By Morgan Alessi
With the NHL playoffs in full swing, the current Sun Belt Expansion golden child, and Tampa Bay, still in the mix, let's take a look at the largest NHL expansion strategy to date.
In 1987, after the Edmonton Oilers clinched their third Stanley Cup with a game seven win over the Flyers, the National Hockey League entered a stage of evaluation and expansion. With the formation of six NHL owners and a NJ based consulting agency, a strategic planning committee was created by then NHL President John Ziegler and Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz to address the league’s “Vision for the ‘90s”. That vision soon became the strategy commonly referred to as the NHL’s Sun Belt Expansion, in which the league would grow from 21 to 30 teams by the beginning of the 2000s. Given the National Hockey League’s steady incline in popularity in the ‘80s, the committee decided to test the warm waters in densely populated urban areas with strong sports networks. This ultimately led to the development of teams along the southern region of the United States, quickly coined the Sun Belt. Over the course of 10 years, unconventionally warm ice hockey locations welcomed their own NHL franchises with mixed reviews and low expectations. This year four of those nine expansion teams have solidified their place in history as ‘22 Stanley Cup Playoff caliber franchises.
The Sun Belt History:
Taking a step back in time, let’s walk through how the NHL ventured down south.
The San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning became the first two Sun Belt expansion franchises in 1991 and 1992. With the Minnesota North Stars moving to Dallas and the inception of the Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers in 1993, the NHL took an expansion hiatus until converting the Winnipeg Jets to the Phoenix Coyotes in ‘96 and Hartford Whalers to the Carolina Hurricanes in ‘97. To finish off the expedition down south, the NHL added the Predators to Nashville in ‘98 and the now departed Thrashers to Atlanta in ‘99.
Sun Belt Evolution:
Ultimately, by exposing a national audience to hockey, the hope was to raise public interest and in turn drive revenue through advertisers, sponsors, and television rights deals. Over two decades later, the latter did occur and was a success.
As to be expected, some of the new NHL franchises were met with the initial reality that the southern population was slightly more inclined to attend and watch a slew of warm-weather sports before stepping into or setting eyes on an icy arena. Although some skepticism presented itself, expanding to vastly populated locations paid off really well as sponsors began to take note of the value these cities held in the greater scheme of things. From 1993 to 2022, the league sponsorship revenue alone has grown from $2 million to nearly $650 million since the first two Sun Belt franchises settled into their respective homes.
While success has been and is associated with many Sun Belt teams over the years, Atlanta had a difficult time adapting to the sport. This ultimately led to the reincarnation of the Winnepeg Jets in 2011. Similarly, the Coyotes have had a tumultuous few decades in the desert heat with bankruptcy and resurrection. On the opposite side of the fence, the Sharks, Stars, Ducks, Lightning, and even the Hurricanes and Panthers have been case studies on how performance under the lights can save and build fanbases.
Coming out of memory lane leads us to today - about a week removed from the two Sunshine State franchises battling it out for the Stanley Cup. We are now left with two Sun Belt teams in the running for the ‘22 honor (Lightning and Hurricanes). This begs the question, was bringing the ice to the sunny south the right move? You be the judge of that!