Back in the last lockout, one of the ideas floated around was a revival of the WHA. This would serve as a means for the players to make money and create a pressure point for the NHL owners. Bobby Hull lent his name to the project and over 200 players indicated that they would sign and play in such a league if it got off the ground.
The key reason is that 2004 wasn’t 1972. The same basic issues that hobbled the original WHA were still present and the factors that offered the original WHA even a fighting chance to succeed no longer existed. WHA2 was dead before it even began.
The biggest issue was money – as in: would anybody spend any? The 200-odd players weren’t putting their own coin behind it and nobody else wanted to bankroll a venture that the players weren’t truly committed to. It was obvious that the existence of the league was solely to pressure NHL owners into making concessions. The new WHA would die the second the new NHL season began.
Beyond that, it appeared that this would just end up as a friendly tournament bouncing around neutral sites like Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum, and where’s the quality of hockey in that? Even as a NHLPA supporter, I wouldn’t spend a cent to watch a mix-and-match team of NHL players play house-league hockey. The teams had to be real and there had to be a reason to play other than keeping in shape. This wasn’t going to happen – and of course, it didn’t.
Imagine for the moment, though, that all of this wasn’t still an issue and that this time, the players really wanted a new league to call home. Where would you put the teams? In 1972, the NHL added two new expansion franchises (in part to claim markets away from the WHA), bringing them to a total of 16 teams. There were huge holes in the NHL footprint that a new league could plug. This is how the WHA wound up with teams in Phoenix, Hartford, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Houston and Miami.
Today, the NHL has 30 teams. There are very few significant markets remaining. You’re stuck either with markets so bad that even the NHL has stayed away, or you’re looking at markets too small to generate major-league revenues.
The other option is to go head-to-head with the NHL in existing markets. We can look at the WHA teams in Philly, Toronto, Vancouver and Chicago to see how well that worked. First, you need ice. Guess who controls all the good buildings? The Toronto Toros, for example, rented ice from Harold Ballard and the Leafs. Think they got any good dates? Harold didn’t even include lighting in the cost of the rent. That was extra.
The options, then, are smaller markets or big markets in which the new teams are basically tenants until new buildings can be built. Neither is really great. This leads to the killer issue, which is exactly the same as it was in 2004 (and has stopped the NHL right now):
In 1972, the WHA gained a decent share of talent by paying multiple times the going rate for players. They could do this because NHL players were significantly underpaid compared to their revenue-generating potential. This is no longer true.
Given smaller markets or weak positions in bigger markets, no TV deals in place and no sense of what kind of price point tickets could sell for, what new team can pay an average of $2.5M per season? What kind of player would you get for the money that might be available? There was a reason that last time out, if WHA2 had survived, it would have ended up positioning itself as an upper-echelon minor league. It would basically be a new IHL, and the original IHL folded.
This is also why no new football leagues, basketball leagues or baseball leagues appear. There’s no place to play, no real money and the only way to survive is as a minor novelty league.
There’s no threat there.
It’s a neat idea, but unless you’ve got a few billion extra dollars in your pocket, it’s going nowhere fast.
The truth is that the league with owners ready to spend, markets not controlled by the NHL, a potentially viable fanbase and a shred of stability already exists. It’s called the KHL. That’s the new WHA.
Got satellite TV?