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Why the NHL will succeed in Atlanta

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I wrote this essay as part of a debate over at HFboards about the viability of certain hockey markets. In the long run I am generally optimistic about the NHL in the sunbelt. I think that more than anything hockey in the southland needs two things: 1) competitive teams 2) time to develop local tradition.

One key advantage for the franchise here in Atlanta is the massive number of people who live here. The Thrashers don't need for everybody to become a fan, they just need enough people to love hockey.

Let's assume for a moment that 15,000 season ticket holders is goal of a NHL franchise. If you have that many STH you're going to sell out most of your games. What fraction of the local metro area would have to purchase season tickets to reach that goal of 15,000? Below are the fractions for each market. (I divided the 2006 metro population by 15,000)

Season Ticket Subscription Rate by Metro area

1/341 Toronto
1/242 Montreal
1/141 Vancouver
1/075 Ottawa
1/072 Calgary
1/069 Edmonton
(and for comparison's sake)
1/048 Quebec
1/046 Winnipeg
1/046 Hamilton

When I look at the numbers for Canada I'm absolutely convinced that the Toronto market could sustain a 2nd NHL franchise--much more so than the Quebec, Winnipeg or Hamilton (unless Hamilton can draw significant support from the Toronto Metro area).

USA Hockey Homeland
1/634 Chicago
1/418 New City (to support 3 NHL teams)
1/388 Philadelphia
1/298 Detroit
1/297 Boston
1/212 Minneapolis
1/186 St. Louis
1/161 Denver
1/158 Pittsburgh
1/115 Columbus
1/076 Buffalo

Hockey tickets have sold both well and poorly at various times in almost all of these markets over the decades. In the long term the Buffalo market may not be able to sustain that franchise unless it continues to draw strong local support from the local population and some fans from Ontario on a regular basis.

In theory Chicago should be able to support 2 NHL teams. If not for gross mismanagement that franchise would be rolling in ticket sale $$ every year given the size of that market and the history of hockey there.

People wonder if NYC metro can support three NHL teams, but if you look at the season ticket subscription rate it suggests that the can support three teams.

USA non-traditional Hockey Area
1/440 Dallas
1/432 Los Angeles (to support two NHL teams)
1/398 San Francisco-San Jose
1/364 Miami
1/353 Washington
1/343 Atlanta
1/269 Phoenix
1/180 Tampa-St. Pete
1/097 Nashville
1/066 Raleigh-Durham

The long term outlook in most of these southern markets is good when you consider that they need a much smaller fraction of their market's population to buy season tickets compared to say small Canadian cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa. There is no sound reason to abandon these markets.

In fact, the evidence suggests that when these cities have playoff caliber teams tickets sell in these markets. But some of these cities like Atlanta have see a lot of bad hockey, while the city of Dallas has had a playoff team nearly every year. Tampa struggled through a decade of terrible teams and low attendance but now that they are competitive you see solid ticket sales.

In the long run I have some doubts about Nashville and Raleigh being able to support their franchises. They have passionate and loyal fans--I just worry that they will never enough of those fans in their building. For example, notice that Raleigh needs a season ticket subscriber rate comparable to that of Calgary and Edmonton. I seriously doubt we will see that in the long run.

Based purely on market size and general patterns of support in the tradition and non-traditional areas of the USA, I would submit that three cities are in long term danger: Buffalo, Nashville and Raleigh. Places most suitable for addition NHL franchises based purely on market size: Toronto, Seattle, Houston. (Please note that I'm not advocating any city losing their team, I'm just saying which markets have the great risk associated with their long term survival.

Back to my original point above. Atlanta needs a sustained period of competitive on-ice hockey and time to develop its own tradition and fan loyalty. Original Six markets like Detroit, Boston, Chicago and New York have had hockey for three or more generations. When I was a kid up north I remember talking to people who had watched Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull or Bobby Orr play for their favorite team. Atlanta needs time for the sport to put down roots and kids to grow up going to games with their parents or watching it on television. Thirty years from now you might be telling some bright eyed kid about the exploits of Marian Hossa or Ilya Kovalchuk who have long since retired and had their number hung from the rafters of whatever arena the team is playing in 2037.

Hockey will never replace college football or basketball in this region--but it doesn't have to succeed. Hockey just needs time to establish its own place in the local sports landscape--that and a few playoff wins would help too.