Sam Mellinger

NHL’s expansion process comes at inopportune time for KC hockey fans

Lamar Hunt Jr., who owns the ECHL’s Missouri Mavericks, called the NHL’s $500 million price tag for an expansion franchise “a ridiculously big fee,” and said that he is not aware of anyone in Kansas City who will make a push for a team.
Lamar Hunt Jr., who owns the ECHL’s Missouri Mavericks, called the NHL’s $500 million price tag for an expansion franchise “a ridiculously big fee,” and said that he is not aware of anyone in Kansas City who will make a push for a team. jsleezer@kcstar.com

As soon as Monday, the official bids will start popping in at the NHL’s office in New York. Sports have a strong hold on us, as both a business and an escape, and groups with big dreams and bigger money will make their case for an expansion team.

The Sprint Center, even approaching its eighth birthday, is one of the country’s best and biggest arenas without an NHL or NBA team. It was built in large part because the sports and entertainment management company AEG promised to do everything it could to bring a pro team to Kansas City.

AEG is now heavily involved in landing a NHL expansion team — for Las Vegas, in a new building the company owns and manages.

The NHL has vaguely mentioned Kansas City as a possible expansion market, and the Sprint Center’s lack of an anchor tenant makes this a natural question. But, as best I can tell, no one from or representing Kansas City will be among those submitting bids for a team to play here.

Lamar Hunt Jr., who owns the ECHL’s Missouri Mavericks, a minor-league hockey team that plays in Independence, called the NHL’s $500 million price tag for an expansion franchise “a ridiculously big fee,” and said that he is not aware of anyone in Kansas City who will make a push for a team.

“No, it’s not on my radar,” he said. “It’s not on this team’s radar, and it’s not on my radar.”

Cliff Illig, a billionaire and part of the ownership group of Sporting Kansas City, is also not involved with a bid for Kansas City, and does not know of anyone who is.

“You could say that,” he said. “That’s certainly the truth.”

Conversations with a few others around town indicate a consensus, that there is no real momentum from local groups to woo the NHL for an expansion franchise.

As much as some would like a team in Kansas City, this is smart. The reasons are strong and varied and fundamental. Eight years ago, when the Sprint Center opened, the biggest challenge seemed to be finding an owner or ownership group with the money and motivation.

Now, particularly when talking about the NHL, the obstacles are bigger in both number and scope. One of those is timing. In a parallel universe, Kansas City might already have a team. The NBA’s Thunder could be in Kansas City, if things lined up better. Same with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers. If the Coyotes move from Arizona, it will be after the Sprint Center’s peak as an attractive landing spot.

The NHL’s economic model also works against Kansas City. The league’s revenue is tightly centered around local TV contracts, even more than Major League Baseball, and it takes a lot of imagination to see the nation’s No. 31 market producing enough local TV money to make it work. That’s particularly true in a place without much hockey culture.

“The money just is not there,” says Todd Jewell, chair of Texas State’s economics department, who has done extensive research in sports economics. “I just don’t think it’s a big enough market. If one of these teams is going to move, which it could, it’s going to a bigger TV market. The NHL has to generate more TV exposure and get more money from TV contracts.”

To hear Jewell and many of the would-be principals in Kansas City, talk of an NHL team here is a bit like an illiterate man deciding he wants to write a novel. It’s not impossible, but a thousand steps must be completed first.

With the Royals, Chiefs, Sporting KC, NASCAR and major interest in college sports, Kansas City is already an overextended sports market. In the Business Journals’ 2015 report, Kansas City’s total personal income was calculated as $86 billion short of what’s generally required to support its existing sports franchises. Specific to the NHL, Kansas City scored a zero on a scale up to 100 that ranked potential markets.

Here, a closer look at Hunt Jr.’s Mavericks is worthwhile. The Mavericks averaged 5,317 fans over 36 home dates last year, while NHL teams averaged 17,587 over 41. The ECHL operates with a $350,000 salary cap; the NHL’s is $69 million.

Depending on how you do the math, the metro area has a thousand youth skaters and four sheets of ice, two of which are open year-round. Generally speaking, to develop a culture that would support an NHL team, those numbers would need to double, at least.

The Mavericks are, by all accounts, in a good place. Even while finishing 23rd out of 28 teams in points, they finished sixth in attendance. They recently signed an agreement as the New York Islanders’ lower affiliate, and are working toward strengthening hockey’s following in Kansas City.

That includes more sheets of ice, more sponsorship, and another indoor facility that could attract major youth tournaments to the area. This week, the Mavericks will hold a formal announcement of the consolidation of the area’s youth hockey groups. When teams from what will be known as the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association compete out of town, they will do so with Mavericks jerseys.

There are encouraging signs. Not just the attendance. During one game of the Stanley Cup Final, more people watched in Kansas City than St. Louis — which has an NHL team and much more of a hockey culture.

The Mavericks are making a particular push for millennials. In Hunt Jr.’s words, the goal is to “let them know this is a very cool thing to do, no pun intended.” The club is working on ways to do this, including with merchandise, a phone app, and perhaps something around the beards that hockey players have always fancied.

Similarities exist between what the Mavericks are trying to do, and what Sporting has been doing for years.

But Sporting’s leadership group — for all of its success — has always been open about its investment benefiting from years and even decades of previous work in building Kansas City’s soccer culture.

On an NHL scale, that work is still in the beginning stages, and faces obstacles that soccer didn’t — unfortunate timing, and an economic model that’s a bad fit, just to name two of the more prominent.

It used to be that the biggest challenge was finding an available team and a willing owner. Today, the NHL is openly courting new markets, but anyone with the money and interest has plenty of reasons to stay away.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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