The NHL's Sunbelt Franchises: Why the Hate? Part 1

Joel Auerbach

A look at the history of the Southern franchises in a sport which contains a sizable faction of fans and media that simply cannot stand even the idea of top-level hockey below the Mason-Dixon Line.

(Ed. note: Part Two can be found here)

With this series I look to explore the state and perception of the so-called "sunbelt" National Hockey League clubs. It is a two-part post that will first look through a brief history and observation of the Sunbelt teams. The heart of this series is the second part in which I try to understand the peculiar attitude of northern American but most particularly Canadian fans that see these southern NHL teams as a threat to them and to the sport, an attitude that is not seen in the other three major American pro sports leagues or soccer. It is an attitude which I believe is hurting the sport and its image and may make it more likely to be seen only as a "white man’s sport". Many will disagree with me but I feel it is a mix of Canadian elitism, nationalism and racism that fuels this hatred which is perpetuated by the hockey media and many fans of the sport among our neighbors to the north.

Hockey is a sport born in the frigid climates of North America. Florida did not get to know the sport at its highest level, the NHL, until the Tampa Bay Lightning were created in 1992 with the Panthers following in 1993. Their creation was part of an NHL campaign to grow the sport in the southern portions of the United States, these teams being labeled collectively as the "Sunbelt" teams. The Los Angeles Kings were the first of these teams born in 1967 with the Atlanta Flames created not long after in 1972. The Flames did not last in Atlanta however relocating to Calgary by 1980 yet the Kings were able to prosper well enough in the second largest market in the United States. A trade in 1988 that shook the NHL to its core between the Kings and Edmonton Oilers would go on to be the catalyst of the NHL’s rapid growth in the southern US. Wayne Gretzky, arguably the league’s greatest player of all time but definitely the best at the time of the trade, was dealt to LA. Suddenly the Kings became a hot ticket in a media giant town and the team’s vast improvement after acquiring Gretzky helped southern California grow into a formidable hockey town. The impact and success of the Kings along with former NBA executive Gary Bettman hired by the NHL owners to become the first NHL commissioner was enough for the league to take a chance at growing the sport and expanding to Florida, California, Tennessee and even a return to Atlanta. This push to grow the sport did have severe impacts on some well-established northern regions that were struggling financially and would be one of the reasons for many in the northern United States and Canada to hate the thought of southern teams existing. Four teams would move south in the decade following Gretzky’s trade. These relocated franchises had various reasons for moving south including low ticket sales, player salaries rising to unsustainable levels, inability to obtain a new arena and weak local economies. Had it not been for NHL support it was possible Canada would have been left with only three clubs by 2000.

Sunbelt1_medium

What I consider the Sunbelt clubs may differ from yours but this is my list: Florida, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes (soon to be Arizona), Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings. San Jose is a team created in the NHL’s southern push but the Sharks are not exactly southern in region, culture or weather during hockey season. They are however an expansion club nonetheless. Prototypical expansion teams in any sport struggle in their first few years of play. This is a result of having a team mainly comprised of players teams are willing to cast aside because they are not particularly great and having young, inexperienced players. Losing is common early on and it can be tough to market and get people on board with the sport. This is a dilemma made more difficult in the NHL since they were introducing a sport that had little footing in these new regions. Rinks were few and far between and competition from other established sports franchises tended to overshadow other teams.

