Is Sunbelt Hockey Working? Part III
I had originally intended to make this a single post, but I feared that the length and density of it would dissuade some from reading it. So instead I have opted to make it into a three-part series spread over the next several days. If you’d like to read the full post now, please click here. My only request is that all feedback is placed within the comments section on either this post or the others in this series.
So is Sunbelt hockey working?
I would say, yes. Honestly, when I started this process, I didn’t expect to see much information that would produce any sort of meaningful conclusion. I figured the numbers would either prove nothing was changing or would be inconclusive. Instead, what I encountered was a lot of evidence that seemed to be proving that these teams were leading to a rather large increase in interest.
For those of us north of the Mason-Dixon Line, it can be rather easy to dismiss low attendance numbers and declare that our commissioner is an idiot for keeping teams in the South. Yet, we’ve had the game with us our whole lives. For most of us the game, in some sense, is part of our region, our state, our community. Sure, before “The Trade” there was Sunbelt hockey, but never to this scale, never like it has been since teams started coming South.
I know there are communities that are angry and/or hurt due to the loss of their beloved franchises (see: Hartford, Winnipeg, Quebec City). Trust me, I get it. My hometown of Indianapolis has been without any level of pro hockey since 2004 and it still pains me. I can only imagine what it’s like to be stripped of an NHL team. It’s easy to be upset at the South with teams while your town is devoid of a franchise.
Yes, the NHL is a business. I completely understand that. Yet if any team is to survive there has to be a public wanting the product initially, followed by a community that wants it to stay.
Do I think it’s stupid that a lot of teams coming South decided to place most of their hopes in a snowbird population to support their team? Yes. In fact, I recently read a Sports Illustrated article about the Lightning from 1993 and all I could think about was, “Who in the hell green-lighted this idea?”
There’s something bigger going on here. Bettman’s goal from the beginning has been to sell the game to U.S. markets. If you’re going to try and bring the game to a place where ice does not occur naturally, you have to give it time to grow. The NHL took a sport with almost no visibility in the South and they transplanted it there. In a place where there was no hockey, kids are now growing up with it. About half of those children will grow up to live within 50 miles of their birth place. As adults they will be the ones buying tickets, merchandise, etc. They will reproduce and share the game with their offspring. This the same thing that’s been going on up North, but it’s in the early stages.
Although for a lucky few, they’ll play in the NHL. America is a country that is obsessed with sports. Think of all the athletes in earlier eras that grew up in the South and played other sports. Now think of how many kids in the South are playing hockey. Sure this may be a small amount in terms of global population, but after time it adds up. Sunbelt hockey is growing the game, it’s introducing the game to the whole country instead of just us Northerners. We love the greatest game in the world and the South is starting to catch on.
Yes, there is a point where we do have to acknowledge that certain markets just aren’t cutting it or a point where no proper ownership group means that a franchise needs to be relocated. Yet, those are things we have to deal with on a case by case situation. Don’t dismiss the Southern markets, the first generation of fans are just now coming into adulthood. The cycle that’s helped to build successful franchises throughout the league is now starting to complete its first revolution in these markets.
So yes, the more established hockey cities are going to outdraw them, but they’re buying into the game. They have the potential to be strong hockey cities. Go easy on our brothers and sisters below the Mason-Dixon Line, we’ve had one hell of a head start.