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Hamilton from a New Jersey Perspective

The big non-playoff story in the NHL is that Jim Balsillie is at it again - looking to poach the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton.  While there are reasons why this would be a bad idea, James Mirtle considers the larger issue of whether Hamilton - which is in the Greater Toronto Area - would support a NHL team. 

Essentially, he describes the area as an under-served market.  While there are 2 AHL teams (Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies) and numerous, more local OHL junior teams, your only local choice for the NHL is the Toronto Maple Leafs.  A franchise that has a remarkably high ticket prices for a product that not only hasn't made the playoffs in the last four seasons, but won their last Stanley Cup in 1967.  Mirtle posits that if the Maple Leafs can generate so much revenue (see the chart at the bottom), and given the relative financial inaccessability of going to Leafs games - according to Mirtle earlier this year, the average Leafs ticket price in 2008-09 was $76.15 - a second team in the area should be a no-brainer.  A "slam dunk" as Mirtle states in the comments.

As a Devils fan, a fan of a team in an area that has three NHL teams in one market, I would like to offer some extended thoughts on the theories Mirtle provides.  As a note, I'm not trying to pick on Mirtle alone - just the larger logic in favor of moving a team or even putting an expansion team in Hamilton.


The Market Sizes

First off, according to city's site, the Greater Toronto Area is estimated to contain about 5.5 million people.  That's not a lot.  Based on the U.S. Census' 2007 estimate, the NY-NJ-LI Metropolitan Area includes 18,815,988 people.  And yet, the Devils and Islanders are definitely not selling out every game - and I think it's a bit questionable as to whether the Rangers are really selling to 102.3% capacity.  There is more than population in play, there's also the Rangers' history, the Devils' success in the last 15 years, and the Islanders' dynasty built in the early 80s to consider along with the current statuses of each team. Yet, as shown in the same revenue chart put together by Mirtle, only the Rangers are in the top 3 in terms of generating revenue.

Of course, there are reasons for this.  The Islanders have been, for lack of a better word, awful.  And these three teams are also competing with four big teams in two more popular sports - along with countless other entertainment options in the are.  Besides, hockey is an institution in Canada, so while the GTA may be that much smaller than the NYC Metropolitan area, the numbers should be there, right?  Probably, but my point is that a massive area of population doesn't necessarily justify multiple teams on it's own.   A market size of 18 million isn't leading to three teams selling out their arenas; a market size of even 5.5 million passionate hockey fans won't fill two on their own (I'm honestly still amazed they still sell out Toronto, but it is what it is).

The 'Yotes & The Potential Market

Well, as alluded to in this earlier work by Chemmy at Pension Plan Puppets, that isn't a slam dunk. Suppose the Coyotes do go to Hamiton. This new team in Hamilton is going to be supported by non-Leafs fans and anyone who hates the Leafs.  The big gamble that Balsillie is making is that there are enough of these non-Leafs fans as well as disgruntled Leafs fans to support this team to make this work.  Offer lower ticket prices than the Leafs (shouldn't be a challenge), and the masses of kids (and their families) can go experience (NHL) hockey live.

Despite what the Leafs have proven, most people aren't going to tolerate a loser.  Especially the kids, who can be fickle as anything. A bad on-ice product isn't going to turn a lot of people away.  Phoenix has made the playoffs only five times in Phoenix, with their last appearance coming in 2002.  I understand there's all sorts of other issues surrounding this, but I doubt that many will go see the Hamilton Coyotes and decide to become and remain supporters should they remain at the bottom half of the conference.  Why would the ex-Leafs, the kids, or anyone stick around for that? They can go support Toronto and get the same thing!

Most of all, I haven't met any fan of any team in any sport who stated their main reason for supporting the team was that they were more affordable than another team.  When I do, I guess I'll let you know.