The Florida Panthers in a sense may have been the luckiest of these teams early on. Despite setting NHL records for an expansion team, the Panthers faced possible relocation to Nashville early on due to their lease at the Miami Arena making it difficult to turn a profit. The Cinderella-run for the Stanley Cup in 1996 however changed that and the Panthers suddenly became a hot enough commodity that Broward County offered to build an arena which they currently call home. The Panthers sold out the Miami Arena two full seasons in a row and would enter their new home with an average attendance of over 18,000 in the first year. Now this does not seem like a feat to fans of northern franchises but given the circumstances that a southern expansion hockey team was facing it is a notable accomplishment. For relocated teams like Dallas and Carolina, the journey was difficult yet made easier due to having established farm systems and team infrastructure. The Dallas Stars were the first Sunbelt team to win the Stanley Cup in 1999, six years after leaving Minnesota. Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Carolina would later on reach hockey’s mountaintop. These teams successes fueled growth in hockey and helped stabilize their franchises enough that they still survive and are now a generation of fans deep. Kids growing up in the early 1990s now have children of their own who are being born hockey fans. Ice rinks and youth and adult hockey programs in these southern regions are now thriving. South Florida alone has seven ice rinks, fifteen high school teams since 1998, and three college club teams since 2010.

Sunbelt2_medium

The knock against Sunbelt franchises is generally about their attendance figures. Once more, the struggles of expansion teams and introducing a new sport to a region can make it difficult for fans to jump on board. Losing is possibly the worst thing that can happen to any franchise as sports gives people and entire regions a sense of accomplishment and pride when their teams win. For expansion franchises such as the Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers who did not have a Stanley Cup run in their first decade at least it was rough sailing. For the Phoenix Coyotes, a relocated franchise, personnel decisions led to their inability to succeed on the ice. These teams had little to no playoff success and were constantly listed as teams on the first plane out to colder climates. Nashville for years had solid teams that made the playoffs but never could make a run or get their fans on board. Yet in the last few years the Predators began to change the way they market to their region and finally were able to strike a local chord in the Music City. In Phoenix the constant threat of relocation and unstable ownership or lack thereof left Arizona’s residents to not get too invested in what may be a fleeting relationship. In Atlanta a combination of terrible ownership and terrible play led to the relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg to become the new Jets, the first and only casualty of the Sunbelt teams.

Attendance when Sunbelt teams are winning are high and when they are losing are low. It is no different than the "traditional" hockey franchises save for the Canadian clubs. Exploring that angle it would seem the relocation scare in the 1990s is partly a reason why Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Winnipeg sell out even when some of those teams experience several years of mismanagement and wallowing in the league’s basement. Winnipeg’s relocation was approved with the stipulation that the Jets had to constantly sell out the NHL’s smallest arena in the second-smallest market in North American pro sports. That is some very thin ice to skate on as a franchise. Current powerhouse and Original Six team the Chicago Blackhawks not too long ago was considered an NHL graveyard with attendance that was far below Sunbelt teams thanks to a combination of losing and mismanagement. The Pittsburgh Penguins were very close to relocating had it not been for the efforts of Mario Lemiuex and, for you conspiracy theorists, the fixing of the NHL Draft Lottery to help the Penguins land Sidney Crosby.

From the gathering of information in southern hockey markets it seems that the success of these teams is the same for any other franchise in any sport. It is a combination of several factors. One is ownership. Stable ownerships have been the reason that most of the Sunbelt teams have made it this far. Arena deals that these ownership groups have that puts them in charge of operating these arenas allow them to ultimately make a profit thanks to non-hockey events. Marketing to fans in a meaningful and good way is vital especially with a sport like hockey which prides itself in having the perception of having personnel and players that are more accessible and humble as compared to those in other sports. Success on the ice is needed to keep that fervor for hockey on the minds of locals. The Panthers saw in 2012 that a successful team does wonders for the bottom line, marketing and attendance. Genuine owners who realize that success on the ice translates to success in drawing fans and then leads to financial success are the best chance for Sunbelt teams to thrive. A rash of recent sales of Sunbelt hockey clubs to big-pocketed owners has led to a revival of success on the ice and off for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars and has given fans in Florida and Phoenix hope for the future of their clubs.

That is the brief observation and quick historical look at the southern NHL teams and their impact on hockey in the Sunbelt. Part 2 will explore the irrational and perplexing beliefs of northern American but mainly Canadian NHL fans that wish none of these NHL teams had moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

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