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Friday, June 14, 2024

NHL Seeing Record Growth, but Bettman Taps Brakes on Expansion

  • There’s no process in place to add teams, even as the league is experiencing historic levels of growth.
  • Bettman says the new Utah franchise is ‘drinking from a fire hose’ amid intense fan demand for tickets.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is clearly in a significant growth mode, with regular season attendance for 2023–24 reaching a record level of 22.56 million, revenue also reaching unprecedented level of about $6.2 billion, and the league’s playoffs averaging 1.3 million viewers per game through the conference finals, up by 14% from a year ago and the best such figure since 1996 in the U.S. Meanwhile, Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final posted a 12% boost in viewership to an average of 3.1 million viewers.

But commissioner Gary Bettman (above) is still not ready to push forward on expansion.

Speaking late Saturday in Florida before the Panthers’ 3-0 win over the Oilers in Game 1 of the Final, Bettman said there remains no formal procedure to grow beyond the current 32 teams.

“We continue to deal with expressions of interest,” Bettman said. “We’re not going to—at least at this point—unveil a formal process. We are gratified by the fact that at least half a dozen places continue to have interest in us.”

The sentiment contrasts against that of the NBA, which is expected to begin its own process to add teams once its long-awaited national media rights deals are completed in the near future.

New and Old Teams 

The NHL, however, does have many of the facets of an expansion team unfolding as the Utah franchise settles in its new home after relocating from Arizona in April. That franchise now has more than 34,000 deposits for season tickets—creating an almost problematic level of fan demand—while the process to select a team name is moving to final candidates.

“I think things are going even better than we could have hoped, based on the short timeframe that they’ve had to work with,” Bettman said of the early rooting of the Utah team. “They’re literally drinking from a fire hose, and they’re doing it unbelievably well.”

The Arizona franchise will be reactivated and added back to the league should former Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo be able to develop a new arena in the Phoenix market.

More NHL Business

In other matters Bettman addressed in his state-of-the-league address:

  • The league and NHL Players Association set the 2024–25 salary cap at $88 million—up by $4.5 million from this season and slightly higher than previously projected—with a floor of $65 million. The latest figure, like those in the NBA and NFL, is a reflection of where league revenues are. “It means that the revenues are as robust as we’ve been telling you all along,” Bettman said. “I predict [the salary cap] will continue to go up. I believe we’ll continue to have robust growth in the cap.”
  • The NHL is considering staging a game at LoanDepot Park, the home ballpark of MLB’s Marlins. After next season, only the Panthers and Utah franchise will not have played in a NHL stadium game. “I’m not going to break any news, but we are mindful of the fact that at some point it would be good for the Panthers to be in an outdoor game.”
  • The commissioner appeared with NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh to discuss the 4 Nations Face-Off, a new international tournament set for next year involving players representing the U.S., Canada, Finland, and Sweden. Competition will be held at Bell Centre, home of the Canadiens, and the Bruins’ arena, TD Garden. Bettman praised the relationship with the union that helped lead to the creation of the event, as well as the broader interplay between the two organizations. 

“It’s very open, candid dialogue,” Bettman said. “I think we have a good relationship, the best it’s been in the history of labor relations between the NHL and NHL Players Association. We’re collaborating on lots of important initiatives.”

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