Despite the NHL adding a 31st franchise mere weeks ago in Las Vegas, many are already looking ahead and speculating where the league’s 32nd will land.
Sure, the main frontrunners are Quebec City, a market with a new arena who’s application was essentially put on hold last month; and Seattle, a neighboring city to Vancouver who some believe is a success story just waiting to happen.
But if there’s one thing we learned about the NHL in this latest round of expansion it’s that the process is open to any market who meets the league’s guidelines. No one will receive preferential treatment just because they’ve been through the process once already or because they’ve been deemed as a “frontrunner.”
In other words, when expansion opens back up it’ll be an organized free-for-all and Quebec City and Seattle (if they choose to apply the next time around) will have to compete alongside anyone else who comes to the table.
And who might those other candidates be, if anyone? There’s always speculation that a group in Toronto could emerge, or Portland might try to make a play to expand the league into the Pacific Northwest.
But seeing that the NHL’s expansion in non-traditional markets is really starting to pay off now, don’t rule out another non-traditional outpost — like the city of San Diego, California.
Before you write the idea off as crazy, consider a few key points.
Just recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that AEG, the company that was instrumental in building the T-Mobile Arena, the facility that was the lynchpin in Las Vegas’ bid for their NHL expansion franchise, is looking to build a new facility in San Diego.
If built, the proposed arena would be constructed where Seaport Village is currently and it’s expected to seat 18,000 and be built to NHL specifications.
Like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, it would be surrounded by shopping, dining and hotel options and maybe most importantly, the project would be privately financed. San Diego’s current arena, the Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena) where the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls play, is seen as an obsolete facility that is unable to attract major concerts and sporting events due to it’s logistical constraints.
In other words, building a state-of-the-art facility in “America’s Finest City” could be a big lure to the NHL much in the same way it was in Las Vegas.
Not only would a new arena be attractive from a cosmetic point of view, but the hockey market in San Diego has had an impressive showing in recent times.
When the Anaheim Ducks set up their AHL shop in San Diego, the objective was to have their farm system close by for call-up’s and in turn, it would allow the franchise to do some marketing in the city.
But what transpired last season far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The Gulls ranked second in the league in attendance — just behind longtime staple Hershey — averaging 8,675 fans in a building that seats just under 13,000 for hockey.
The interest in minor league hockey in a city that has NFL and MLB options shows that there’s an appetite for the game in San Diego and a willingness for the city to get behind a winner, as the Gulls were able to reach the playoffs in their first AHL season.
And if the new downtown arena is built, it could also give pause to the NHL and its Board of Governors, a group that has shown eagerness to breach new markets. Not to mention, if the NFL’s Chargers bolt for another city, that would up valuable sports dollars in San Diego that could be filtered to the NHL.
Are there potential downfalls to expanding to San Diego? Absolutely.
A potential San Diego franchise would be the fourth NHL franchise in California and the third alone in Southern California. The Ducks would also lose marketing territory and their convenient AHL location.
In some ways it feels like the league would be splitting a slice of the pie another way instead of making the pie as a whole larger, one of the reasons why the NHL has been hesitant to expand to Canadian markets like Quebec City or Southern Ontario.
Plus, San Diego sports fans are notorious for being fickle. Will they still show up in numbers to pay for NHL-caliber season ticket prices, especially if the team is losing?
Never mind the fact that a deep-pocketed investor has made no overtures about owning an NHL team in the city.
But for now, don’t count San Diego out. It seems to be in a very similar position Las Vegas was just a few years ago, if not better.
And you know the players would love the weather.