Sports this week - How large can leagues grow?

So Seattle will be the National Hockey League’s 32nd franchise.

The team was officially announced to absolutely no hockey fan’s surprise last week, and will be joining the league for the 2021-22 season.

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In general terms you can colour me indifferent to the addition.

I have my favourite NHL teams, all four that I follow relatively closely on this side of the 49th in the country where I reside thank you very much, so another team stateside is not anything that excites.

It would have been far more exciting had the team been in Canada, particularly in Quebec City where I would have been a fan simply because my son cheers for Montreal so I would have been obligated to cheer for the Canadiens automatic rivals.

However, Quebec City and Toronto, where a second team could most certainly be successful, is not going to happen as long as Gary Bettman is the NHL Commissioner.

That is not suggesting Seattle can’t be a great NHL city, and so far based on a far better formula in stocking an expansion roster than the Las Vegas Slot Machines… err Golden Knights, have been a surprise in terms of support.

It would, however, be satisfying to see Canadian expansion given a chance.

Team 33 will likely be Houston, a city that did all right in old World Hockey Association, but how true a hockey city it is remains a question mark one would think. The team, when it comes, will be via expansion. There has been a suggestion the beleaguered Arizona team might move, but that would cast a shadow of Bettman’s tenacious effort to maintain the team in the dessert, and would not give owners their share of the fat expansion fees cheque.

So the question underlying the Seattle announcement is how big can leagues in North America reasonably get?

There are currently 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and only a whisper in terms of possible expansion, likely to 32 teams should it happen. The possibility intrigues in the sense Montreal could be a frontrunner for a franchise, but it is not likely to happen any time soon.

The National Basketball Association also sits at 30 teams, and while it has been a suggestion an expansion fee might flirt with $1 billion, it doesn’t seem growth is on the immediate agenda. There are however a long list of cities that would be interested including San Diego, Vegas, Seattle, Nashville, St. Louis, Vancouver and potentially even Montreal. Of course a second team back in Canada would be great.

If the NBA were to grow again 32 would seem the logical target number.

Major League Soccer sits at 23 teams, but Cincinnati joins next year, and Miami and Nashville in 2020 to bring the league to 26 teams, and a set plan to grow to 28. Given the steady growth, growing support and list of cities still interested, I would expect MLS to revamp their target to 32 as soon as they announce team 28.

And even when National Lacrosse League Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz dreams big, he envisions a 32 team league.

So, 32 appears the Holy Grail, the magic number, the apex of growth for sports leagues in North America, at least until some league pushes higher.

There would be a certain weirdness if it was the NHL that pushed higher. It was only a few years ago that the best future for the league seemed to be attrition, with myself among many who would have eagerly chopped a half dozen teams to improve play.

But some rule tweaks to let players with skill shine, the salary cap, and an influx of youthful speed and scoring is up, enjoyment is up and growth no longer seems ridiculous.

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