Friday, 2 August 2013

Is Portland A Hockey Town?

Pictured to the left is the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. Having been to Portland, I can tell you that it is a gorgeous city with a vibrant nightlife and spectacular views. I was there a few years ago for a couple of weeks, and I admittedly fell in love with the city. There is a ton of stuff to occupy your time, the early fall weather was fantastic, and the people are incredible. In short, Portland is a great town. They love their Trail Blazers, and they are insane about the NCAA's Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers. But are they hockey fans? That's a question that is a little more difficult to answer, but I'll take a shot at it here.

Word leaked today that billionaire Paul Allen, owner of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and the Rose Garden, was prepared to offer $200 million to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes to Portland if the NHL was serious about moving the team to the Pacific Northwest. Allen has long been eying the NHL as a second tenant in his arena, and nearly bought the Pittsburgh Penguins out of bankruptcy before Mario Lemieux's group saved the day in the Steel City. Allen has a bundle of money that the NHL would love to have funding a team, and the ownership of the arena would make him an attractive owner since he can control the dates for his franchise in his own building.

On the other hand, there is a secondary player in the NHL-to-Portland scenario, and that person is Calgary-based oil tycoon Bill Gallacher. If Gallacher's name sounds familiar, it's because he owns and operates the WHL's Portland Winterhawks franchise, one of the most successful franchises in all of junior hockey. Gallacher has been interested in NHL ownership for some time while still being committed to running the Winterhawks in Portland. Having another rich potential owner awaiting the opportunity to get in on some NHL action has to make the NHL a little giddy. The only issue that looms with the Gallacher option is that Paul Allen owns the arena that the NHL would like to be in.

Some media folk seem to believe that Portland, Oregon is primed and ready to absorb an NHL team. I, for one, am not sure about this statement simply due to the fact that there is major competition in the sports world in Portland. I'm not saying that an NHL team wouldn't work there - there are certainly enough people in the area to make it work in terms of fanbase - but I am simply saying that the establishment of a new team in a market where people live and breathe for the Oregon NCAA scene and the NBA puts the NHL on an uphill battle from the start.

Paul Allen would most likely still have the Trail Blazers playing on prime nights in his arena like Fridays and Saturday, so there would have to be some compromise to the scheduling that the NHL would like. In saying this, though, the Knicks and Rangers seem to do fine, and the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings all work well together. But as Mr. Dwight Jaynes wrote in his piece, "Allen has shown no interest in owning an NHL team of late and he's been able to frighten prospective owners from the prospect of renting arena space in the Rose Garden." With his renewed interest in owning a team, though, this control he exerts would now allow him to fill more nights in the arena when it may sit empty, and that's something any arena owner wants. It means more concessions and souvenirs sold, it means more parking monies, and it means more tickets sold. All of those factors are something that Mr. Allen has to consider, and the NHL could conceivably fill the Rose Garden with a winning team.

While some may say that Seattle is a better choice for the natural rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks, I'm not so sure that would be the case. The NHL would be low on the list of entertainment dollars in Seattle much like the WHL's Thunderbirds are. The NFL's Seattle Seahawks are clearly the biggest draw in town, and they dominate the Sunday entertainment dollars. With Seattle building a new arena with an NBA team in mind, the NHL would get pushed down the list once more. Oh, and that arena? Not even built yet.

It is a three-hour drive for people in Seattle to get to Portland, so the idea of attracting a large number of fans from Seattle to Portland, or vice versa, would be a pipe dream. It's conceivable that a few fans may make the trip on a weekend to see a Portland NHL game, but I doubt that there would be an exodus of people from Seattle heading to Portland to see the NHL. In terms of fan support from Seattle, I'd say a Portland team would have close to nil.

If this seems like I'm heading down a negative path here, think again. This team would be Portland's team almost exclusively because of that fact, and there's nothing that an owner likes more than having an exclusive market to which he can advertise. Again, a few fans from Seattle may make the trip, but this NHL franchise would nearly be exclusive to Portland and Oregonians in general. Paul Allen knows his market well, and he'd be able to get a number of Portland-based sponsors onboard quickly if he played his cards right. Could you imagine some of the incredible microbrews that could be available on game days? After all, beer and hockey go hand-in-hand, and Portland's microbrewery industry is one of the best I have ever seen (and tasted).

Of course, all of this is just spitballing, and I may be getting way ahead of myself when proposing the city of Portland as the NHL's newest city. But there is a strangely similar situation that the NHL found itself in before that seems to have worked pretty well after all has been said and done. There were naysayers in that situation too - bad market, small market, bound to fail - but the team has consistently been building fans since it arrived thanks to prudent ownership and smart spending. Looking at the Portland speculation, it feels a lot like Winnipeg all over again.

Winnipeg had an NHL-ready arena built and run by a billionaire owner in David Thomson. Winnipeg had a fanbase that was exclusively its own market with the closest supporting major city over six hours away. Winnipeg had hockey-mad fans that wanted the NHL back in a bad way. Winnipeg had an ownership group that was prepared to make the game work under the economics of the market they were in, and were willing to work with the NHL to facilitate the game in its small market. Fast-forward to today, and the former Atlanta Thrashers are a beloved team in a city that wanted nothing more than a team to call its own.

Portland has an NHL-ready arena run by a billionaire owner in Paul Allen. Portland has a fanbase that is exclusively its own market with the closest supporting major city about three hours away. Portland has at least two ownership groups that would jump at the chance to bring the NHL to Portland if given the opportunity at a price that seemed fair and reasonable. Like Atlanta, the NHL has a franchise that is bleeding money with no stable ownership group in place that wants to fix the major problems with the franchise. The term "relocation" has been tossed around the Coyotes franchise form nearly five years now, and it might be time for the NHL to look elsewhere for a solution just as they did in Atlanta.

How great would Portland benefit if Paul Allen bought the team and moved it to Portland, and then brought Bill Gallacher's team on to run the day-to-day operations of the hockey franchise? If you're thinking True North Sports and Entertainment, you and I are speaking the same language. The partnership forged by Mark Chipman and David Thomson has been nothing short of magical for hockey in Winnipeg, and the same could be said for the Allen-Gallacher partnership if Allen is willing to bankroll the team as Thomson does with Gallacher making sound decisions on the hockey side as Chipman does. I'm not sure how close Allen and Gallacher are in terms of a personal or business relationship, but the success of the Portland Winterhawks shows that Gallacher's team knows what they are doing just as the Chipman team ran the Manitoba Moose as one of the AHL's best clubs.

While I get that the NHL would like to place a team in the brand-new Seattle arena, they might be overlooking their best opportunity at stable ownership of the former Jets franchise in a long, long time. Portland, Oregon has some challenges, but there were challenges in Winnipeg as well. The NHL put its faith in the Chipman-Thomson partnership, and they haven't had any reason to look back yet. With the similarities in the situation in Portland, it might be time to re-examine the NHL's Pacific Northwest plan because it almost seems like the NHL has another Winnipeg on its hands there.

Portland seems like the elementary choice when looking at the Pacific Northwest, my dear Watson.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Peter Santellan said...

Portland having an NHL team isn't likely. When you think about sports in Portland, the teams that dominate the city landscape are (in order): Oregon and Oregon State in the NCAA, Portland Timbers in the MLS, and the Trailblazers in the NBA. Given that the Trailblazers fans in the city are front-runners in general (as are many fans of any NBA team) and the recent success of the WHL's Winterhawks, who by the way, barely draw media attention in their own city most days, having an NHL team there wouldn't be the best thing for them.