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Franchise Stability: NHL vs. “The Big Three”


Right Wing Conspiracy – 29 AUG 2013

Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.

Much has been written of late about the long-awaited sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, the lightning-quick sale of the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders’ planned move to Brooklyn.  These developments got me to thinking about franchise stability in the NHL compared to the NFL, NBA and MLB.  A bit of research turned up some rather interesting facts regarding franchises in North America’s major sports leagues.

The four major pro sports leagues are quite different in many respects (season length, arena/stadium size, fan base, etc.).  For a fair comparison of apples to oranges, pears and canteloupe, the definition of franchise stability must be very narrow.  In this case, I chose to look first at the number of defunct franchises in each league.  Here’s the breakdown:

DEFUNCT FRANCHISES:

  • NFL – 49 (Includes APFA franchises and those AAFC clubs which joined the NFL)
  • MLB – 22 (Includes those National Association and A.A. teams which joined the NL and later folded)
  • NBA – 15 (Does not include ABA franchises)
  • NHL – 8 (Does not include WHA franchises)

Why does the NHL have significantly fewer defunct franchises than any other league?  In the NHL’s formative years, the scope of the league was smaller.  The NHL came into existence in 1917 as a small, regional circuit, featuring two clubs in Montreal and one each in Toronto and Ottawa.  Compared to other sports, NHL expansion was quite deliberate:  By 1926, the league had grown to just ten clubs, including six in major northeastern United States cities.  In contrast, the NFL in 1926 had twenty-two teams, many of which were in extremely small markets, such as Racine, Wisconsin, Duluth, Minnesota and Pottsville, Pennsylvania.  In those days, financial success or failure was determined by tickets sold, as the tremendous revenue streams of TV contracts and team-branded merchandise sales were as-yet undeveloped.  As a result, many NFL teams failed after just a few seasons of play.

Major League Baseball’s twenty-two defunct clubs all came and went between 1876 and 1899, a time when professional sport was in its infancy.  As with football, attendance and travel costs were factors in franchise survival, as was the determination and professionalism of club management.  Since 1900, however, no Major League Baseball franchise has folded, a testament to management as well as the sport’s status as “America’s National Pastime.”  Though the NBA is the youngest of the major pro leagues, their early struggles indicate failures both to learn from the (too-small market) mistakes of their predecessors and to properly vet prospective owners.

In the four major pro leagues, folding a franchise simply doesn’t happen anymore.  As mentioned above, the last MLB franchises to fold did so in 1899, while the NFL’s Dallas Texans ceased operations following the 1952 season and the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets disbanded fourteen games into the 1954-55 campaign.  Of the NHL’s “Infamous Eight,” three franchises folded prior to 1926, three more fell victim to the Great Depression and one, the New York Americans, barely survived the Depression, only to become a casualty of World War Two.  Since 1942, only one NHL franchise has failed:  The Cleveland Barons, in 1978.

Overall, television and the passenger jet have placed pro sports in expansion mode since the mid-1950’s.  Thus, comparing the number of defunct franchises fails to produce an accurate view of franchise stability today.  My next step, then, was to look at franchise relocation, and more specifically, the number of active franchises which relocated after winning a league championship.

RELOCATED CHAMPIONS (ACTIVE FRANCHISES ONLY):

  • NHL – 0 Cup winners relocated.
  • MLB – 6 World Series winners relocated.
  • NBA – 6 NBA Champs relocated.
  • NFL – 2 Super Bowl winners relocated, 4 NFL Championship winners (pre-Super Bowl) relocated (NOTE: Baltimore Colts won both Super Bowl and NFL Championship but are only counted here as Super Bowl winners).

Many factors are involved in franchise stability.  As seen above, winning a championship is no guarantor of long-term success for franchises in the NFL, NBA or MLB.   For the NHL, however, winning the Stanley Cup would seem to be the one factor which overrides all others.  In fact, even losing the Stanley Cup is significant:  Only one active club has lost in the Stanley Cup Finals and then relocated (the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars).  Whether this can be attributed to hockey fan loyalty, a reluctance on the part of the NHL to move Cup-winning teams, or hockey’s supposed “niche sport” status limiting relocation prospects for franchise owners is a debate for another day.  For now, hockey fans can take comfort in the knowledge that, win or lose the Cup, their team isn’t going anywhere.

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About Matt Pryor

Freelance writer of hockey, history and travel. Born and raised in Texas. Saw first hockey game 22 FEB 1980 (USA 4, USSR 3), was instantly hooked. Attended first NHL game 26 DEC 1981 (Colorado Rockies 6, Calgary Flames 3). Semi-retired beer league player. Shoots left.

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