Atlanta should host next NHL expansion team


Wikimedia Commons

The Atlanta Thrashers played in Atlanta for a 12 year period from 1999 to 2011, when they were relocated to Winnipeg.

Liam Geissler-Norseng

The National Hockey league is once again considering new cities to house expansion teams as it seeks to continue growing the game, and Atlanta should be one such city.

The frequent creation of expansion teams is a practice unique to just two American sports leagues: the NHL and Major League Soccer. Being a comparatively new league, the MLS has had to do this in order to create a respectably sized league, but the NHL is over 100 years old and expands for very different reasons. 

The success of hockey in new cities has been shaky to say the least. Unlike sports such as basketball, baseball and football, hockey is less accessible and less popular. As a result, teams struggle in cities that don’t have adequate markets for the entertainment product they are providing. A notable example of this is the failure of the California Golden Seals. The Seals were an expansion team founded in 1967 in Oakland, California. The team was founded alongside six other new teams nicknamed the ‘Second Six.’ The Seals’ time in Oakland was characterized by low attendance and below-average success. After failing to attract a sizable audience the team would relocate to Cleveland in just nine years, where they ceased operations two years later. The Seals story remains a cautionary tale for aspiring expansion teams and demonstrates how vital a city’s market is to any team’s success. So while the NHL does expand for traditional reasons, it also has to create teams in new cities as a response to failure in others.

Atlanta has had a hockey team before. Founded in 1999, the Atlanta Thrashers were Atlanta’s second attempt at hosting a hockey team, after the Atlanta Flames in 1971. The Thrashers were part of a four team league expansion including the Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. The Thrashers left Atlanta in 2011 to become the Winnipeg Jets, but this failure was not for lack of potential. In their first season the team averaged more than 17,000 fans per game, which places them at just around average for attendance in the current NHL. Despite a decline in attendance in later years, the franchise saw a resurgence in ticket sales after their success in the 2006-2007 season. However, the 2008 global recession took a toll on the team, and attendance declined dramatically as many fans could no longer afford tickets. Ticket sales weren’t able to recover after this drop, and low attendance eventually led to their relocation. Although the Thrashers may not have been a success story, their early years in Atlanta prove the city can support a hockey team.

Since the Thrashers, the market in Atlanta has only grown. From just over 5.3 million people in 2011, the Atlanta Metro Area has grown to almost 6.2 million people in 2022. In addition to its large size, the Atlanta market is proven to be a friendly environment for professional sports teams. Home to the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United, the city loves its sports.

Not only does Atlanta have a thriving sports culture, it also has pre-existing hockey infrastructure. State Farm Arena in Midtown is one example. Even though it doesn’t currently function as an ice arena, it can be converted into one. This is how numerous other stadiums around the country support NHL teams, including Ball Arena in Colorado, TD Garden in Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York

With a new expansion team in Atlanta, it would join the ranks of numerous other southern cities with successful hockey teams. Atlanta already has the existing groundwork, a vibrant sports culture and a sizable and fast-growing market. If Houston, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Dallas and many more can do it, why can’t Atlanta?