MLB, NHL and NFL expansion teams fail more often than not and even teams that break even are often mired in the loss column for decades. How a gradual, multi-season approach leading up to the first pitch, puck drop or kick off would ensure the growth of a fan base and the maturation of a team 

Written by Kyle Magin

When the Vegas Golden Knights take the ice at T-Mobile Arena next October, they’ll do so as a completely new NHL team in every sense of the word. As an expansion franchise, the Knights will be playing their first game. As players, they’ll be passing and shooting and defending for the first time, ever, together.

Evidence tells us they’ll suck. Expansion franchises—particularly in hockey and baseball, where ownership takes on the responsibility of cultivating its own talent rather than allow the plantation owners at the NCAA and its member institutions to do all the work—nearly always suck and can fail.

There’s a better way to do this: graduated expansion. For hockey, start an affiliated American Hockey League (hockey’s top minor league) franchise a year ahead of the big team taking the ice in the NHL for the first time. Participate in two drafts and let some young core of players come up together and begin to form the sort of culture that breeds winning down the line. Because, what we’re doing now, and what we’ve always done, will sentence fans in new cities to years and potentially a decade or more of bad sports.

In hockey, 2 of the 6 teams involved in the original expansion to 12 franchises during the late 1960s failed to stick in their markets—the California Seals and Minnesota North Stars. The second expansion to 14 teams went well, but growth to 16 added another doomed franchise in the Atlanta Flames. Eighteen went as poorly as possible and saw the league contract the Seals (then the Cleveland Barons) and watched the Kansas City Scouts flame out overnight and head to Denver to become the ill-fated Colorado Rockies (hockey edition.) Growth to 21 teams was disastrous, seeing Denver move to New Jersey, and the addition of future failing franchises in the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets (OG edition).

Of the 9 teams added since 1990, the Atlanta Thrashers failed in the league’s second attempt in that city and the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers both exist on life-support. In all, from the original 6 to today’s 30-team league, 10 attempts at starting and maintaining a new franchise in a new city have failed. Whether you want to talk about chicken-and-egg scenarios regarding fan support and performance is a discussion for another day.

Baseball finds itself in only a marginally better position. Five expansion franchises bit the dust since 1960, moving rather than contracting. Almost all modern-day expansion franchises—every team added since 1960—have a lifetime winning percentage of less than .500 save the Anaheim Angels at .501. The sport’s bottom five winning percentages are disturbingly-recent expansions—Seattle, Miami, Colorado, San Diego and Tampa. That’s every baseball expansion franchise besides the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks from the last 40 years. The sport treats its newcomers like shit.

We need to reverse these trends, or least give new organizations a better chance to compete early in their existence. The next round of expansion in every sport—NHL moving back to budget-minded Canada with a potential Quebec City outfit in the offing, MLB kicking the tires on a non-natural destination in Mexico City and the NFL considering London—is fraught. Leagues are increasingly looking to grow the footprint beyond its natural base of fans. Expansion fees are a half-billion to a billion dollars. A hit could mean untold growth potential—America’s first truly internationalized export sport. Unless we give those organizations an honest chance to put winners in front of their fans early, you can pretty well bet you’re adding a long-moribund franchise to your league’s roster for years or decades to come, one that can kill fan support and spell its own doom.

A good way to fight this would be for the players’ unions to step up and waive or drastically alter their members’ no-movement clauses to accommodate better expansion drafts. The sport being healthy in its expansion destinations in unquestionably better for labor—access to new revenue at the gate and more importantly on TV increases the pot to share from, especially if you bring a foreign market under your auspices—so labor had better be willing to chip in a pound of flesh to make it happen. In addition, there’s the new jobs that’ll inevitably be filled, at least at first, by existing talent that would otherwise be pushed out of the league. There’s your #trumpsamerica take from me for the rest of the year.

Since the above probably won’t happen, let’s turn our attention to the graduated build model. Giving our organizations more runway to succeed is, I think, unquestionably a good idea.

In hockey, the idea could have conceivably looked like this for the Vegas team:

vegashockeyi

2016

  • Announce expansion.
  • Participate in first-year player draft in the No. 1 position.
  • Assemble and field an AHL team built with prospects and free agents.

2017

  • Participate in the expansion draft.
  • Participate in the first-year player draft in the No. 1 position.
  • Assemble and field teams in both the NHL and AHL, going into the season with two top picks in the pipeline or in the show, as well as established veterans and any free agent signees/lucky strike lower-round prospects.

Let’s also suppose that Major League Baseball awards a franchise to Mexico City or Montreal to begin play in 2019. That team’s graduated timeline could look like this:

exposi

2017

  • Host spring training for minor league free agents.
  • Field teams in Rookie, short-season and long-season A ball and AA.
  • Participate in first-year player draft with top pick.
  • Participate in Arizona Fall League.

2018

  • Host spring training for draft picks, free agents and existing players.
  • Field teams in every level of Minor League Baseball.
  • Participate in first-year player draft with top pick.
  • Participate in Arizona Fall League.

2019

  • Begin MLB play.
  • Participate in first-year player draft with top pick.

Under both of these scenarios, you’re seeding the new organization with top picks and hopefully training prospects to match your management’s philosophies about how to win games. In hockey, you get the chance to hit the ground running on day one of the show with more than a hodgepodge of dumped-off salaries in skates. In baseball, you get a good long time to know what’s coming to MLB on day one, and a chance to stock up with the sort of guys who can be traded for big-time players without overpaying in years or dollars.

A graduated expansion is necessary from here on out to respond to the stakes of growing our sports leagues. Let new teams compete with the same advantages their peers have in terms of development—the ramifications of not doing so can mean years on the doormat.

You can read more Kyle Magin here.

NO COMMENTS