Of course Gary Bettman is negative on the idea of an NHL franchise in Hamilton. The commissioner has staked his reputation on an ill-considered expansion into U.S. markets where hockey has trouble competing with high school football.
Like George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Bettman’s obsession has nothing to do with reality. Others casually dismiss Hamilton for business reasons, arguing the city’s weak economy and lack of corporate power — the kind that coughs up buckets o’ cash for seasons’ tickets, private boxes and flagrantly overpriced food and drink — wouldn’t profitably sustain a team. Even Ron Joyce, the co-founder of Tim Hortons Inc., whose corporate headquarters are in nearby Oakville and a man who ought to know better, thinks a Hamilton franchise has but a 10 per cent chance of success.
Joyce has obviously had one Timbit too many. The business case behind Jim Balsillie’s drive to move an NHL team to Hamilton depends not on what’s in Hamilton, but what’s around it. Given that the steel industry has all but shut down, Hamilton proper is enduring a serious recession.
But remember that Balsillie’s Waterloo-based Research In Motion corporate headquarters is exactly one hour away from Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum, the putative home of his new team. If that’s the effective radius of Hamilton’s area, the team can count on support from any or, more likely, all of the following areas: Burlington, Oakville, Cambridge, Kitchener, Guelph, Waterloo, Milton, Brampton, Mississauga, St. Catharines, and even Wayne Gretzky’s hometown, Brantford.
In all, these communities and surrounding areas have more than 2.2 million people, a substantial proportion of whom are passionate hockey fans. Greater Phoenix, home of the Coyotes that Balsillie covets, has 3.8 million people, most of whom think high sticking has something to do with flypaper.
But as wise heads point out, pro hockey franchises need big companies with money to spend.
Not counting Mississauga, the communities around Hamilton boast 16 Financial Post Top 500 head offices, including two of the most viable remnants of Canada’s auto industry in the form of Ford and Toyota. If you add in Mississauga, you have another 26 or so Top 500 head offices to draw on.
To be sure, there are financial questions about a Hamilton NHL team, such as how much it would take to expand Copps Coliseum and buy off the big losers in the relocation — Toronto’s Maple Leafs and Buffalo’s Sabres. Overall viability, however, isn’t one of them.