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With the Vegas Golden Knights succeeding on the ice and playing to capacity crowds in Nevada, speculation has already begun as to who will be the NHL’s 32nd team. While Quebec City was the only city besides Las Vegas to apply for a team in the last round of expansion, the game has changed since then, as Houston is now a potential landing spot.
Previously, Houston wasn’t available because of a clause in the Houston Rockets’ lease with Toyota Center that said that any hockey team that played at the arena either had to be owned by Rockets owner Leslie Alexander or had to pay rent to the Rockets. But with Alexander selling the Rockets and their lease to Tilman Fertitta and Fertitta reportedly interested in bringing hockey to the city, Houston has become an intriguing possibility for the NHL’s 32nd team.
Like most of the expansion teams of the past three decades, Houston is not a traditional market for hockey. But much like Vegas, Houston has the potential to be successful. Here’s why an NHL team in southeastern Texas could work out.
1. It Has a Huge Population Base
Houston is the fifth-largest market in the United States and by far the largest market in the United States that doesn’t have an NHL team. Only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas have a larger population base to pull from than Houston’s 6.7 million people. That’s more than three times the size of Las Vegas and twice as big as Tampa Bay, which has been a long-term success in a market that never sees anything resembling winter.
Houston can follow the same examples that Tampa Bay has used to build its own fan base in a market that is vastly underserved. Other than Dallas, there are no other NHL teams south of Nashville between Phoenix and Tampa. A Houston team would not only be able to pull from its own area, but could attract hockey fans from places such as San Antonio, Austin and Louisiana. Houston also has plenty of corporate dollars to go around and would be able to attract wealthy sponsors to buy luxury boxes. The money and the population base are both there to make this work.
2. It Has Ready-Made Rivalries
Houston might be a good distance away from its nearest rival, but that won’t make a rivalry with Dallas any less fierce. Dallas and Houston already have strong rivalries in baseball, basketball and soccer, and a hockey rivalry with the Stars would be an instant fit. Dallas has never really had a true rival that it could call its own, which is one reason why it got stuck in the Pacific Division during the NHL’s six division era. With five matchups a year, Dallas and Houston would have an instant rivalry that both fan bases would care about.
Outside of its main rivalry, Houston would be slotted into the NHL’s Central Division, the one division in the league that doesn’t currently have eight teams. Given that Houston and Nashville already have a football rivalry, a hockey rivalry with the Predators would be a great fit. Matchups with Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota would also appeal to the transplants from the upper Midwest. It might take a few years for Houston to develop its own fan base, but until it does, compelling matchups will keep casual fans interested in coming to the arena.
3. Tilman Fertitta
To be fair, a large population base doesn’t guarantee success. After all, Atlanta is the ninth-largest market in the country, and that didn’t stop the Atlanta Thrashers from moving to Winnipeg and becoming the Jets in 2011. However, Atlanta was a different case than Houston.
The failure of the Thrashers was more the result of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group barely paying any attention to the team, focusing more on the NBA’s Hawks and trying to sort out an ownership issue that took six years to fully solve. By the time the Atlanta Spirit partners had things figured out, they had a hockey team they didn’t want and a fan base that felt neglected. Given that combination, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the NHL allowed the Thrashers to be sold and moved to Canada.
Fertitta isn’t going to make those mistakes. He’s a native Texan with deep ties to Houston. That means he doesn’t have infighting partners to worry about and he’s going to give an NHL team the proper attention it needs to build a fan base in a non-traditional market. He’s personally been involved with three of Houston’s four major league teams, so he knows what it takes to build a fan base and keep it interested.
In short, Fertitta has the knowledge to make hockey a hit in Houston and the wherewithal to absorb some early losses if the team goes through some growing pains on its way toward success. It’s far from a guarantee that hockey will work in Houston on a long-term basis, but the pieces are there to make for a successful launch if and when the NHL decides to give southeastern Texas a try.