business sense, on the Leafs (perhaps not right away but with time) – it could be the arena experience that forces the Maple Leafs to upgrade parts of Air Canada Centre or do better fan promotion in game day experiences, or perhaps an important advertiser defects from the Leafs to another. Broadcasting is another aspect of possible competition between the clubs, quality of broadcasts, ratings, etc. It’s standard business fare really,
Two teams in Toronto also reduces pressure on the Leafs by way of the same market competitiveness. The press can’t deluge players and the franchise in general. There’s a responsibility to cover and expose another team, talk to their players and franchise executives. Heck, the fact both teams might be playing on the same nights lightens an off-ice load…
The downside affects the rest of the NHL: It’s the center of the hockey universe, after all, and while there’s no telling how long it will take for a second Toronto-area franchise to gain league competitiveness, one thing that would come without question is prominent exposure with coverage and features from the likes of TSN, Rogers Sportsnet and The Hockey News among other avenues. The sibling rivalry would start the media narrative but given time, the chatter would be on-par with what we already get exposed to with the Maple Leafs – prominence because of where they are and not necessarily how well they’re playing.
The devil truly is in the details; the idea of a second team in the Toronto market would likely draw stern opposition from the Leafs as well as powers connected to the Maple Leafs. Where a franchise would play also is a complication. There’s no chance you’d see them in Air Canada Centre, sharing it with the Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors of the NBA, and the ACC gaining an opposing multi-purpose venue would further complicate the situation on a business sense. See, Air Canada Centre was constructed with the Toronto Raptors to be the primary tenants, meaning it’s not the strongest multi-purpose building. A venue constructed with hockey as the priority and houses ample seating and great sightlines draws more fans and helps earn the new club dedication from the fan base.
Yet to get a new arena constructed is a political matter and politics can be swayed by bias and financial issues / donations that sway politicians and amounts to another reason to think the city / region doesn’t gain another team, or at least it’d be a hell of a costly fight to accomplish.
Expansion is more complicated than this, and I would assume Ontario fans know the market better and know what it’s capable of. The one assured fact is we’ll hear other cities (like Seattle, Washington, or Atlanta, Georgia – again) as candidates for franchises down the road before we hear about Toronto pushing for a second team. Off now, we get to see how the league plays to having a team back in Quebec City and just how capable Las Vegas is to hosting a pro sports team.