Houston doesn’t have an NHL team yet. Why?

The recent week of cold weather in the Deep South became a frigid reminder that the city of Houston, Texas still does not have a National Hockey League team.

This issue surfaces nearly every year, but nothing seems to change.  Let’s take a refresher course and dive into this subject.

If Dallas has a successful NHL team, why not Houston?

The fourth largest city in America has never had a National Hockey League franchise.  Meanwhile, the Dallas (9th largest city) and Fort Worth (13th largest city) metroplex has a very successful long-term relationship with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.

The former Minnesota North Stars moved to Big D thirty years ago in 1993.  The renamed Dallas Stars would win the Stanley Cup in 1999.  The team has been a competitive factor in the league in most seasons.

Fan support in Dallas has not been a problem.  In the 2022-2023 season, the Dallas Stars showed an average home attendance of 18,371 per game.   That’s nearly 100% of the arena’s capacity and good enough for 10th place in the 32-team National Hockey League.

According to one source, the NHL’s Dallas Stars were valued at around $1 billion as of a year ago.  That’s less than half of the two most valuable franchises – the Toronto Maple Leafs (2.8 billion) and New York Rangers ($2.6 billion).

On the other hand, the same source valued the woeful Arizona Coyotes (Phoenix) franchise at less than $500 million.  That team has been the subject of relocation rumors (including to Houston) for several years.   Other NHL franchises could be relocated to Houston, but only if the price is right.

Where would an NHL team play their games in Houston?

The now 20-year old Toyota Center in downtown Houston is home to the Houston Rockets NBA franchise.  The 18,000 seat facility is owned by Harris County, but the arena is currently operated by a company affiliated with the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Most NHL franchises are playing their home games in the same facility as the local NBA team.  The New York Rangers skate on the ice in Madison Square Garden one night, while the NBA’s New York Knicks put down the basketball court on top of that surface the next night to play basketball games.

It’s the same way in Boston for the NBA’s Celtics and NHL’s Bruins.  And, yes, it is the same in Dallas for the NBA’s Mavericks and NHL Dallas Stars at American Airlines Arena.

The NBA’s Houston Rockets were purchased by local businessman Tillman Fertitta in 2017 for a reported $2.2 Billion.

Within a year of buying the professional basketball team, the Rockets’ owner expressed some interest in acquiring an NHL team for the city of Houston, too.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 came along, and most major league sports franchises struggled to break even.

In June, 2022, a Houston television station asked Rockets’ owner Tillman Fertitta what he thought about adding an NHL franchise to his local sports portfolio.  A very smart businessman, Fertitta understands the local excitement about the potential for NHL hockey in Houston.  He has been cautious about whether all of the people claiming to be potential ticket buyers for professional hockey in Houston are willing to ante-up to pay for costly season tickets.

“Does that excitement turn into people buying season tickets, though” said Fertitta.  “I would love to see if we could sell 14 or 15 thousand season tickets, and it would sure make it a lot easier.   Hockey doesn’t bring in the television revenue that the NBA and the NFL do.  It’s not an easy task.”

He is right about that, too.

The NHL’s current television arrangements (ESPN/ESPN+ and Turner’s TNT) bring in about half as much revenue as the NBA’s current TV deals return to the team owners.

Ticket sales for pro hockey represent about 36% of the total revenue stream for the average NHL team.  Surprisingly (at least to me), only 18% of the revenue generated by NBA teams originates from ticket sales for home basketball games.

Television, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, advertising, and merchandising represent the primary revenue sources for most professional sports teams.

Tillman Fertitta has $2.2 billion reasons to slow-walk NHL hockey into Houston

The National Hockey League plays a total of 82 regular season games.  That’s the same number of games which Tillman Fertitta’s NBA Houston Rockets play every year.  The two sports leagues (though not related) overlap each other from October through June every season.

From the owner’s perspective, Fertitta’s Houston Rockets are the only game in town bridging the seasons for the NFL Houston Texans and Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros.  His basketball team commands the lion’s share of local sports media’s attention for at least three months during the winter months.

From a corporate advertising standpoint, the Houston companies willing to buy those expensive suites and tickets for customers close to the action for an NBA game would also be a potential sales market for a Houston NHL franchise, too.

Though Houston is America’s fourth largest city, the corporate advertising pie in the Houston market may not be willing to immediately support a new professional hockey team as well as it has for the local NBA team.  Conversely, the “newness” and curiosity associated with a Houston NHL franchise might serve to diminish revenues (at least in the short term) formerly captured by the Houston Rockets of the NBA.

