Does Cleveland Need an NHL Team?
Cleveland is not known as a hockey hotbed by any stretch of the imagination. It's a football town first, a town that still embraces it's longest sporting resident, the Indians, and a town that supports great basketball. Is there any room for a fourth major league member of the Cleveland sporting community?
A look at the lack of success of minor league hockey in Cleveland would indicate that bringing an NHL team here would be a terrible idea. But the simple problem with that has been the fact that the teams have indeed been minor league. Cleveland has and will always be an major league sports town. Yes, many people enjoy the "love of the game" nature of some minor league teams around the region, but when push comes to shove, this town loves the bright lights of a big league sporting event.
The NHL has come into Cleveland in the past and left within two years from 1976 through 1978. The Cleveland Barons played at the Richfield Coliseum during that time period averaging under 10,000 fans per game. The team was quite bad, never sniffing the playoffs and soon merged with the then struggling Minnesota North Stars. I looked at the Cavs attendance figures from the same two years and over that time period, they only averaged a few thousand more per game. While a marked increase, the average is still 8,000 less than what the Cavs draw today. It's reasonable to think that a modestly successful NHL team could draw at least 75% of the attendance the Cavs do. (By comparison, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who play in a college sports oriented town have averaged 16,000 plus over their existence which would equate to roughly 80% of the Q's capacity).
Maybe the timing isn't quite right to bring the NHL back to Cleveland. The economy is down here, but that hasn't stopped the Cavs and Browns from selling out most games, and from people still going to see the Indians. Having a small corporate community to draw from to sell luxury seats and suites definitely hurts Cleveland's case for an NHL team. Certainly, if hockey has survived and flourished in sunbelt cities such as Raleigh, Dallas, and Atlanta, I believe Cleveland would fare reasonably well. The city would also have to face competition from near by cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Columbus. Many are hockey fans I know have already pledged their allegiance over the years to Detroit and Pittsburgh respectively. Converting those fans would be a tough sell. On the flip side, there would be so many natural rivalries that many games would have an added intrigue to them.
According to the latest team valuations by Forbes Magazine, purchasing an NHL franchise is currently the cheapest of any of the four major sports. For example, the Nashville Predators, owned by a consortium of businessmen in Nashville are only valued at $134 million. They also have a clause with their lease and the city of Nashville that allows them to sell the team or move if season ticket sales dip below 14,000 (which they have flirted dangerously close with lately). Take your pick from any of the local billionaires that have had their hand prints on Cleveland sports over the years. Bringing an NHL team to Cleveland would be the cheapest way to break into, or back into the sports ownership world. And with some NHL franchises (i.e. Nashville and Phoenix) possibly looking to re-locate or find new ownership, a move to the major league sports town of Cleveland, Ohio wouldn't be the worst idea the NHL has floated out there recently.
Also, it would be interesting to analyze the added benefit a team drawing 16,000 plus fans to downtown Cleveland 41 times a winter could have. The team needs front office and game day employees. Downtown businesses would have to stay open to meet the demand of hungry and thirsty fans, or those looking for team merchandise. It's not quite a Medical Mart, but having an NHL team in town could definitely help more than it could hurt.