The Kids or the Future of Supporters in the Region

This may be a bit of an aside, but I have to take personal issue with this:

The fact is that the vast majority of kids are growing up in this city without ever having the opportunity to attend an NHL game, and I wonder if at some point that'll turn a generation off the sport entirely.

My first experiences with hockey and how I fell in love with the Devils were all through the television.  I can count on one hand the number of games I went to as a kid.  Going to the Meadowlands was pretty much a big deal (and a pain) in of itself, much less shelling out the money for tickets.  It wasn't until the Devils moved to the Rock did I make an effort to go to games regularly (and that was even after I started this blog).   Yet, I still am a die-hard fan of the Devils.

You do not need to go to a game in person to become a supporter.  I have conversed with many who are Devils fans who live no where near New Jersey or even in the country.  With television and increased coverage on the Internet, you can be a fan of anyone in anything these days: from Fulham Football Club all the way to the Sydney-Collingwood Magpies. All without leaving your city.  Hell, my best friend is a die-hard Pittsburgh Penguins fan and he grew up and lived (and still does) in the same city as I do!

I agree it helps big-time to become a fan by seeing a game or the team live. But as long as the kids have some access to seeing a team, they should be fine.  Those who want it will find their way.  I, and thousands of others, are living proof of this.  We have and will make our fandom work be it in New Jersey or in the GTA.

The Second Banana Effect

Consider that the New Jersey Devils have earned 8 Atlantic Division titles, featured Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, future Hall of Famers Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur, rising stars like Zach Parise, 12 straight playoff appearances, 4 trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, and 3 Stanley Cups in the last 15 years.  They are arguably the most successful hockey team in his area in recent history.  Off the top of my head, only Detroit comes to mind as a more successful franchise in this same time span.

Yet, they remain secondary in coverage, popularity, and in buzz with the New York Rangers.  The Devils, despite being in the region for 27 years; are not the focus point in the region.  The Islanders for 36 years and had a complete dynasty, yet they remain second-place in perception to the Rangers.  By virtue of being in the middle of the biggest city of the world and in existence since 1926, the Rangers get the most attention.  When they do well, they get the headlines. They get first billing on the local MSG (well, it is owned by the Rangers' owners, but still).   They get the call for nationally televised games more than the Devils and Islanders - even back when ABC and FOX had NHL deals. Despite the Devils being in a different state and the Islanders being out in the suburbs of Long Island, New York City still holds an appeal of it's own all worldwide and neither area can ignore that.  As a result, both teams are still pulling fans away from supporting the Rangers and both Long Island and New Jersey has long-time Ranger fans, passed on by family or some other way.   It's not enough to be a good hockey team, you have to be an appealing hockey team.  And the Rangers have a longstanding history and the fact it's in the heart of  one of the most famous cities in the world, an appeal that cannot be denied.

Why would Hamilton be any different?

Sure, the initial buzz will be there with an arrival of the team, potentially lower ticket prices, and so forth; but even if the Hamilton Coyotes become a wildly successful team, they will not take over the market. Toronto will reign supreme. The major media, like in New York, is in Toronto.  The people in the GTA see Toronto as the big city - it's why it's called the Greater Toronto Area.  Toronto, on it's own, commands attention within Canada and abroad and I think that fact will help keep the Leafs of the forefront  in Toronto and in the GTA.  Just like New York, on it's own, helps keeps the Rangers in forefront of the Devils and Islanders in the NYC Metropolitan market.   Basically, Balsillie - or any owner in Hamilton - has to know, accept, and workaround this unfortunate fact. 

And the fickle, casual fan, isn't likely to be attracted to the "second best" team in town.  Be it true or perceived.  And you them in order to develop a hardcore fanbase anyway.  Sure, there's always going to be die-hards for any market - like Phoenix - but it needs to be able to grow. You cannot underestimate how hard it will be with multiple teams in the same market despite differing accomplishments among those teams, as we have seen (and lived in!) here in New Jersey.  Even while the Rangers were a playoff-missing, all-around terrible hockey team.

