When you think of a dream hockey matchup, you’re probably not thinking of Florida, Dallas or Las Vegas. It’s certainly not what many Canadian fans were hoping to see in the Stanley Cup final. It’s a safe bet the broadcasters weren’t hoping for this.
And yet, if it’s being honest with itself, this just may be precisely what the National Hockey League has been building toward.
“The NHL is probably sneaky-happy,” said Adam Seaborn, a sports media analyst and the head of partnerships at a company called Playmaker Capital.
He says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has spent most of his tenure trying to build the game down south.
“He’s finally getting his southern cup final,” Seaborn said in an interview. “This is the completion of Gary’s 25-year vision of bringing hockey to the south of the U.S.”
This year’s NHL playoffs began with a surge in hope for Canadian fans.
The possibility of the first all-Canadian final since 1989 was very real — if only briefly. The Edmonton Oilers looked prepared to storm through a crowded field in the west and the Toronto Maple Leafs made it past the first round for the first time in 19 years.
Audiences were enthusiastic, to say the least.
Toronto’s Game 6 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning brought in an audience of 4.4 million. Edmonton’s Round 1 series saw average minute audience (the estimated average number of people who viewed/listened during an average minute) rise by 14 per cent, from 2002.
The 2023 <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/StanleyCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#StanleyCup</a> Playoffs on <a href=”https://twitter.com/Sportsnet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Sportsnet</a> has been the most-watched program every night since April 17, reaching 51% of the Canadian population to date … and we’re just getting started! 🔥🏒<br><br>Check out the <a href=”https://twitter.com/Sportsnet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Sportsnet</a> audiences to-date below 👀👇 <a href=”https://t.co/QbpsVm4lbp”>pic.twitter.com/QbpsVm4lbp</a>
Then disaster struck. Both Canadian teams were eliminated.
Now the Florida Panthers have secured a spot in the final. The Dallas Stars and the Vegas Golden Knights are battling for the Western Conference title.
None of them are quite what you would call a ratings bonanza.
“These are four Sunbelt teams that are not the biggest TV draws,” said an understated John Lewis, who runs the American sports business website Sports Media Watch.
He says if the NHL was merely chasing ratings, it would have preferred a matchup involving juggernauts like the Boston Bruins or the New York Rangers.
But the NHL is chasing more than just ratings here.
Sure, existing fans would have gone wild to see the Oilers in the final. Or any of the big teams. But how many more new fans can the NHL squeeze out of saturated markets like Toronto or Boston?
Bettman has spent years betting he can grow the game in areas that aren’t traditional markets.
As franchises like Florida and Las Vegas push their way into the highest echelons of the game, new fans are born, new traditions are built.
“In the cities where it’s happening, it’s 100 per cent a home run,” said former NHL player and host of the wildly popular podcast Spittin’ Chiclets, Ryan Whitney.
At the same time, Whitney says the expansion into the American South has not been without failure.
The NHL franchise in Arizona is on the verge of imploding. It plays in a tiny, local college rink, draws fewer fans than most AHL teams in Canada and the city has voted down a proposal to build a new arena.
But even as that team totters on the edge of failure, there is much speculation about where the Coyotes could move.
“Obviously [Arizona’s] not working. Any time you move out of a market where it’s just not working and go to a place where you can build a new fan base is an opportunity,” said Lewis.
There is renewed enthusiasm for a bid to bring a team back to Quebec City. There are also hopes the NHL could move the team to Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S.
“[Expansions to] Seattle and Vegas have been huge success stories for the league,” said Lewis.
That’s led to growth of hockey in those communities. And that, in turn, leads to more excitement about the game, more kids taking up hockey and more dollars being spent.
In NHL jargon, those new dollars are called hockey-related revenue.
At December’s board of governors meeting, Bettman announced league revenue was expected to come in around $5.7 billion US this year.
He projected the players would still owe about $150 million US to the owners after this season, as the NHL is still working its way through losses incurred during the pandemic.
“We’re just going to watch it,” said Bettman in December. “Clearly, it appears that if we don’t finish paying off the escrow this year, after next year, it should be all gone and there shouldn’t be any issue about that.”
But the debt is now very nearly paid off.
A new broadcast deal in the United States is certainly helping. In 2021, ESPN agreed to pay $400 million US a year to air hockey games. A separate deal with Warner’s Turner Sports brings in another $250 million US a year.
Seaborn says those deals amount to more than double what U.S. broadcasters paid in the previous deal.
“That’s hockey-related revenue that goes into everybody’s pockets. That increases the [salary] cap,” he said.
As the salary cap rises, teams can spend more money on stars or bring in more players to round out their lineup.
So even while Canadian fans may not be particularly enthusiastic about the prospects of a Sunbelt Stanley Cup, bringing in more fans and growing the game there may be precisely what teams here need to get the salary cap higher.
So they can spend more and finally go on a deep playoff run.