Recently, Toronto Maple Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke spoke about the NHL’s expansion plans, saying that two teams could be added in the near future. Like many, I’m skeptical of Las Vegas and Kansas City, Mo., two of the most likely destinations. Las Vegas is a warm weather city, where the NHL struggles, and Kansas City is so close to where the St. Louis Blues, which Forbes ranks as the lowest-valued NHL franchise, play. Seattle and Quebec City, the other two cities that Leiweke named, could work — especially Quebec City — but there are many other factors to consider when any sports league tries to expand.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed an interest in expanding the NFL to both Los Angeles and London. The latter expansion destination raises many concerns. There may be enough NFL fans for a game or two per year in London, but are there enough for eight home games? And how bad would the travel disadvantage be? Would the team need a second base in an East Coast American city? There are a lot of legitimate questions surrounding possible expansion in any sports league, but we can actually learn more about the way the leagues’ executives are thinking than anything else.
To start with the NHL, the fact that the NHL is thinking of expanding now proves that last season’s lockout was, frankly, B.S. The biggest criticism of the league in the past 25 years has been its hastiness in expanding to cities that seemingly have about as many diehard hockey fans as Georgetown has students. A staggering 13 of 30 franchises have a negative operating income, and even non-hockey fans can identify that a problem might just be that the NHL has teams in hockey hotbeds like Phoenix, Raleigh and Miami. The NHL cited severe financial problems a year ago, and many pointed out — correctly, in my opinion — that the league’s money issues were mainly of its own doing. Now, the NHL feels comfortable enough to expand into two more cities, thereby doing the exact thing that got them into this mess — while still feeling that they can make money off of the idea. No league in a dire situation would actually do such a thing, which, if there’s a positive message to take from all of this, means that the NHL owners feel that their recent growth will continue.
The NFL’s expansion history isn’t as bleak as that of the NHL, so the NFL’s current expansion plans aren’t as powerful of proof that its executives were being disingenuous during the league’s lockout, but it still says something about the league’s outlook only two years after a work stoppage. But there’s one other issue that the NFL has which other leagues do not have to deal with at the same level: concussions. By now, you probably have heard predictions that the NFL won’t be around in 20 or 30 years, and my guess is that this situation plays into the league’s expansion plans more than we realize. If your product won’t be there in the future, wouldn’t you try to squeeze every penny out of it in the present? The NFL may not care if expanding into another country dilutes the product and slows the growth of the league way down the line, because “way down the line” may not exist. If the next 10 to 15 years are the NFL’s final time to rake in big bucks, it will naturally try to do whatever it can to make sure that its last stand is a good one.
The NBA’s plans for expansion are not nearly as imminent as those of either of the two previous leagues, maybe because it realizes that expansion would only dilute its product the same way that the NHL watered down its product in the ’90s. Seattle currently has an enthusiastic potential owner, a huge fan base and the possibility of a great new arena, and the NBA still doesn’t want to go there. As Grantland editor Bill Simmons has said, the NBA is using Seattle as a threat to other league owners to keep their franchises in order, because there’s always the possibility of moving there. Sacramento’s owners did just about everything to show that the city couldn’t keep an NBA franchise, and the NBA still didn’t move the team to Seattle. Even if there’s a city that’s ready, the NBA is luckily avoiding overextending itself.
I can’t remember anyone even pondering expansion talks in MLB over the past few years, and that should tell us something. Anyone who has heard the word “steroids” or is familiar with MLB’s revenue sharing policy knows that the league is far from perfect, but MLB has avoided the problem of biting off more than it can chew in recent years. The league has a major problem of small market teams not spending the money that they’re receiving due to the luxury tax or the massive TV deal that MLB just signed, so the league could only face more problems by letting other small-market teams into the mix. MLB is also the only league of the four that hasn’t experienced a lockout in the past two years, so, even though too many MLB owners still cry poverty, it’s nice to have a league in which the owners don’t try to make up for their own mistakes by taking games away from the fans.
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.