A friend of mine went on a trip with a group of guys last fall to Nashville, where they soaked in all the spectacle of a sold-out Monday Night Football game between the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts.
The day before that big show, with some time to kill, they decided to attend a Nashville Predators game. It was not hard to find a scalper with tickets to unload, and they soon bartered the poor fellow down to $50 for four lower-bowl seats — or about the cost of a single seat near the rafters at any of the NHL’s Canadian arenas.
After they paid the man and he handed over their tickets, one of the guys looked at them and realized something was wrong.
“These seats aren’t even next to each other,” he protested.
The scalper scoffed. “The place is half empty,” he said. “Just go in and sit wherever you want.”
And they did. The arena only posted ushers in every other section — presumably to cut costs— so it was quite easy to wander down to a spot only a few rows up from the ice and find four seats together.
This is the legacy that Gary Bettman seems determined to protect.
There are many legitimate reasons for the NHL commissioner to be opposed to Jim Balsillie’s bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton or thereabouts. The move would surely go against the wishes of at least a couple of teams, Buffalo and Toronto. Mr. Bettman might risk the anger of the tiny-market Sabres but he’s clearly beholden to the crown-jewel Maple Leafs.
And even if a number of other owners would be happy to have a tech billionaire rescue the money-bleeding Coyotes— which the league has been bailing out for months — and turn the franchise into a money-maker, there’s little doubt that Mr. Balsillie’s gambit to buy the team out of forced bankruptcy violates all the league procedures related to granting someone ownership of a team. If they one guy force his way in, even a guy who has all the right credentials, who’s to say the next rogue buyer isn’t going to be a mobster with some money to burn? Or a sheikh who wants to relocate the Florida Panthers to Dubai? The point is, the league wants to protect the sanctity of its vetting process.
All that said, Mr. Bettman can protest the mechanics of this specific bid all he wants, and he can say it is not about Canada versus the United States, but at some point he has to confront the legacy of the Southern Experiment. The Coyotes are a disaster, after more than a decade trying to become relevant in the Arizona desert. The Tampa Bay Lightning recently won the Stanley Cup, but revenues didn’t last and the team was sold at a discounted price. The Florida Panthers are notorious for offering comical promotions in order to sell tickets — things like giving away a pair if you buy $100 worth of groceries at the Piggly Wiggly.
And in Nashville, where the league obstructed Mr. Balsillie’s last bid to buy a team and bring it north, you can buy some ducats at a cut-rate price and sit wherever you damn well please.
The southern expansion has not worked. Eventually, Mr. Bettman is going to have to admit it.