Jim Balsillie's bid to move the Phoenix Coyotes to southern Ontario makes sense for all involved, according to former CFL commissioner Tom Wright.
Wright filed the official application to the National Hockey League late Monday to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton on behalf of Jim Balsillie-led PSE Sports and Entertainment.
After studying information supplied by the Coyotes under owner Jerry Moyes, as well as looking at market research data with respect to Hamilton, Wright said in a conference call on Tuesday afternoon there is only one conclusion.
"I … believe that replacing a chronically underperforming club that is projected to remain a net negative financial contributor to the league and a recipient of league revenue sharing with a vibrant, fan-supported financially vital member club … is in the best interest of everyone involved," he said.
Wright was approached by the Balsillie group to file the application on their behalf, given his expertise in professional sports management. It's unclear whether he would have a future role with PSE Sports and Entertainment if they are successful.
Wright would not entertain the possibility of a decision in favour of Balsillie's application setting a precedent for easier relocations in pro sports leagues, telling CBCSports.ca the only consideration was objectively answering the application process set out in the NHL constitution.
"It really is a question of taking a look at the what ends up being 24 considerations that have to be looked at, and I looked at those considerations through my lens and provided answers accordingly," he said.
Bettman sees precedent
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had no such qualms discussing a possible precedent when interviewed Tuesday night by Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean.
"People tend to forget what it was like seven or eight years ago when the rumours were that Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa were all going to be out of Canada and we'd have Toronto and Montreal left," Bettman said.
"If teams could just — by using the device of the bankruptcy court — pick up and move, then you would never have franchise stability and you'd find franchises in all sports running out on their fans whenever anything went wrong."
The matter is before an Arizona bankruptcy court. The NHL is challenging the ability of Moyes to put the team in bankruptcy and sell to Balsillie.
The league has argued that Moyes gave up control of the team through a proxy signed last November and that relocation can only be approved by the NHL through a vote of its board of governors.
Team was a tough sell
The judge has set a June 9 date for a hearing on the relocation issue.
The league said that it was close to finding an ownership group for the Coyotes when Moyes pulled what it deemed an end-around with the May 5 bankruptcy filing.
Wright, however, claimed Moyes had been trying to sell the club for at least a year and that he retained a private banking group to facilitate a sale.
"Despite those efforts, they to date have been unsuccessful inasmuch as no one has stepped forward and expressed an interest or presented an offer to Mr. Moyes of any magnitude that would pay most of the creditors and keep the club in the Phoenix/Glendale area," he said.
Moyes has deemed himself a reluctant owner who has ultimately lost over $300 million US with the Coyotes.
"Some of that includes his acquisition costs — not all of that is losses," Bettman told HNIC. "There's a bit too [much] hysteria about all the underlying facts here."
Despite the proxy, Bettman said, the Coyotes were never in jeopardy and "any suggestion that it was is silly."
Wright served as commissioner of the Canadian Football League between 2002 and 2006 and had to deal with struggling franchises in Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto.
"I am a play-by-the-rules guy", said Wright, who added that he respected the role of the commissioner and the NHL's constitution.
Wright cited the team's poor television ratings for the Coyotes, lack of sports mindshare in the Phoenix area and a season ticket base that has dwindled to around 5,500 from a previous high in the 1990s of about 9,000.
"Given the fact that the numbers aren't strong and the numbers so low, from a revenue point of view, there just isn't the financial base of support to be looking at this to be viable in the coming years," said Wright.
Could play in 2009-10
An NHL bylaw states that any relocation application must be made by Jan. 1 for consideration to move the following season.
Spokesman Bill Walker reiterated that the Balsillie team believed the team could play in Hamilton in the 2009-10 campaign but referred to an earlier court motion that opened up the possibility of one more season in Arizona to help ease the transition.
While Walker acknowledged the spectre of territorial rights nearby teams in Buffalo and Toronto may hold according to the NHL's constitution, he said that adding Hamilton to a mix of those two teams as well as Ottawa and Montreal made business sense.
"What you have the opportunity for there is just an extraordinary regional rivalry, " said Walker. "We think actually having this in place can benefit all of the franchises in building up some exciting regional rivalries and engaging fans."
The NHL has acknowledged receiving the application filed by Wright on behalf of the Balsillie camp but has yet to comment.
On another front, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said in a notice that antitrust authorities conducted a review of Balsillie's deal to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and concluded there was no need for action to block the proposed sale.