If you live in Canada you’re likely tired of hearing about Jim Balsillie’s attempts to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, a team which recently declared bankruptcy, and move them to Hamilton. The league is fighting it, obviously. Technically the Coyotes are their franchise, and I’m pretty sure that if I walked into a struggling McDonald’s in downtown Phoenix and announced my intention to buy it and move it to Toronto, the McDonald’s head office would have something to say about it.
Predictably Canadian hockey fans have turned this into a proletarian struggle against the hockey politburo, and Labatt has played the faux-patriotism card. It doesn’t make that much difference to me what happens; in my view there’s one team I love (the Montreal Canadiens), one team I view as a hated rival (the Boston Bruins), one team I view with a mix of loathing and bemusement (the Toronto Maple Leafs) and 27 other teams I don’t really care about all that much.
From a tactics standpoint, though, I think Balsillie’s going about this wrong. The pressure on Bettman’s not going to work in its current form. Here’s why:
- Bettman doesn’t care about the whirlwind of patriotic fervor north of the border. He’s not Canadian and feels no call of the hockey motherland, and knows that not a single Canadian will stop watching hockey just because of this, so his market is intact.
- Perhaps most importantly, Bettman knows that moving a team out of an American market and into a Canadian market will net him positively zero new fans. None. Rien. Zip. Putting a team in Copps Coliseum won’t suddenly create a whole new batch of hockey fans to put up TV ratings and merchandise revenues. The market’s pretty much at saturation already; Hamiltonians (?) willing to see a game try to get Leaf tickets or Sabres tickets, since Buffalo is nearby, and the rest watch on TV. Now, there aren’t a ton of fans in Phoenix that he’d be giving up, but every one gained there (however long that takes) is new. Also keep in mind that Phoenix has roughly six times the market population and a lot more disposable wealth than Hamilton, recession of no. Even counting any better TV deal the league could get for another southern Ontario team, Bettman would see a move like this as a net loss of fans, and as giving up one of the top ten markets in the US.
- There are serious logistical problems with this move. Let’s say for a second that Balsillie’s move goes ahead. Phoenix is in the western conference of the NHL; Hamilton would almost certainly be in the east. The league would now be unbalanced; 14 teams in the west, 16 in the east. To rebalance sensibly, the league would have to move one of the two most westerly teams to the western conference. Those two teams would be Hamilton and Pittsburgh, the latter’s arena being about 4 miles further west than Copps. Bettman would either be faced with the ridiculous situation of having Hamilton in a difference conference than either Toronto or Buffalo (despite them being only a few miles apart) or of throwing Pittsburgh, home of the league’s great white hope, out of the east coast TV market and into the worst travel schedule in the league.
- Bettman, ultimately, doesn’t want to be bullied, and Balsillie’s moves have certainly felt very aggressive thus far. Right or wrong, it’s a bad way to deal with a guy who’s probably developed a Napoleon complex over the years.
Bettman’s not going to be won over on ideological grounds. If Balsillie really wants a team in Hamilton he’ll have to appeal to Bettman’s interests: money. If he wants a team he’s going to have to pay for it. Bettman knows he’s protecting a dying franchise, but he’s trying to save face, so how do you let him do both?
You offer to buy the Buffalo Sabres and move them to Hamilton.
Half of the attendance at a Sabres game is people from southern Ontario anyway. To placate the rest maybe you offer Sabres ticketholders first crack at Hamilton season tickets, or discounts. Maybe you even call them the Hamilton Sabres.
For the right to do this, you pay the league a special franchise relocation fee (call it whatever the hell you want) which they’ll quietly use to prop up the Coyotes and boost their marketing. Bettman gets to keep his big US market, he doesn’t lose any fans, his TV revenues will likely go up (Hamilton’s in CBC territory, Buffalo is not), he doesn’t have to realign the league and it looks like he stood up to Balsillie.
Buffalo has struggled financially in the past, declaring backruptcy in 2003 (just three years after making the cup final), so this wouldn’t be a stretch. Moving a team into Hamilton would almost certainly spell the end for the Sabres anyway. If Balsillie’s willing to pony up the cash, the leauge ends up with more viable franchises overall than before.
Thoughts? Is that crazy? Or does some/all of it make sense? Is it a moot point because the Leafs will nix any team infringing on their market.