The Rockets owner is justifiably concerned that the new NHL team might take money from one of his pockets and simply put it into another.  If a new fan base for Houston’s hockey franchise is slow to develop, it risks damaging Tillman Fertitta’s $2.2 billion investment in the Rockets.  The longer the NHL remains out of Houston, the more time the NBA’s Rockets have to remain “King of the Hill” during the winter months in H-town.

Why hasn’t someone else stepped-up to buy or assemble other investors to bring a National Hockey League franchise to Houston?

First, you must have an arena to play in.  Houston’s Toyota Center seats more than 18,000 fans and is capable of handling a pro hockey team, too.  Harris County, Texas owns the facility but, as stated earlier in this post, it is operated by the Houston Rockets.  Tillman Fertitta would need to negotiate a deal with the owner of an NHL franchise to share operational costs and resolve any number of scheduling conflicts between the two sports teams as they arise.

What about The Summit?  Could a deal be worked to use it for hockey once again?

The former arena used by the Houston Rockets for more than a quarter century was called “The Summit”.  Opened in the 1970’s and located just a few miles south of downtown Houston, the facility had more than 17,000 seats.  The NBA’s Rockets played in that arena through 2003.  The Summit also hosted minor league hockey played by the Houston Aeros franchise.  Major concerts and other events were held at this busy facility for three decades.

The Rockets were able to partner with Harris County and move downtown to the newly constructed Toyota Center in 2003.  Meanwhile, the City of Houston negotiated a lease with Pastor Joel Osteen for his exclusive use of The Summit facility as a church site.  In 2010, Osteen completed the purchase of The Summit from the City of Houston for a bargain price of just $7.5 million.

Could The Summit be used for pro hockey again soon?  Unless one of the NHL team owners was Joel Osteen himself, it’s hard to imagine the church allowing a major revamping to accommodate hockey once again.

What are the chances of constructing a new building for pro hockey?

Nearly zero.

Constructing a new building to be used exclusively for hockey would likely cost more than buying an existing NHL franchise and moving it to Houston.  An investment of $700 million to $1 billion might be needed to build a structure capable of holding up to 20,000 hockey fans.  The citizens of Houston are unlikely to vote to fund all or a major portion of a new facility just for a hockey team.

What about the Astrodome?

Ah, yes!  That 1966 structure formerly known as the “8th Wonder of the World” continues to sit empty after the Houston Astros baseball team moved downtown in the year 2000.  The facility sits lonely and empty today.  It occupies the same geographic area as the Houston Texans football stadium (NRG Stadium) and the popular annual Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show.

Many people have tried to come up with ideas for use of the Astrodome over the past two decades.  Preservationists have fought to stop talks of demolition of the Astrodome, too.   The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The most recent significant use of the Astrodome was to shelter evacuees from the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Years later, the local fire department deemed the building to be non-compliant with current fire codes.

Creative ideas have abounded for potential uses for the Astrodome.  A convention center idea almost happened (but failed).  Likewise, ideas for a hotel complex and even making the Astrodome into a gigantic parking garage have been floated.  Each new idea raised has come crashing down.  The economics are simply not able to justify the high costs of the proposed renovation with strictly private funding.

So, the historic Astrodome sits empty.  It has been deemed too expensive to renovate for another use and yet considered too important for the locals to allow its demolition.

Could the Astrodome be renovated and modified to house a National Hockey League team in Houston? 

That is a very intriguing idea.

The city of Houston and Harris County officials should be willing to enter discussions with any legitimate business partner(s) willing to invest millions of dollars to renovate the historic structure to accommodate a pro hockey team.  The location is exceptional.  It has ample freeway access along Interstate 610 with sizable outdoor parking on site.  The city’s light rail stops nearby, too.

The big unknowns would be to identify and quantify any engineering aspects (is the building safe?) and calculate the enormous price tag needed for a stadium renovation.  The reconfigured facility could primarily house the NHL team plus be suitable for major concerts and other civic endeavors.

Let’s say that the owner of the new hockey team was willing to bankroll at least 50% of the cost needed to renovate the Astrodome.  Would Houston voters be willing to ante-up the other portion of the money to renovate the beloved Astrodome for a National Hockey League team?

The idea of bringing the Astrodome back to life as part of bringing an NHL team to the city of Houston would excite the public.  It also might be the best way to incorporate public financing of a new sports facility for Houston.

In the meantime, the city of Houston still waits.