Could Milwaukee support an NHL team?
As I vainly tried to find a reason to root for, rather than against, one of Sunday's Super Bowl teams, I finally latched onto a couple justifications for tepid support of Tampa Bay -- 1) I still consider the Bucs to be an NFC Central team, so their ultimate victory would reflect well on the Packers; and 2) What else do people in Tampa have to root for?
Explaining my stance to fellow members of the Super Bowl gathering, someone said, "What about the Devil Rays?", further illustrating my point.
"And the Lightning," I added.
"Who's that?" came the response.
Well, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in fact, are currently the second-best team in the National Hockey League's Southeast Division. Atlanta, Florida and Carolina also play in the NHL Southeast, along with the more established Washington Capitals.
After various witticisms regarding the Lightning's right to exist, we arrived at the following question: Why does Tampa have an NHL franchise but not Milwaukee? And the same could be asked of Miami, Phoenix, Atlanta, Nashville and even Anaheim, towns whose respective Super Bowl parties were likely lacking requisite thermal underwear, wool scarves and chili recipes.
Should Milwaukee have an NHL franchise? Would the city support one? Does anyone really care?
As Gregg Hoffmann pointed out in his most recent article, Milwaukee is already considered to be at the saturation point when it comes to pro sports team. He cited a recent Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal report that listed Milwaukee as the sixth-most "over extended" sports market in America -- meaning, in short, that we already have too many teams and not enough cash to support them.
The NHL question also came amid the recent shuffling in the city's professional outdoor soccer scene. The A-League champion Rampage folded earlier this month under financial duress, but Milwaukee Wave (of the MISL) owner Tim Krause picked up the slack with a new entry in the A-league (the top league below Major League Soccer); the "Wave United" will open play this May.
Of course, the city already has a professional hockey franchise, the American Hockey League's Admirals. The Admirals serve as the top minor-league affiliate of the Nashville Predators and play at the Bradley Center. But the team is averaging fewer than 5,000 fans per home game this season (4,860) and has little cachet in the community.
To wit: name the Admirals head coach. No, it's not Phil Whitliff -- it's Peter Horachek, former minor-league right wing with the Rochester Americans and the Flint Generals, among others.
The Admirals have been around for awhile. They started out in 1970 as an independent minor league team before participating in the USHL from '73-77; Whitliff starred on these teams, scoring 341 points. From there, they were stalwart members of the old International Hockey League, a small, Midwestern grouping of 8-10 teams with names like the Fort Wayne Komets and Muskegon Lumberjacks. Game summaries were usually good for a couple of inches on page 5 of the old Milwaukee Sentinel sports section.
As hockey's minor leagues merged and served to act as more of a traditional farm system for the NHL, the Admirals joined the AHL in 2001.
The team has always had a core group of fans, but it's never been much of a story in southeastern Wisconsin (or anywhere else). The Admirals have never won any type of league title in their 30-plus years, and the lack of consistent (or any) local TV coverage has left them largely a mystery to even area hockey fans.
It doesn't really seem to follow, however, that Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Chicago would all be solid hockey towns, but not Milwaukee. History may have ultimately conspired against Milwaukee folks like the Pettits (original owners of the Admirals), who tried to get an NHL franchise in town around the time they were saving the Bucks by building the Bradley Center. Without an NHL franchise to hearken back on, a groundswell of support for a new one cannot emerge. Without the Braves, would Bud Selig have made attaining the Seattle Pilots for Milwaukee his life's ambition?
Should Milwaukee be considered for an NHL franchise, either via expansion or relocation? Are two "big league" teams already enough for this burg?
Probably so. While the Bucks were recently put up for sale and there has been an outcry about upgrading the Bradley Center, the city can undoubtedly support both the NBA and MLB's Brewers. It would help, however, if either or both started winning consistently.
Minor-league franchises in both soccer and hockey are probably sufficient, though, even if Milwaukee would seem to be a better fit for a relocating or expansion NHL franchise instead of another Sun Belt city.
Still, the Admirals' average attendance of less than 5,000 doesn't exactly cry out for a bigger, better and more expensive product. Buffalo and Ottawa, two more traditional hockey towns, are currently in danger of going bankrupt. And while it's hardly a powerhouse league, the city couldn't even maintain its hold on the Arena Football League's Milwaukee Mustangs.
Despite the SBJ report, Milwaukee is still a good sports town. The PGA and CART regularly make stops here, the NBA, MLB and NFL (by extension) are all long familiar, and hockey and soccer fans have solid outlets for their support. Any over-saturation would quickly be wiped up by the answer to all of life's sporting problems: winning.
