As the NHL remains intentionally vague and exceedingly secretive when it comes to expansion and relocation, there is no shortage of rumors and speculation from fans and media. In recent years, one of the hottest topics among armchair executives is the possibility of a second professional hockey team in the Greater Toronto Area.
Already home to the Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s oldest and most storied franchises, Toronto has increasingly been targeted by would-be owners as a potential place to set up shop. On the surface, the idea of a second hockey team in Canada’s largest metropolitan area makes sense. Not only is the population of 2.5 million the largest in the country (and one of the largest in North America), but the market for hockey in Southwestern Ontario is arguably the strongest in the world. Given the area’s fervent passion for all things puck, it’s reasonable to expect a second team in the GTA would generate piles of ticket revenue, countless sponsorship opportunities and a long line of interested ownership groups. Not to mention the excitement of a brand new intra-city rivalry.
And while it may not be common for cities to support two teams in the same league, some of the bigger markets have proven it can work; Chicago has two MLB teams and the New York metropolitan area has a pair of franchises in the NFL. Los Angeles is home to two NBA teams and several MLB franchises.
However, despite several attempts to bring a second NHL team to the Toronto area – most recently in the northern suburb of Markham – it appears the city, not to mention the NHL itself, may not be ready. Even the most promising bid to date, which involves a proposed entertainment complex including a 20,000-seat multipurpose arena, looks to be losing steam. Although the company behind the proposal, GTA Sports and Entertainment, claims to have financial backing and developers in place, Markham city council effectively killed the project in December 2013 when it voted against the provision of public funding. Combine that with the fact that the NHL brass has expressed no plans for a second team in the GTA, and what once seemed inevitable is now looking like an uphill battle.
And while there’s still a chance it could happen one day down the road, here are the top 5 reasons a second NHL team in Toronto isn’t in the cards – at least for now.
5. Old Loyalties Die Hard
It may be true that the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and it may be true that the team has given its fans little reason to celebrate since then. But the legion of Leafs supporters across the city is nothing if not loyal.
While a second NHL team in the Toronto area may attract the affection of some new or fair-weather fans, it’s more likely it will be seen as just another opponent of Leaf Nation. Unless by some chance the new team managed early and continued success, it would forever live in the shadows of its older, bigger brother. And while the city may be big enough to fill two arenas and financially support two teams, it only has one heart – and for better or worse, that heart will forever and always belong to the blue and white.
4. Show me the Money
For a city to say it can support a professional sports franchise is one thing; to put its money where its mouth is is quite another.
If Markham city council’s decision to reject GTA Sports and Entertainment’s plea for public funding last December proves anything, it’s that interest and commitment are two very different things. While citizens may line up to buy season tickets and T-shirts, convincing them to shell out tax dollars when they already have a team down the road might be an uphill battle.
Whether it’s because Toronto already has a team, or whether it’s because people are growing sick and tired of corporations piggybacking their way to massive profits is irrelevant. And although it’s still a distinct possibility that a private company could raise enough cash to fund a team privately, it would be wise for it to read between the lines of the vote in Markham. If the taxpayers won’t invest in a team at the beginning – when things are new and exciting – why would they do so after the honeymoon?
3. Not in my Backyard
While there are no fewer than 28 NHL teams that would benefit from a second franchise in Toronto, there are a pair that would do everything in their power to stop it from happening.
The first, of course, is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only would the Leafs be fighting with the new franchise for fans, but they would also face financial competition for ticket sales, sponsorship contracts, licensing agreements and merchandise revenue. The simple rules of supply and demand dictate that another team would disrupt what is currently a monopolistic market and cut into the profits – healthy as they are – of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the NBA’s Raptors, the AHL’s Marlies and Toronto FC of MLS. Because even though the GTA may be home to the most populous and concentrated hockey fan base in the world, there is only so much pie to go around – and another NHL team would eventually make each piece that much smaller.
The other team opposed to a second NHL franchise in the GTA, albeit to a substantially lesser degree, is the Buffalo Sabres. Less than 1oo miles from Toronto, Buffalo has become a popular place for hockey-hungry Canadians to catch a game when they can’t find – or afford – tickets to Leafs games. With another team in the Big Smoke, the Sabres would almost certainly see a dip in attendance and revenue.
2. Build it and They Will Come?
One of the biggest hurdles preventing the GTA from getting a second NHL team is also the simplest and most obvious: there is currently nowhere for the team to play.
While the NHL may play its cards close to its vest when it comes to expansion and relocation, one thing it has made clear over the years is that a finished, NHL-ready arena is a prerequisite for any city interested in joining the league. And although groups like GTA Sports and Entertainment have proposed mammoth nine-figure facility proposals, there is a world of difference between blueprints and brick and mortar. Until there is a new 20,000-seat arena built in Toronto’s suburbs – whether it be in Markham or elsewhere – the NHL will not even entertain the thought of awarding the GTA with another franchise.
1. Get in line and wait your turn
As it stands, there are only two ways Toronto – or any city, for that matter – gets an NHL franchise.
The first is expansion. Although the NHL’s shiny new broadcast deal with Rogers Sportsnet (12 years/$5.2 billion) opens the door for new, untapped markets, nothing appears imminent.
The other is relocation. With the once-volatile situations in Phoenix, Florida and New Jersey finally stabilized – at least for the time being – it appears unlikely that any of the 30 franchises will be on the move any time soon.
That said, if the league is serious about becoming a major player in the professional sports scene – which commissioner Gary Bettman says it wants to be – expanding to new markets is inevitable. The problem for Toronto is that there are other cities interested – and other cities the NHL is interested in.
With a new arena already in the works and the early success of the Jets’ return to Winnipeg, it appears Quebec City is the front-runner to get an NHL team back. While Bettman and league officials have offered nothing in the way of confirmation, many believe it’s only a matter of time. Another city getting a lot of attention is Seattle; again, there has been no official word to support this rumor, but given Bettman’s history of placing teams in unproven American markets, it’s easy to imagine.
So even if Toronto can generate loyalty for a new team, even if enough funding is raised, even if the Leafs and Sabres stand by idly, and even if a new arena is built, the city’s bid for a second NHL team will require a little bit of leapfrogging. And a whole lot of patience.
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