Should the NHL expand to Europe? Our experts agree to disagree
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" returns this season as ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: With the NHL starting another season overseas, should the league expand to Europe?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Pierre. I am guessing by now you have purchased your Eurorail pass and are darting across Europe lining up locations for your new dream European NHL Division. Have you got a schedule ready to go? I'm guessing Helsingborg, Sweden, versus Straubing, Germany, for the big opener. That should be a doozy.
Pierre LeBrun: Ah, Scotty. Always so quick to drench my European NHL dream with a fountain of sarcasm. While I can't see you right now, I'm sure you're rolling your eyes as we prepare to debate the merits of my plan. Is it so hard to ever imagine NHL hockey in a place where people actually care for the game? They put a team in Atlanta (where I believe you live), where hockey fans are as common as snow flakes. Give me a break.
Burnside: Hey, no argument from me on calling into question the sanity of putting teams in places like Atlanta, Nashville and South Florida. The bottom line is they're here now -- at least for the time being. I question what point there is to spending time and energy debating putting more teams in places where the potential to fail is huge -- nay, monstrous -- given the time change, distance, revenue issues and uncertainty over whether fans would even care. Has anyone even bothered to ask the folks in Stockholm and Prague and Berlin, et al, if they even care if the NHL shows up for more than a week every few years?
LeBrun: As it turns out Scott, yes, I have asked those folks that very question. During the six IIHF World Hockey Championships (2000-05) I covered earlier in my career, I can't tell you how many times, over a Diet Coke (small lie), I had Russians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Germans and Swiss tell me how much NHL expansion to their countries would be like a dream come true. You see, they love the game. That's a good way to start. Let's pretend you're a company selling snowmobiles, something we Canadians know a thing or two about. Well, you're going to look at selling your product in markets where the demand will be high. Like, say, Minnesota and North Dakota, but not so much in New Mexico and Texas. Now, I know there are several hurdles to bringing the NHL to Europe, which I'm sure you'll now list, but the first step is the most important: Europe wants this product. That's already a step ahead of the Southern U.S. expansion.
Burnside: They may like the idea over a tall glass of Budvar or Jagrmeister (you'd think Jaromir had a hand in that, but I don't think he did), but will they like it so much when they're staring down $150 tickets for a mid-week game in mid-January? And if you're not going to generate revenue through ticket sales, which is the bread and butter for North American-based teams, then how do you go about ensuring sponsorship revenues will off-set the shortfall? And then there's the idea of television. Will there be enough revenue generated through European television rights to make it work? And boy, those Euro games will be big sellers wherever the NHL comes to rest on American television. You think it's hard to get folks to park themselves in front of the tube for a Detroit/Colorado game? Now wait 'til you're marketing the European division. ZZZZZZZZ. Oh, sorry, did you say something?
LeBrun: I grant you the point on ticket prices. It's the issue that most worries the NHL. It's not because European fans won't shell out for a mid-week game in January, it's because they're not used to shelling out anything -- period -- for sports. Soccer games in Europe are generally cheaper to attend than pro sports in North America, and that's a definite challenge for the NHL to overcome.
I don't agree TV and sponsorship would be much of an issue. The World Championships attracts big-time sponsors and, dare we say, more eyeballs on TV for the gold-medal final than the Stanley Cup finals. That's how big the appetite is for hockey over here Scotty boy. Speaking of appetite, these Swedish meatballs are as good as advertised.
Burnside: I'll restrain myself and stay away from a shot about the Swedish meatballs and concentrate on what would become the obvious issue of how a European division would be viewed by the North American audience. You know Americans are generally distrustful of things European, in general; different currency, different accents, weird food, different views about personal hygiene. All that stuff. What kind of connect would there be in North America for a team in Prague? It would be inevitable that the European division would become almost a separate entity. How does that help the NHL and its desire to have fans connecting with the league as a whole? This seems to run contrary to that goal.
LeBrun: Scotty, give me a break. You think most Americans know where the heck Edmonton is? And yet, there's still an NHL team there and no one seems to be upset about it. Why are there six Canadian teams? Because that's where hockey is king and American sports fans understand that. It's what makes the NHL so special, that America is OK having to share it with another country. So, why not Europe? Wouldn't American sports fans realize hockey is big-time popular in Europe? The world is shrinking, my friend. In this technological age when you can watch hockey games on your cell phone, a game in Germany doesn't feel any more distant than a game in St. Louis. You've heard of global economies, why not a global game!?
Burnside: Wow, you nearly had me going there for a minute. All of those things sound nice, global game, etc. And I understand 30 percent of the NHL's players come from outside North America. But the bottom line is if you're talking about a European Division, you're talking about a 36-team league or you're talking about a 30-team league in which six North American teams have dissolved and/or been moved to Europe. How does any of that make sense?
Teams in North America aren't going away no matter how much sense it makes to have a 24-team league. If Nashville goes under, it's going to Kansas City or Las Vegas. I think there'll be a team in Hamilton, Ontario, before Helsinki, and, frankly, that's the way it should be. Again, I get that European expansion is 10 or more years down the road; but in 10 years, the same issues will be at play. There's simply not enough room for a European slate. If the NHL wants to keep sending teams over there as they've done this year and last, go for it. But that's as far as it needs to go and as far as it should go. Guess you can keep that Stockholm Meatballs jersey you bought as a collectors' item.
LeBrun: Scotty, Christopher Columbus didn't start out looking for the Americas, but that worked out OK for him, didn't it? The point is, it's easy to be a naysayer on this. Of course, there are many holes in my European expansion dream. No question. That's why this is a long, long time away from happening. But it's worth exploring, and carefully planning the possibility.
I envision six teams in Europe; Maybe as many as 10 one day, but six to start. And I think there are a few markets in the NHL we don't need to replace when -- and I say when, not if -- they collapse. (Do we seriously still have a team in South Florida?) So yes, something like 24 teams in North American and six in Europe would work just fine, thank you. Travel is not nearly the issue most people make it out to be. Two big road trips to Europe a season. It takes the Rangers six hours to fly to Los Angeles. Why not seven hours to Stockholm?
Burnside: I like the Christopher Columbus analogy. Of course, half his crew thought the world was flat, which fits in nicely with the "Why not Europe?" camp. So, where would you put the first six teams? And how do you establish a connection between those teams and the North American audience, because ultimately you still have to have North American fans embrace the new division for it to work, don't you?
LeBrun: My Euro Original Six:
And perhaps, one day, London, Cologne, Germany, Goteborg, Sweden and St. Petersburg.
Scotty, open the blinds in your Prague hotel and let the sunshine in!
Burnside: It all sounds very exciting Pierre, especially the idea of getting some deep-fried carrots in London a couple of times a year. I am never against dreaming big and thinking outside the box, but it just seems the NHL has so many issues to deal with back home that the Euro expansion thing is just tilting at so many windmills (do you like my Don Quixote analogy? I notice you didn't mention putting a team in Amsterdam. That must be Phase III). I'll let you get back to your meatballs, my friend. See you back in North America, home of the NHL.
LeBrun: We'll agree to disagree, my friend. And "tak" (Swedish for "thanks") for the chat. Try not to be too shocked in Prague when you see two sellouts for the Rangers-Lightning games. I know you're not used to that.
Burnside: Sadly, I doubt this will be the last time we agree to disagree. And I have no doubt there'll be sellouts in Prague. That's the great thing about having to market only two NHL regular-season games every 100 years. Travel safe.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Swedish meatballs and Jagrmeister were not part of their deals.