While the NHL has come out and said that adding more teams is not on the table at this time, it appears that expansion is in the league’s crystal ball and two of the locations that appear to be most in play are Las Vegas and Seattle, two cities that would likely join the ranks of the Pacific Division.
The league sees a ton of opportunity as they would be the first pro league to plant their flag in Las Vegas, but the idea of putting an NHL team in America’s gambling capital has led to vigorous debate, while fans in “traditional markets” cringe at the thought of another team playing in a desert city.
On the other hand, many traditional market fans have already declared Seattle a “slam dunk” and have been openly advocating for the league to either expand there or relocate a team to the city.
Now that it appears that the plan to build a state-of-the-art arena in downtown Seattle for an NBA team (with an NHL team to follow) has stalled, another potential arena plan has surfaced. ESPN.com reported recently that New York businessman Ray Bartoszek is looking to the suburb of Tukwila to build an arena for an NHL franchise.
But would an NHL team in Seattle be the “success waiting to happen” that many say it is? When you start to look closer at the various factors in play it would appear that Gary Bettman and the rest of the league should pump the brakes before speeding down the I-215.
When looking at Seattle’s track record as a major sports market, full buildings during good seasons have historically been the norm. According to ESPN.com, last season the Seattle Mariners were ranked 26th in Major League Baseball attendance, averaging 53.2% capacity at their downtown ballpark Safeco Field. But during their ALCS run in 2001, Seattle ranked fourth in MLB attendance with a 91.9% capacity.
The Seattle Seahawks are arguably the hottest brand in the NFL right now. In a season where they were the defending Super Bowl champions, Seattle averaged over 100% capacity at downtown Century Link Field, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the mid-1990’s, the team was suffering through lean years on the field at an aging Kingdome and drew just 364,372 to the stadium in 1995. The situation was so bleak that the team had one foot out the door to Los Angeles at one point.
NHL fan bases in places like Arizona and Florida are heavily criticized for not “supporting their team enough” through tough times. What would happen in Seattle if the Starbucks, Grungers, Sasquatch or whatever you want to call them miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for three, four or even five or more consecutive seasons? Would attendance be any better than the 77.9% capacity that the Coyotes averaged in 2014-15 as they work their way back from years of ownership uncertainty?
There’s been much to-do about a new Seattle team starting a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks and drawing fans from across the Canadian border who cannot otherwise purchase Canucks tickets because of their high demand, but how does this differ any more than those teams from non-traditional markets that rely on “snowbirds” for ticket sales? Coincidentally enough, fans from traditional markets criticize some non-traditional markets for doing just that.
The Seattle Advantage
If there is one thing that does work in Seattle’s advantage it could be the growing number of residents playing hockey in Washington state. According to the most recent numbers from USA Hockey, Washington is in the top-20 for states in hockey participation with 8,369 participants. That’s a 5.7% jump over the previous year.
Washington’s numbers beat out “non-traditional” NHL markets like Arizona (4,860) and North Carolina (6,180) and other Western states like Utah (4,421), but they trail behind the state of Florida (11,982), a market that draws the ire of many fans across Canada and the Northeastern US.
Surging hockey participation numbers have surely helped NHL teams in places like Arizona and California, and healthy numbers in Washington state early on would surely be a positive for a Seattle NHL team.