Outside of what to name the future NHL franchise in Seattle, where to place the AHL (American Hockey League) Affiliate is another widely discussed topic of conversation inside the Seattle hockey community. The AHL is the minor league development system for the NHL. For the most part, all NHL teams have an AHL affiliate that they use to develop prospects that aren’t quite ready for the NHL or for backup players in case of injuries or trades. One of the responsibilities of recent NHL Seattle hire, Dave Tippett, is to determine where the NHL Seattle group will put their AHL affiliate. During an interview last month, Tippett really narrowed it down by telling us that the AHL team will be somewhere in the “Western Hemisphere”. Now that we have eliminated half the world, I figured it would be a good time to take a look at where they might place this team.
This will be a two-part series. In this first part, we will look at some of the criteria the NHL club will be looking at to determine where to put the franchise. In Part 2, we will look at a short list of individual cities to determine pros and cons to their location.
Location appears to be the biggest factor in determining where to place the AHL team. Over the last 10 years there has been a big migration west of several AHL Teams. In an effort to keep better alignment and enable close call ups, several teams have moved their AHL affiliates to markets that are closer to their NHL parent club. In the last 10 years, 14 NHL teams have moved their AHL affiliate teams closer while only 4 NHL teams moved their affiliates further away from the parent organization. The median distance between the home city of the AHL club to that of their NHL parent club went from 437 Miles away in 2009 to 120 miles in 2019.
San Jose moved the AHL affiliate from Worcester to San Jose, going from 2,645 miles away to zero miles away by hosting the AHL franchise in the same building the Sharks play in at SAP Center. In 2009, Vancouver’s AHL affiliate was playing in Winnipeg and in 2018-19, their AHL team will play in Utica, New York.
Proximity to the parent club is not the only consideration when picking a location. Clustering of teams together appears to be another aspect of choosing a spot for the AHL club. There are currently 5 AHL teams in California. Keeping AHL affiliates “bus distance” away from other teams will keep travel costs down. And because of this the AHL will probably steer new affiliates to be close to existing AHL teams to build a sustainable and stable league. Calgary (Stockton) and Edmonton (Bakersfield) certainly subscribe to this philosophy. Both of those NHL clubs purchased their AHL Affiliates and moved them to California in the last 10 years.
The only city demographic requirement I could gather is population and even that requirement is a fairly loose. To keep it objective, I chose to look at only the population of the immediate city to determine the population size of the fan base. I am aware that fans will come from outside the city limits but a larger percentage of an AHL fan base will come from the immediate area vs. NHL teams tend to draw from a lot further. Essentially, fans are willing to travel further for their sports team, the higher the level their team plays. The outlier of the AHL is the Chicago Wolves (Vegas) who play in Rosemont, Illinois with a city population of 4,169. Rosemont is a suburb of Chicago, and must rely on the surrounding area to support their AHL franchise. Hersey, Pennsylvania might be the realistic floor of population with 14,257, but that is in a state that has a fairly big interest in hockey, so it would be tough to assume that a city of 15,000 out west could support an AHL Team. On the other extreme, the Marlies (Maple Leafs) play in Toronto with a population of almost 3 Million people in the city proper. San Diego (Anaheim) and San Antonio (St. Louis) are the next biggest cities with ~1.5 Million each. Looking at all the locations, the sweet spot appears to be cities with populations with 50,000 to 500,000. Over 60% of AHL host cities fit into that range.
When analyzing locations, it is common to look at income levels of a particular city, but with the AHL ticket price point between $15 and $30, I do not feel there is an income requirement to consider when selecting a city.
New vs Existing Arena
Having an existing arena makes hosting an AHL Team much simpler. Depending on the current use of an existing arena, modifications such as ice equipment and seating changes might need to be addressed, but the timeline to retrofit should reduce the complexity compared to building a new arena. Building a new arena will take time and collaboration with a public entity looking to bring a new facility to their city. Timing a new arena could be tricky; hence the preference for an existing arena.
According to the AHL, there is no defined arena size requirements. When looking across the league, the AHL arenas have a wide range of capacity. The San Diego Gulls (Anaheim) play their games at Valley View Casino Center with a max capacity of 12,920, while the Belleville Senators (Ottawa) play at the Yardmen Arena with a capacity of 4,400. That is a wide range to find an arena that works for an AHL Team so when analyzing potential locations, we can assume they are looking for a location with over 5,000 capacity for ice hockey games.
Inside the TV Market
That last consideration is an extra credit category. The theory being that by having your AHL team in your TV market, gives the opportunity to promote hockey and could encourage fans in the AHL market to tune into seeing how former AHL players do if they get called up to the big club. Depending on the NHL club’s RSN (Regional Sports Network) strategy, they could also broadcast some of the games; provided it doesn’t conflict with other programming or TV licensing rights.
Next week, I will give you my short list of locations on where I would place a team. In the meantime, let me know where you would put the Seattle AHL franchise and why in the comments section.