ShareThis Page

Franchise, TV and arena values soar, attracting new blood to NHL ownership circles

| Wednesday, June 10, 2015, 9:54 p.m.

The financial landscape of the NHL is changing.

Never before have franchises been worth so much, and the profile of a typical owner has mirrored that change, said Mitchell Ziets, CEO of sports banking firm Tipping Point Sports in New York.

“There's a preponderance of people with financial backgrounds buying teams in the past decade, people tied to hedge funds or private equity firms,” Ziets said. “Historically, it has been entrepreneurs that have built and sold business, but that has changed.”

Should current Penguins co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux decide to a sell, the $490 million average value for an NHL franchise that Forbes estimated in November — already an all-time high — will incur another boost.

Forbes has valued the Penguins at $565 million, but Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman said he thinks Burkle and Lemieux could fetch 40 percent more.

“In the open market, the Penguins could probably (sell for) $800 million,” Vrooman said.

The principal owner in such a scenario likely would be someone such as Burkle, the cofounder and managing partner of a private equity and venture capital firm, and he'd be backed by a large group of investors, said John Clark, a professor of sport management at Robert Morris.

“If you go way back and look at who bought pro sports teams, it was (people) with the design to make a business out of it and have it be ancillary income,” Clark said. “Now you're seeing new ownership groups use the purchase as a strategy to grow wealth.”

Forbes' value on the Penguins ranks the team 10th in the 30-team league. Before the decline of the Canadian dollar, the NHL saw three franchises cross the $1 billion threshold for the first time: the Toronto Maple Leafs ($1.3 billion), New York Rangers ($1.1 billion) and Montreal Canadiens ($1 billion).

In its most recent franchise valuation, issued Nov. 25, 2014, Forbes said the value of the average hockey franchise rose 18.6 percent over the past year, another all-time high.

Vrooman and others point to TV rights for the boom. The NHL and Rogers Communications agreed on a 12-year deal worth $4.9 billion at the time and gave Rogers rights to all games in Canada beginning with the 2014-15 season.

The contract is worth 2.6 times the league's previous Canadian TV deals, according to Forbes.

The current marketplace essentially has boxed out potential owners who are not loaded with cash or do not enjoy the benefit of sturdy financial backing, Clark said.

“As the value of franchises has increased, it's a lot harder for an individual to buy in,” he said.

Pressed for an example of a stereotypical, modern-day owner, Clark cited Jeffrey Vinik, the Tampa Bay Lightning owner who made billions through his hedge fund. Vinik also owns the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League, is a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox and sits on the board of directors of the Liverpool Football Club.

Forbes reported Vinik's purchase price as $93 million in 2010. The Lightning's current valuation is $230 million.

“He has approached running that franchise much the same way that he did when he was running his hedge fund: very analytics based,” Clark said. “What's unique about him is he's really doing a great job being customer-focused while at the same time employing those analytics.”

Tampa Bay also has been a case study in tangible results to these businessmen.

The Lightning's success under Vinik has paid off to the tune of a local TV deal, agreed upon during the 2013-14 season, that runs through at least 2020. No terms were reported, but Clark said he believed it was “two to three times” more than the old one.

The Penguins' deal with Root Sports, which began in 2012 and runs through 2028-29, is for about $18 million, the 10th largest in the NHL, according to Forbes. That makes it more valuable than the Lightning's.

“Local TV contracts have gotten better for teams,” Ziets said. “Media companies view teams as significant content and content that is DVR proof.”

Stadium deals similarly are attractive to the new wave of owners, many of them developers. Vrooman said the Penguins having Consol Energy Center increases their value 25 to 30 percent.

Those quantifiable items, which seem to keep growing in lockstep, have created a different economic climate for the NHL, one that has attracted a new style of owner.

“The NHL is fast becoming a $4 billion revenue, ‘big-boy ownership' league because of the rising franchise values and the hard-learned due diligence and scrutiny of the of the Board of Governors,” Vrooman said. “The explosion in TV rights fees and the cash-cow arena revolution are the hard-to-get tickets. Only big boys can now play this syndicated ownership game.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me