With a 5-4 win in overtime, the Minnesota Wild beat the Colorado Avalanche, achieving more than the trophy for teams that don’t end in “s”. They advanced to the next round of the playoffs, against the defending Stanley Cup holders Chicago Blackhawks in the resumption of an intense Midwest rivalry.
They also made a great stride towards the team actually breaking even this year.
As any true fan of the game knows, the playoffs bring out the fair weather fans – a term that in the hockey season applies far too literally. But there is a lot more to the game than who wins on the ice. There’s a lot of money flowing through the NHL, and I do mean flowing. Hardly any stays. It’s a great benefit to the city of St Paul, or at least my neighborhood on West Seventh Street, but how does a team stay on the ice? It’s almost amazing.
Let’s talk about the future of the NHL as the Wild has a pretty decent chance at bringing the Stanley Cup to St Paul for the next year.
The best source of financial information on the NHL comes from an annual report issued in Forbes, which comes out in November. Like any fair weather fan, I have to confess that I only noticed it now. I mean, fair weather fan of the business side! I’ve been a Wild fan for years, as required by my residency on West Seventh – I only started to care about the business side again recently.
The top team in the NHL is, by far, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have an operating income of $142M, about double the typical NHL team. They pocket $48.7M of it, too, which might explain why they didn’t even make the playoffs this year. This team dominates the NHL finances like the Yankees do in baseball, but with far more sketchy results lately. This is clearly the most pathetic thing about Toronto right now – the antics of Mayor Rob Ford are a distant second.
If you look over the roster, one of the most impressive things on it is that the bottom three teams in value – the St Louis Blues, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Columbus Blue Jackets – all made the playoffs. Seriously, Toronto, aren’t you embarrassed? In a league where 16 out of 30 make the playoffs you’d expect a certain level of parity, but the NHL is doing better than you might expect. A big income doesn’t guarantee anything.
These finances have improved dramatically since the horrible lockout in 2012. That was the point of the nearly lost season, after all, and it looks like the NHL is doing much better overall. Most of the teams make about $70M-$80M per year, with only a few exceptions. It’s much more balanced and even overall.
Which brings us to the Phoenix Coyotes. Most fans will tell you there is no excuse for a team in such a hot place, and there really isn’t. But their finances were good enough to place them 25th overall, which is not bad. They should still move to a place that thinks ice is something more than what comes in a drink, but there has been improvement.
The NHL is interested in expansion, and that probably means two new teams. If the Coyotes move, let’s say three. The top contender is Toronto, which is to say a team that cuts into the lackluster Maple Leafs territory. They may not agree, but Hamilton or Sudbury is not far away. Seattle claims they already landed a franchise, which has not been confirmed. And Quebec is eager for a replacement for the Nordiques, who fled to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s worth noting that in Round 2 of the playoffs the Montreal Canadians / Habs are the only Canadian team still playing.
The warm-climate teams are a by-product of a time when the NHL was hunting for a big broadcast deal with a major network. It never happened, and it won’t. The NHL is going to have to find a way to make money off of games more like Netflix does with original series like “Orange is the New Black”. There has to be an internet broadcast model, or something like it, that can connect with fans no matter where they live – even in places that are strangely without NHL teams like Wisconsin and Portland.
But what about the Minnesota Wild? Their ranking of 19 places them smack in the economic middle, but they are losing money. Owner Craig Leopold has said that they need a deep playoff run to break even, which is pathetic in a deep hockey town like this. I think we’re getting about what he needs economically, but as a fan we want much more.
Ever since Parise and Suter arrived two years ago, we’ve had the Stanley Cup on our minds. The odds are looking pretty good, given the intensity that the Wild are playing with today. This is a team that reminds us all of St Paul native Herb Brooks’ Olympic Miracle Team of 1980 – no major standouts but talent at every position, solid play as a team, and a coach who is a master of both strategy and development. Do you believe in Miracles? St Paul does, you know it!
But for all the hype and genuine fun of a good playoff run with a fantastic team, it’s still about the money at some point. The Wild need just a little more to make it into the elite of the NHL. This might be our year – not just for great hockey, but for a solid business performance. The NHL itself is doing much better than it was, but it can do better. It will.