Leafs Remain Number One in Forbes Ranking

In Forbes’ annual rankings of NHL franchise values, the team that comes on top is the team that continues to remain among the bottom feeders of the NHL. For the fourth year in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the most valuable franchise in the league, followed by the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens.  While there is reason to be optimistic with the resurgence of markets like Chicago and Boston, there is also reason to be concerned about many other markets as well.

As expected, the Coyotes were last in the league in both franchise value and operating losses. Unless something strange happens in Phoenix, the Coyotes will likely be at or near the bottom of this list next year as well.

A lot has to happen for the Coyotes to be successful off the ice. First of all, the team needs to win. With a new coaching staff that includes head coach Dave Tippett and assistant coach Dave King, the pieces could be in place for this young hockey team to start winning some games. Another significant problem right now has to deal with the uncertainty that the fans have with the franchise.

Since the Coyotes are currently owned by the NHL, there are many question marks surrounding who will be signing the cheques in the years ahead. As it has been seven years since the franchise last qualified for the playoffs, a potential owner might have different perceptions of the market if the Coyotes actually start winning a few games. A visit to the Coyotes website will indicate a ticket promotion where certain games allow for fans to receive a free ticket to another game should the Coyotes win on the day you attend.

Times are not good in Phoenix right now and the fact that the city was one of the hardest hit areas in America from an economic standpoint will not help the situation either. If the Coyotes somehow make the playoffs this year and the fans actually show up, maybe there is some wealthy millionaire out there who says “I can make this work in Phoenix.” On the contrary, if the team plays well but the winning does not result in a significant increase in attendance, the Coyotes will continue in this state of turmoil that has characterized the franchise over the last few years.

Along with the Coyotes, a number of other NHL teams also find themselves in a state of flux. The Florida Panthers were 26th on Forbes list of NHL rankings and have recently gone through an ownership change as pharmaceutical millionaire Alan Cohen has relinquished his position as majority owner of the franchise. Cohen will still own a small part of the team while businessmen Bill Viner and Stuart Sigel now take over the Panthers.

Like most new owners buying a hockey franchise, both Viner and Sigel have expressed their passion for the game of hockey. In this case though, it might have some credibility as the 46 year old Sigel played US College hockey during his days as a student at the University of Pennsylvania.  A love for hockey is one thing, but annual losses are another thing altogether.

There is no doubt that the new ownership group in Florida has a huge challenge ahead of them. Once again, just as in Phoenix, the Panthers have not been winning as their current playoff drought is approaching 10 years. Unless the Leafs, Rangers, Penguins or some other big draw is playing in Florida, watching games at Panther home games comes across as an eyesore on television. All those empty seats in the crowd during Panther games paint a sad picture for a team that has achieved minimal success in the past decade.  

On the contrary, thanks in large part to a winning product, the roar has been restored in Chicago. Definitely a success story for the NHL, the resurgence of Chicago is a positive sign with the importance of the Blackhawks as an original six franchise.  According to ESPN, the Blackhawks ranked 29th in attendance in 2006 averaging a dismal 13,318 per game. Compare that to 2009 where the massive 20,000 plus United Center is regularly sold out and once again a place to be.

As Forbes notes, a big part of the resurgence has to do with home games finally being televised.  While tickets for a game at the United Center still remain relatively inexpensive, the fan base and the staff must be commended. By bringing back the likes of Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and even the recently retired Jeremy Roenick, the Hawks are doing a great job by embracing their past. Connecting a generation of hockey fans is often a good thing. That nine year old kid attending a Blackhawks game may have never watched a Bobby Hull play, but that kid leaves the United Center knowing that Hull wore the Blackhawks jersey and that Hull just got an ovation from over 20,000 people.

While the Blackhawks are ranked seventh on Forbes list, it is the Leafs who once again hold the top spot. According to Forbes, Toronto is valued at $470 million, well above the 416 million of the second place New York Rangers. For a team that seemed as if they had missed the playoffs the second the season started in 2008, Forbes indicates that the Leafs managed to generate more revenue than any other team in the league last year. Hate em or love em, Leaf fans must be commended on the loyalty they display towards their franchise.

Despite the disaster that is the economy right now, the Leafs should remain very strong as many projects are taking place with the ownership group of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. Apparently the Leaf brand is now being used to help sell condos as well with a new project called Maple Leaf Square set to be built and completed by 2010. The complex will be built adjacent to the Air Canada Centre and along with condos, will also include a hotel, retail outlets and much more.

There is no doubting that the NHL has some issues right now with many of their sunbelt markets suffering. However, the one aspect that has to be taken into account is the on ice struggles of many of those teams that find a little support at the gate. Winning can help grow a fan base and possibly maintain that fan base when the inevitability of losing eventually finds its way back. One has to think that the NHL is likely routing for teams like Florida and Atlanta to somehow make the playoffs this season.

When looking ahead to the 2010 Forbes edition of NHL rankings, it will be interesting to see if any team takes top spot away from the Leafs.  While that will probably not happen, one has to wonder how long the Leafs fan base can continue to support a team that struggles so mightily on the ice. Although highly unlikely, if all the talk of another team coming to the Greater Toronto Area in some way becomes a reality, maybe there will be some who rebel against current regime.

The Leafs will always be king in Toronto, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a second team give them a run for their money. Toronto vs. Toronto on a Saturday night sounds pretty special doesn’t it? Maybe one day it will actually become a reality.

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