Nothing like a 2003 article and a 2010 comment to spark additional discussion. I was born and raised in Milwaukee and West Allis, and my total memories of hockey consisted of stumbling on a game being played at State Fair Park when I was a kid (1950's or 1960's), and being vaguely aware of the Blackhawks' existence. Only when I went to school in Madison in the 70's did I become aware of how fantastic hockey is as a sport, courtesy of the Badgers and their runs into the NCAA playoffs. In person (particularly in the student fan environment of the Dane County Coliseum) it was more exciting than any other sport experience I had ever enjoyed. After moving to northern Wisconsin, I continued to go to Badger games when I could, and would follow NHL games when available (a rare occurrence). The Islanders-Capitols 4-overtime game in the playoffs was particularly memorable. Then in 1991 when the North Stars played the Penguins for the Stanley Cup, fans of the sport in Eau Claire were packing local sports bars to watch. Local hockey at UW-Eau Claire had been popular, but always ranked behind the basketball teams of the same era, until recently. In any event, I marveled how hockey seemed to be popular in the places I'd lived, other than Milwaukee. High school games between Eau Claire Memorial and North are always huge sellouts, and growth in the number of high school teams--both boys' and girls'--has been significant. More communities combine schools to field a team, due to the expense and difficulty in putting a team on the ice for a small school. More and more players from Wisconsin are appearing regularly in NHL games--Jake Dowell (Blackhawks, from Eau Claire), Joe Pavelski (Sharks, from Stevens Point), Davis Drewiske (Kings, from Hudson), Drew Stafford (Sabres, from Milwaukee), Ryan Suter (Predators, from Madison), Phil Kessel (Maple Leafs, from Madison), Brad Winchester (Ducks, from Madison), and Dave Steckel (Devils, from West Bend). Numerous players born in Wisconsin have played in and are now retired from the league, including Dave Hanson, born in Cumberland, who played one of the Hanson Brothers in "Slap Shot." His son Christian is a center in the Maple Leafs organization. Of course, a number of Badger players (Mark Johnson, Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, to name a few) all had careers that included time in the NHL; Chelios played for decades with Montreal, Chicago, and Detroit. Bob Johnson, the former Wisconsin coach, won the Cup in that series with Minnesota, and tragically passed away several months later. His quote, "It's a Great Day for Hockey" reverberates in Madison and Pittsburgh, and is well known throughout the league. Despite all this, and despite Milwaukee winning the Calder Cup after the article was written, there is still an insufficient base in Milwaukee to support a non-winning NHL team. What is needed is a growth of youth hockey in the area to compliment that which has grown in other parts of the state, and a team which caters to a regional approach, promoting itself to other communities in Wisconsin and nearby Iowa (Illinois won't forsake their Hawks, I'm sure). I've been a season ticket holder for the Minnesota Wild, since tickets were solicited in 1997 for their 2000 debut. They have marketed themselves admirably (no pun intended). Every game features a youth hockey team selling programs with proceeds going to that team. There is a charitable foundation which supports local needs. The team hosts events for fans and season ticket holders to let them know they are appreciated. Radio broadcasts stretch from North Dakota to Wisconsin (including my local AM sports station) and the affiliates are given tickets to generate local interest. Traveling 180 miles roundtrip for me is worthwhile. If Milwaukee can grow interest in hockey in general, particularly at the youth level, and attract a winning team (i.e., non-expansion) I believe the support could be there. Absent that approach, it would remain as dead as the Petits' initial effort in the early 90's.
No offense to the people of Wisconsin, but I don't think Milwaukee (or Wisconsin in general) will ever get an NHL hockey team. There are a number of reasons why I believe this. 1. Market proximity. Milwaukee and Madison (the only markets close to large enough) are too close to the Minnesota and Chicago markets. 2. Market size. Milwaukee is the 34th largest media market in the country. 3. Lack of hockey interest. Now, before you jump down my throat on point #3, let me explain. Are there some hockey-crazed people in Wisconsin? Yes. Are there enough to support an NHL team beyond the novelty stages of a new franchise (especially if they are struggling)? No. The Milwaukee market isn't large enough to draw a team based just on market size, so there would have to be an abundance of interest. Particularly, the kind of interest that would draw fans despite a lack of novelty and franchise success. There just isn't that strong of an interest in hockey in Wisconsin. To prove my point I will use a factor that USA Hockey uses to gauge interest levels in regions. That is the number of D1 college players, per capita, that come from an area. Because it takes a strong interest and dedication in the sport to reach that level of play, it is a good gauge of the level of interest in hockey in an area. If you look at the number of D1 players from Minnesota (208), Michigan (130), Massachusetts (159), Illinois (43), North Dakota (20), Alaska (24), Wisconsin (25) and New Hampshire (29) you can see that Wisconsin doesn't produce even close to as many D1 players as Minnesota, Michigan, or Massachusetts, but they do produce about as many as states like Alaska, North Dakota, and New Hampshire. Thing is, Wisconsin has a far larger population than Alaska, North Dakota, or New Hampshire. So, per capita, while states like Minnesota has roughly 1/12,000 males playing D1 hockey, Wisconsin has only 1/113,000 males playing D1 hockey. This is below states like North Dakota, Alaska, and New Hampshire who have roughly 1/20,000 males playing D1 hockey. So, Wisconsin is too close to existing markets, doesn't have a market large enough, and doesn't have enough interest to support an NHL team.
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