Analysis of the NHL’s Money-Losing Teams (Part Four).

Part Four of an overview of the NHL’s money-losing franchises, in hopes of better understanding the factors behind eighteen NHL teams losing money in 2010-11.

In Part Three, I examined the NHL teams which lost money in every season but one from 2005-06 to 2010-11. In Part Four, a look at the clubs which lost money three to four seasons out of six during this period.

The Frequent Money-losers.

The San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals, Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning were on the money-losing side of the ledger at least three out of six seasons from 2005-06 to 2010-11.

At first glance, it’s surprising the Sharks and Capitals have lost money as frequently as they have.

The Sharks made the list of money-losing franchises over this period four of six seasons. According to CapGeek.com, in ’08-’09, ’09-’10 and ’10-’11, the Sharks were in the top ten in payroll.  They’ve also had little trouble filling the HP Pavilion Arena over this period, including when the seating increased from 17, 496 to 17,562 in 2009.

In 2010-11, their fan cost index was in the bottom third of the league (20th) at $288.33, well below the league average. Indeed, the Sharks have consistently remain below the least average for FCI since 2006-07.

As Forbes.com observed in November 2010 in its analysis of the Sharks:

“Blame a high payroll and a lease that funnels some of the arena revenues to the city. On the years that it is in the red its owners have funded the P&L statement with capital calls rather than debt. The Sharks contribute about 55% of the revenue to its parent company, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, a $155 million a year business that is involved in everything from ice rinks and tennis tournaments to mixed martial arts and apparel.”

The Capitals have reported losses each season since ’07-’08, despite a steady increase since ’06-’07 in their FCI from 22nd overall to 12th overall in ’10-’11, significant improvement of their on-ice product since ’07-’08, and rising from the third-worst in attendance in ’05-06 to selling out their arena every season since ’09-’10.

Their payroll, meanwhile, has also steadily grown over that time, from the lowest in the league in ’05-’06 to the sixth highest for ’10-’11.

So why is a team doing so well still posting losses? Given that the Capitals belong to Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the NBA’s Wizards and the Verizon Center, that suggests, like the Sharks,  part of the Capitals revenue may be redistributed through their ownership company.

The Minnesota Wild play in “The State of Hockey”, one of the best hockey markets in the United States, yet lost money in three of the six years of this period.

The Wild were among the money-losing franchises in ’10-’11 but kept pace with a rising salary cap ($58.506 million – 12th overall), filled their arena (99.7 percent) and charged the eighth-highest fan cost index ($346.01).

Their attendance was down slightly from the season prior, while their payroll increased by nearly $3 million, which could account for the increase in their losses from the previous season.

As for the previous seasons among the money-losers (’06-’07, ’09-’10), however, the Wild were still among the top clubs in attendance and FCI (6th both seasons).

One reason for the decline in the final two years of this period was the slip in attendance and missed post-season revenue. The recession may also be a factor.

The Ducks, despite reaching the Western Conference Final in ’05-’06, were 24th overall in attendance that season, a hangover of a disappointing ’03-’04 campaign and a season-killing lockout.

As their on-ice performance improved, so did attendance, climbing to 15th overall as they sold out the 17, 174-seat Honda Center in 2007-08, the season following their Stanley Cup championship.

That, however, was their peak, as their attendance steadily declined along with their on-ice fortunes. By ’10-’11, they were 26th in attendance, playing to around 85 percent capacity, coinciding with their return to the list of money-losing franchises.

The Ducks have also regularly been among the bottom third in the league in fan cost index, and according to CapGeek.com, were in the bottom half of the league in payroll over the final three seasons of this period.

Another reason for their losses is the lack of an NBA team at the Honda Center, leading Forbes.com to note in November 2010 ownership needed the Ducks to make the second round of the playoffs to make a profit.

The Devils appearance on the list in 2010-11 was due to a combination of carrying a hefty payroll ( led the league in that category) whilst missing the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years, dropping them to 25th overall in attendance.

In the two seasons following the lockout,  they were a playoff team and among the league leaders in FCI. Unfortunately, they also led the league in payroll both seasons while playing to roughly 75% capacity for their home games over that time.

Over the next three seasons, the Devils payroll declined, dropping t0 16th overall by ’09-’10. While they reduced their FCI, they still remained over that period among the top ten in that category, while attendance rose to 20th overall, at nearly 89 percent capacity by ’09-’10. Their fan cost index, the third-highest in 2005-06 ($327.77), fell to 16th ($302.83) by 2010-11.

But as Forbes.com noted in November 2011, the combination of being “attendance-challenged” and heavily-leveraged left the Devils (and their arena) nearly $260 million in debt.

As for the Lightning, from 2005-06 to 2007-08, they were among the league’s money-making franchises, buoyed in part by their Stanley Cup championship in 2003-04.

Between 2008-09 and 2010-11, however,  the Lightning were hampered by the effect of the bungling of new owners “OK Hockey”, resulting in a poor product on the ice which in turn drove away fans. From a high of second overall in attendance in 2005-06, by 2009-10 the Bolts had plummeted to 21st.

That forced the club to slash its fan cost index, dropping from 15th in ’07-’08, to 30th by ’09-’10. Payroll declined as well, from 13th in ’06-’07, to fourth-lowest in the league by ’09-’10.

Even though “OK Hockey” left the scene by ’10-’11 and the Bolts made the playoffs that season, it still had a hangover effect. The team was $100 million in debt at the time of its sale to new owner Jeff Vinik, and had to charged the second-lowest FCI in the league that season in hopes of enticing back disillusioned fans. It did boost their attendance, from an average of 15, 497 to 17, 268 in ’10-’11, good for 18th overall.

Despite missing the playoffs again in ’11-’12, the Lightning’s attendance rose again to 13th overall (96.2 capacity) but their FCI remained the third-lowest. Payroll also jumped to 15th overall that season, so it remains to be seen which side of the ledger they appear on for 2011-12.

Tomorrow: Part Five (“The Infrequents”).

1 Comment

  1. Well, it should be noted that Ted Leonsis didn’t gain full control of the Wizards and the Verizon Center until a couple of years ago. Before that, the Caps were not in the best of lease agreements with their former owner.