The writing has been on the wall for months, if not years, but the NHL finally announced on Wednesday afternoon that they are formally opening the expansion process.
Commissioner Gary Bettman made the news official at a press conference following a Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas.
"Over the past several years we have received numerous expressions of interest from potential markets and ownership groups that have indicated an interest in joining the National Hockey League," Bettman sald. "The Board decided today to examine those expressions more formally and also to welcome any other groups or markets that may be considering pursuit of an NHL team."
Interested groups can submit applications to the league beginning July 6 and must do so before an August 10 deadline.
So what's the next step?
That the announcement comes in Las Vegas is merely a coincidence with that city being a rumored front-runner in the expansion process. There's no guarantee that Vegas or any other market will get an expansion team.
This is just the league opening up the process, where they will simply open their eyes and more formally have the expansion discussion with those markets that are interested in adding teams.
Bettman explained last month how this process will work:
"Even if [the Board of Governors] green light a formal expansion process, it doesn't mean we're going to expand. It means we'll go through the steps of looking through things, and the conclusion at the end of that process could be very well no expansion. So it would just be a question of possibly looking at the expressions of interest and looking at them a little more seriously than we have."
To make a long story short, this is where places like Las Vegas and Seattle and Quebec City get the chance to make their case. It's a vital step in what might eventually become actual expansion.
And of course, the fact that they are opening the process at all does mean that they have been presented with enough evidence to think it's worth their energy.
What cities are in the running?
Las Vegas, Quebec City and Seattle are the chief front runners, although dark horses like Kansas City, Houston, Hartford, Milwaukee, Portland, or a second team in the Toronto / Southern Ontario area could make their case as well.
Regarding Vegas, like we said, it's just a coincidence that the league is having its Board of Governors meeting there. They like to have meetings in fun, warm places, much like their annual South Florida meeting in December.
But regardless of that, things do indeed look good for Las Vegas, as the group led by prospective team owner Bill Foley has picked up more than 13,000 season ticket deposits.
That figure is more than impressive considering that folks have put down those deposits -- actual money out of their pockets -- despite the fact that the NHL has made no promise that a team will arrive. There are teams in the NHL that would kill for 13,000 season ticket holders (and we're not just talking sunbelt teams), and with an arena under construction that will hold 17,500 for hockey games, that's a great base to build off of.
Quebec City seems like a strong bet. They just finished building a brand new, state-of-the-art arena and they'll bring a rabid, built-in fan base that's ready to get NHL hockey back. The biggest question and source of doubt around that city as an NHL market is it's size: Quebec City's metropolitan area is just around 760,000 people -- which is roughly the size of the Baton Rouge, La. metropolitan area.
Seattle is a little sticky considering they don't have an arena or a concrete plan for an arena unless the NBA adds a team in the market as well. And if the NHL doesn't arrive in Seattle first, the league would probably have a lot more work to do to make sure that the market isn't saturated with sports teams. After all, with NFL, MLB and a well-supported MLS team already in Seattle, adding the NBA *and* the NHL could be asking too much.
Other markets, frankly, are all just a toss up at this point. There's no doubt that the NHL could work in some of those places but interest is a question. And some come with more than their fair share of doubt.
How many teams will the NHL add?
It's expected that when the dust settles, the NHL will add two teams -- something that's been speculated ever since the league went to an imbalanced conference alignment two years ago. 32 teams makes it easy for the NHL to balance the conferences with 16 teams on each side. Growing to 31 or 33 teams ... not so much.
Four teams would probably be stretching the league too thin. But two is the consensus that feels right to everybody.
Three cities with big interest; two spots?
Yep. Not enough expansion spots for everybody. Any market that doesn't get in via expansion will have to hope for relocation -- and well, that's a whole different conversation.
$500 million expansion fees are expected.
"There wouldn't be any appetite to expand if the number didn't start with a five," Bettman said Wednesday.
Five hundred million dollars. That's why this is happening.
When might this happen?
2017-18 season is the earliest an expansion team could begin, says Bill Daly.— Travis Hughes (@TravisSBN) June 24, 2015