Oh, and this doesn't even consider the possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs might actually become a contending hockey team.  That alone will only push Hamilton into the backseat. Yeah, Toronto will be making plenty of bank should that happen; but Hamilton certainly won't benefit unless the two face off in the playoffs. Law of averages says the Leafs being good will happen eventually, so I don't think Hamilton should bet on trying to beat Toronto to that level - even if it is the current Phoenix franchise being moved or an expansion team in the future.

Lingering, Inconvenient Questions

Let's put all this aside for a moment.  Suppose it would be true that the NHL could make so much money with a team in Hamilton. Suppose the market would welcome Hamilton and stick with Hamilton for years to come.  How come there was no expansion bid for Hamilton (or any city in Canada, but that's beside the point) back in the mid-1990s?  I'm not being facetious.  Ownership groups stepped up, put plans together, and made bids for Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Columbus with one goal in mind: make money through hockey.  Success has been mixed among the four teams; but you can't say they were only putting teams there just to make the conferences even.  Above all, it's all about making money and they went with developing new markets (Nashville, Columbus) while tapping into old markets (Minnesota, Atlanta.

Be it the ex-Coyotes or an expansion team, is it all really just an issue of timing? GTA is ready for a market now, but not a decade ago?  Correct me if I'm wrong, but was the GTA not all that hockey-mad back then?  I do believe while they were at least making the playoffs, the Leafs were not winning anything of importance and, presumably, still charging a lot for tickets?  I plead ignorance (a claim I'm sure some are already leveling at me) but what's so different about 2009 than 1996?  Maybe the GTA wasn't so big?  Maybe there was a bid but it failed for some other reason?

I can see they may not want Balsillie involved, but if the theory that two teams in Toronto equals mad cash, why hasn't the NHL been moving heaven and earth to get a team there?

Bottom Line: It Can Work, but it'll be a Lot Harder than Expected

Given the Devils' and Islanders' longevity right by the Rangers, they are standing evidence that multiple teams in a market can work in the NHL. And it could very well work in the GTA. What I'm pointing out is that it's going to be a lot harder than some expect - I don't think or believe it's as simple as "Hamilton is in Southern Ontario, it has a lot of people who like hockey, they'd love to go to games but not to the Leafs, so put a team there and watch the dollars roll in." If that's the feeling from Balsillie or any owner, then expectations of greatness will not necessarily be met - especially in terms of finances.

It'll be an uphill battle to win enough fans away from Toronto.  Any owner, be it Balsillie or not, will have to be willing to spend quite a bit to get in and remain truly committed to making the franchise work - even if it's not an initial success.With poor management and results, they could very well be in Phoenix's current position years from now!  And then where would we be, other than older?

Would Hamilton be a successful place for a franchise? Probably.  At least in the short term.  It's with the long term view that is not so clear precisely because Toronto is right there.   And moving a team to Hamilton or putting an expansion team there will not be a success if they end up moving or folding later on.

To reiterate my main point, the biggest challenge for Hamilton to last long term will be trying to sway them away from Toronto, who has the established history and popularity in the city.    Given what we know about the Devils, Islanders, and the Rangers sharing a larger population than the GTA, it is a massive challenge.  Should other, un-foreseen variables arise, like the Canadian dollar tanking in the future or the people of the GTA area showing that they have no time to support a second not-immediately-successful or unsuccessful team, it makes this challenge even more difficult.   (Not that you can prepare for the unexpected, just that no one is invincible).

It's because of these issues and questions, I don't think a team in Hamilton is a definite win-win or a "slam dunk" for both sides in the long term view.

Personally, if there should be a team in Hamilton, the NHL should expand there and not essentially kill a market in Phoenix to do it.  I don't mind if the league makes it Seven, but not at the cost of somebody's One.  Feel free to argue otherwise - and I know you will - in the comments.