Does Portland Possess the “3 Pillars” of a Successful NHL Franchise?

During Seattle’s recent acceptance into the NHL, a sound byte from the league mentioned the three pillars of a successful franchise:  solid ownership, robust fan support, and a modern arena. This article will discuss where Portland stands in all three facets.

Ownership

For the last 20+ years since Portland was first graced with an NHL-caliber arena, an NHL team would only be able to happen with Paul Allen on board.  This was cemented even further when he purchased the Moda Center (then known as the Rose Garden) a decade ago. He was never interested in paying full price for a team, but was supposedly willing to buy a relocated team at a discount should the right opportunity present itself.  Both the Penguins and Coyotes had close calls where their team was saved from relocation to Portland by one of hockey’s superstars (Lemieux and Gretzky, respectively). When Allen passed away in October, the future of his estate appeared to be tied up for the foreseeable future; his sister is the main recipient.  Known for her philanthropy, she’s shown little interest in sports. His teams (he also owned the Seattle Seahawks) are operated under the umbrella of Vulcan Inc., which includes his other businesses and charitable foundations. What will happen with his estate is not clear, but with the Trail Blazers having a contract with the Moda Center (and the city of Portland) through 2025, their future is not in doubt for the near future.

What does this mean for NHL in Portland?  Well, the Winterhawks have a billionaire owner in Bill Gallacher that is familiar with the Moda Center and Vulcan Inc.’s sports division.  He has yet to publicly state anything about NHL in Seattle, and he is also waiting to see whether or not his Minimum Wage Bill exempting Winterhawks players will clear the Oregon State Senate on its second attempt.  Should it not pass, the team will have no choice but to depart, as they wouldn’t be able to operate under the same compensation rules as other teams in their league. They could conceivably be re-purposed as a minor league affiliate of the Seattle franchise; whether or not they could keep their moniker in that situation is difficult to predict given the already speculative nature of the topic.  Franchises in the AHL (the minor league) are worth in the $5-10 million range, so barely pennies on the dollar compared to an NHL franchise. Should the worst-case scenario of the Winterhawks not passing their bill as well as no teams look to relocate to Portland, the AHL would be the logical step for Gallacher.

It’s likely that if the bill doesn’t pass he will work with Vulcan (and/or others) to explore the possibility of bringing an NHL team here.  How receptive the league is will be the X factor. Being considered for relocated franchises in the past means Portland is on their map, just not as desired as Seattle and Houston.  The lack of expansion inquiries from Portland over the years has undoubtedly not impressed the league either. Still, Vulcan Sports CEO Chris McGowan has experience as the COO of AEG, which owns the LA Kings.  Should he and Gallacher join forces, the league would be confident in their ability to run a team.

Fan Support

Fan support is not a question in Portland when it comes to attendance; everyone in the city has heard someone cite the 13,000 person waitlist for Timbers season tickets, or how the Blazers hold the record for the longest sellout streak in professional sports.  That said, corporate dollars and television contracts are unfortunately more important in the eyes of the league, and less favorable in Portland than other cities. While per capita income and discretionary dollars are at all time highs, the metro population is only 2.5 million (not projected to cross 3 million until the 2030’s), and may be considered Seattle territory in terms of TV deals, so it wouldn’t be seen as nearly as lucrative of a city like Houston.  A borderline irrational desire for TV eyeballs is one of the main reasons the league continues to subsidize Arizona’s losses. It’s also tough to find corporate dollars in Portland compared to many other cities. A case could be made that Portland currently lacks sponsorship saturation (at the moment) with only two major level teams, but that may not be the case if MLB comes here. No real numbers or serious owners are known yet, however, so the MLB is far from guaranteed at this point.  If anything, it should galvanize potential NHL owners to beat them to the punch.

Arena

Portland already has a suitable arena, so a team could relocate here tomorrow.  It’s also not going to suffer the issues facing Ottawa, Florida and Arizona where the building is neither centrally located nor well-served by mass transit.  The Rose Quarter is the epicenter of light rail in Portland, with every route except the newly-minted Orange line stopping right outside. It’s also located where two major interstate roads intersect, allowing ease of dispersion when crowds depart games.

Moda Center was built to meet NHL specifications, but would now be the 8th oldest building in the league.  While there were over a dozen arenas built around the same time, the league may not look as warmly upon it as they would have a decade ago.  The last renovations took place in 2007, so it is likely due again sometime soon. The fact that hockey is already played in the building should indicate that the building would be adequate for the foreseeable future, though.  Bottom line, having the Moda Center is a major advantage for the NHL’s potential in Portland, and is a generation away from being considered a hindrance.

The Team Itself

It’s no secret the NHL owners want a team in Houston, and with Arizona moving to the Central division, most prognosticating hockey fans expect the Coyotes to wind up in Texas in the next few years.  Still, it’s possible the owners decide 33 teams in the league is acceptable, and nudge Houston in the direction of expansion instead. Given the Golden Knights’ success in their first year, the expansion draft looks more appealing than a relocated team.  Meanwhile, the league gets another $650 million or more on its books if they are an expansion team, so it’s not a done deal that the Coyotes will move to Houston. An expansion team in Houston would allow Arizona (or wherever the franchise is located) to be the 9th member of whatever division makes the most sense.   

Arizona isn’t the only team that could move; Ottawa and Florida are suffering the same fate as Arizona (Ottawa admittedly less pronounced attendance-wise but with exponentially more fan resentment towards to owner) due to their arenas all being located in the suburbs rather than near the city center.  All were poorly conceived from the start; suburbs are notorious for issues with transit as well as evening traffic already heading in their direction as opposed to clear roads to the city center. Side note: driving the 110 in the opposite direction of Los Angeles’ notorious rush hour to a few games at the Staples Center was an eye-opening experience for me in this regard.  Calgary and Ottawa need new rinks to stay viable; Florida needs fans to attend, period.  

Calgary’s mayor took a hard stance against the Flames’ owner saying any new arena or remodel needs to 100% privately funded, which irked Gary Bettman so much he contributed funds to the campaign of the mayor’s opponent in the last election.  Their best bet for a new arena was shot down when the city voted against an Olympic bid, and we all know Bettman has no qualms about abandoning a Canadian market, as ridiculous as it sounds. On that same token, Ottawa isn’t as meaningful to Portland, because nearby Quebec City would be their destination.  Florida is a bit of a wild card, though. They could go to Quebec City, or could come out west to allow Nashville to move to the Eastern Conference. Regardless of where they could move, their attendance is atrocious and the franchise is not sustainable.

The league is about to cry “poverty” during the next labor negotiations, so look for the Players Association to pile on about the league subsidizing the Coyotes and the Panthers.  This should put pressure on the league to move one or both of them for the 2021 season after the hopefully brief play stoppage currently projected for the start of the 2020 season.  The stars could align for one of them to move to Portland; if Houston goes the expansion route, Portland is the de facto front-runner to land them.

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Seattle’s NHL expansion team has hockey fans in Portland both casual and hardcore itching for one here as well.  A little more patience is required to see how ownership shakes out, but we’ll know by the middle of 2019 (at the latest) if the Winterhawks are going to stay.  Given that TSN (the Canadian ESPN equivalent) and The Hockey News were the only major outlets to cover the Minimum Wage Bill after our local media dropped the ball, keep an eye on them as well as NHL PDX’s Twitter feed to stay up to date.  This could be the calm before the storm…

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