MLSE may not block bid for a second Toronto franchise

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    NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly was on HockeyCentral At Noon today, and among other topics he briefly discussed the possibility of a second NHL team coming to Toronto.

    When asked why Toronto has not been seriously considered to date as a home for another franchise, despite the enormous fan base and subsequent opportunity to succeed financially, Kelly suggested that MLSE was not the source of resistance.

    “I don’t think it’s the Leafs,”  suggested Kelly.  “I don’t think anybody has approached the Leafs with a proposal … but I do think the Leafs would consider it.”

    Seriously? There must be a caveat.

    “The Leafs would rather see them in the Air Canada Centre than build another arena … it’s not just about hockey, it’s about the circus, it’s about concerts, [and another venue] is going to drive ticket prices down and pull other events out of the building.”

    So there you have it.   According to the head of the Players’ Association, the Leafs‘ concerns are purely financial.   Wow, what a shocker.  Who would have guessed that Peddie and the Pensioneers would be more interested in making money than the growth and success of the sport?

    A second team that had its own arena could charge lower ticket prices, which would force MLSE to do the same lest hockey fans in Toronto decide to throw their support behind the franchise whose games they can actually afford to attend.    In other news:  new scientific testing suggests that pigs may soon be able to fly.

    The Leafs‘ chief concern, however, seems to be not the potential of lost fans.  After all, there are more than enough corporate bigwigs to fill the ACC, providing the wireless network doesn’t get maxed out.   Rather, their main focus appears to be on the non-NHL events that take place at the ACC throughout the year.

    Remember, MLSE owns the building and thus generates a large profit off of the concert circuit.   Already they are competing against the Molson Ampitheatre and the Rogers Centre as two major concert venues.  A potential third major venue would only serve to take away that much more of the ACC’s non-NHL revenue.   However, if a new team was willing to share the ACC with the Leafs (which would include paying MLSE an exorbitant rental fee), MLSE would have little to no opposition to another team in the area.

    Interesting.   As with everything in the world of the Maple Leafs, it all comes down to how much money there is to be made or lost.    And so the question begs:  if MLSE isn’t blocking a serious discussion over whether or not a struggling NHL franchise would be better off in Toronto, then who is?  This is where it gets really interesting.

    Kelly ducked the question of whether or not NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was actively blocking the notion of a second Toronto franchise even being discussed.   “That’s a loaded question that I’m going to pass on, I’ll let you put that to the Commissioner himself.”

    A loaded question?   Seemed pretty direct to me.    Kelly’s refusal to answer the question speaks volumes.   Bettman’s driving goal, throughout his tenure, has been to grow the game in non-traditional US markets.   It has worked in some areas (Anaheim and Carolina are prime examples), but in most other areas is failing miserably.    But as we’ve all seen time and again, Bettman continues to push toward developing the game in areas where the fan interest is clearly minimal.   In Bettman’s mind, a second Toronto team would not create any new fans, whereas a team in Kansas City or Las Vegas would.

    But there appears to be something else at play here that is more important than any of that:  egotism.  If Bettman were to move a southern US team to Canada, one that was either a product of expansion or relocation and is thus one of his pet projects (Phoenix is the team most have suggested would be on the move), that would be tantamount to the Commissioner openly admitting his failure to grow the game in the United States.     And as we all saw during the lockout, Gary Bettman is simply incapable of admitting he has made a mistake.

    Nick Kypreos suggested the same thing when talking to Kelly today, in fewer words.    Kelly could have simply said “no, I don’t think Bettman is the problem”, but instead deflected the question.   Why do that, if Bettman isn’t the issue?

    Now, I can understand Kelly’s reluctance to publicly suggest that Bettman is the one blocking any internal league discussions on the subject, as he has to be able to work with the Commissioner on a variety of other issue and certainly could do without creating any ill-will.    But Kelly made sure he didn’t deny the question, either.   And there’s probably a reason for that … few would doubt that the Player’s Association would harbor any opposition toward a second Toronto team.   What player doesn’t want to play for a team that is (a) financially sound, (b) is in the epicentre of the endorsement/marketing universe, and (c) has a passionate fanbase that actually cares about the game?

    So where does this go now?   In short, nowhere for the time being.   No proposals have been submitted to put a team in Toronto as of yet, and the league seems quite content to continue propping up the Phoenix Coyotes franchise.   For now, anyway.   But that can’t last forever.   Eventually, the league will need to find a buyer for the team, or risk facing contraction.     How much do you want to bet that a Las Vegas proposal would be considered ahead of a Toronto proposal, even if the Toronto proposal came in $100 million ahead?   We already saw that sort of thing happen once when Jim Balsillie tried to buy the Nashville Predators, so I say the chances are pretty good that the NHL is heading toward that exact same dance once more.

    Remember, Bettman and the Board of Governers were the ones who blocked the Balsillie deal from going through, even though it would have raised the value of all teams across the league.   Instead, the ownership shares were sold to a fraud artist named Boots who just happened to have a criminal record.   That right there should tell you everything you need to know about how interested Gary Bettman is in moving a team that is representative of his attempt to grow the game in the US to a Canadian market that actually cares about the sport.

    In his blind pursuit of growing the sport in non-traditional markets, the NHL Commissioner is actually contributing to the declining financial viability of his own league by refusing to acknowledge established hockey markets where even in a down economy, the teams would stand a very good chance of being profitable.

    Although in Gary’s defense, at least the league finally went back to ESPN to negotiate a better television coverage deal.   Nice save, G.

    Your thoughts?

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