An Overview of NHL Expansion Part Two: The Winning Formula


This is the second installment in a series on NHL expansion. Check out part one here.

As more teams develop in non-traditional markets, a blueprint for success has begun to take shape. First, many say any new team has to immediately connect with its audience.

Fans hold up a sign as Pekka Rinne warms up. It was not easy building the fanbase in Nashville. Credit: Mike Strasinger-USA TODAY Sports

Gerry Helper, senior vice president of hockey communications for the Predators, said the team tapped into Nashville’s best-known product: country music. They developed an ad campaign dubbed “Got Tickets?” that featured some of the best-known country artists, like Vince Gill and Martina McBride, with their two front teeth blacked out on billboards across Middle Tennessee. The campaign was a huge success.

The team also did outreach to a wide swath of local organizations. “It was a lot of groundwork,” Helper said. “We went to every rotary group in the marketplace to speak to them.”

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To help establish its credibility with fans in its new market, the Tampa Bay Lightning hired hockey legend Phil Esposito as general manager. Esposito promoted the team at various events, and connected with the public before the team even hit the ice, according to Helper, who worked for the Lightning at the time.

New teams also need skilled players to serve as Goodwill ambassadors. The Coyotes tapped right wing Shane Doan, who has been with the team since they moved to Arizona. “He is really community-oriented,” said Matt McConnell, voice of the Arizona Coyotes. “He’s out in the community. He is visible. He’s a great role model for kids and the kind of guy you want to come see play.”

Of course, no amount of community outreach will help if a team doesn’t make the playoffs or win the ultimate prize — the Stanley Cup. The Dallas Stars won a Stanley Cup shortly after relocating from Minnesota. They are now the 18th-most valuable team in the NHL, leading many other expansion franchises.

The Tampa Bay Lightning fanbase has grown from generation to generation. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Conversely, Steve Griggs, president of the Tampa Bay Lightning, said that poor team performance led to a dip in that franchise’s success following the 2005 NHL lockout. “As the team didn’t perform on the ice, the Tampa market stepped away from the team,” Griggs said. “The franchise had eroded to an all-time low.”

But, by many accounts, the team has been rejuvenated over the past few years under new ownership. “We’ve been revamping and resurrecting the organization both on and off the ice,” Griggs said.

Not everybody thinks the NHL’s expansion is a good idea. Tom Van Riper, a Forbes sports writer, suggested in a 2012 article that the NHL should contract to 20 teams. Two years later, he says his proposal is still valid.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t see any evidence that the majority of the Sun Belt markets are ever really going to make it in hockey,” Van Riper said. “The league has had overall growth, but it is driven by the franchises in Canada and some of the larger, Northern markets. I still think the NHL is a better league without Florida, Carolina, and Arizona.”

“I don’t see any evidence that the majority of the Sun Belt markets are ever really going to make it in hockey.” -Tom Van Riper

Van Riper may have a point. The Florida Panthers, for example, have had their fair share of challenges. They made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but have only made the playoffs once since then. The team had the second-worst attendance in the NHL last season and suffered $7.7 million in operating losses in 2012-13. The Coyotes financial situation appeared to stabilize back in 2013, but reports indicate the team may be sold yet again.

Mike Sundheim, vice president of communications for the Carolina Hurricanes, says he doesn’t think operating losses are a big issue.

“We haven’t had an operating loss every year,” Sundheim said. “We have some years, and I think you could say that about a lot of teams in traditional markets as well. Pittsburgh went through bankruptcy before Sidney Crosby arrived, Buffalo had its problems, and New Jersey nearly moved. I don’t see it as a Sun Belt problem.”

Stay tuned for the final installment, featuring what the future of the NHL could hold.