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Hockey Fans, Like Population, Move Southward

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One point that I think people often forget when discussing the history of NHL expansion into the south is that the US population has made a rather dramatic shift southward since World War II. With the rise of modern air conditioning warm weather climates have grown MUCH faster than cold weather climates on average. In some cases the growth has been absolutely astounding. In 1960 the Atlanta metro area had less than 1 million people and in 2007 it has over 5 million. That's a gain of 4 million in about 40 years.

When the NHL began the Northeast and Midwest industrialized before the south and west and therefore that part of the US had the largest cities. That is no longer the case. People who grew up as NHL fans have relocated all across the sunbelt. Many of the people who rooted for Howe, Hull, Clarke, Esposito and Orr have moved to the south or their children have.

Let's take a look at shifts in the US metro population and the location of NHL franchises over time. Below are the top US cities circa 1960. The Original Six cities are colored green and as you can see the NHL had pretty decent coverage of the big cities--especially when you consider that SF and LA would have involved very long train rides in the pre-jet age.
Philadelphia was the most obvious omission as of 1960.

1960 TOP METRO AREAS OVER 1.5 MILLION

15.4 NYC (RANGERS)

7.7 L.A.
6.7 CHI (BLACKHAWKS)

5.0 PHI
4.1 DET (RED WINGS)
3.3 SF/SJ
3.1 BOS (BRUINS)
2.7 CLE
2.4 PIT

2.1 STL

2.1 WAS
1.8 BAL
1.7 DAL
1.6 MIN

1.5 HOU
1.5 CIN

From 1968-1979 the NHL expanded by 12 from 6 teams to 18 teams. The Seals/Barons franchise was contracted and four WHA franchises were absorbed (mostly based in Canada: QUE, EDM, WIN, HART) bringing the NHL to 21 teams at the end of the first expansion era in 1979 (I have colored the 1st expansion teams Blue below).


By 1980 the NHL had effectively covered almost every frost belt metro area. Cleveland was the biggest exception and even that city had the failed Barons franchise for a few years. The NHL even included two rather small markets in Buffalo and Hartford.


1980 TOP US METRO AREAS OVER 1.5 million

16.1 NYC (RANGERS, ISLANDERS)

11.5 LA (KINGS)

7.9 CHI (BLACKHAWKS)
5.5 PHI (FLYERS)

4.6 DET (WINGS)

4.5 SF/SJ
3.5 BOS (BOSTON)
3.1 HOU

3.1 WAS (CAPITALS)

3.0 DAL

2.8 CLE
2.4 STL (BLUES)
2.3 PIT (PENGUINS)
2.2 BAL

2.1 MIN (NORTH STARS)

2.1 SEA
2.0 ATL (FLAMES) moved to CGY
1.9 S.D.

1.7 CIN

1.6 MIA
1.6 DEN (ROCKIES)
moved to NJ
1.6 MIL

1.6 TAM
1.6 RVS
1.5 PHX

---------

1.2 BUF (SABRES)

0.7 HART (WHALERS)


The 2nd expansion of the NHL took place in the 1990s as the league expanded from 21 to 30 franchises most of which were located in non-traditional sunbelt markets. Several franchises were also relocated from the smaller Canadian metro areas to the US during this same time period. This resulted in a NHL covering the booming sunbelt cities where millions of Americans were moving to over time. By 2000 the NHL had covered every top 10 US market with the exception of Houston. Expansion and franchise relocation covered rapidly growing cities like Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami.

2000 TOP US METRO AREAS OVER 1.5 MILLION
18.3 NYC (RANGERS, ISLANDERS, DEVILS)
12.4 L.A. (KINGS,
DUCKS)
9.1 CHI (BLACKHAWKS)

5.8 SF/SJ (SHARKS)
5.7 PHI (FLYERS)
5.1 DAL (STARS) moved from MIN
5.0 MIA (PANTHERS)
4.8 WAS (CAPITALS)

4.7 HOU
4.4 DET (WINGS)
4.4 ATL (THRASHERS)

4.4 BOS (BRUINS)

3.2 Riverside, CA
3.2 PHX (COYOTES)
moved from WIN
3.0 SEA
3.0 MIN (WILD)

2.8 S.D.

2.7 STL (BLUES)
2.5 BAL
2.4 PIT (PENGUINS)
2.4 TAM (LIGHTNING)
2.2 DEN (AVALANCHE)
moved from QUE
2.1 CLE
2.0 CIN
1.9 POR

1.8 KC
1.8 SAC
1.7 S.A.

1.6 ORL

1.6 COB (BLUEJACKETS)

1.6 Prov. RI

1.6 Nor. VA

1.5 IND

1.5 MIL

---------
1.3 NAS (PREDATORS)

1.2 BUF (SABRES)

0.8 RAL (HURRICANES) moved from Hart

Today the league has good coverage of the growth centers within the United States. Are all of these cities sustainable over the long run? The three cities that concern me the most are the smallest markets. Nashville, Buffalo and Raleigh. Buffalo has an extraordinary level among of support among the community and will probably make it--especially if the Bills were to depart that market.

On the other hand, I'm less optimistic about Nashville and Raleigh. Both are fairly well managed teams which have put a decent hockey product out there most years. They have some very passionate fans in those cities--the question is whether than fan base is large enough to get them through the down periods. I'm not going to say it is impossible for those teams to flourish--it is simply more challenging than it would be if they were located in Houston or Seattle cities that are double or triple their size. Nashville in particular was hurt by the arrival of the NFL in that city. If they had remained the only pro sports team I would be more optimistic about the long term prospects.

Conclusion: The United States population is in one of the great long term migrations (the other two being the westward frontier and the Great Migration of black people out of the south between 1870-1950.) This long running shift from the north to the southern part of the nation is unlikely to end and the NHL is adjusted to these population trends. Migrants from the north form the base of the NHL fan community in each city and the task for the league is to win over more of the naive population to hockey.