The Nashville Predators were on the verge of relocating 15 years ago when a group of local businessmen stepped in to buy the team for $175 million and keep it in Music City. The club is now on the verge of another transaction, to former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, that values the franchise at roughly $775 million, mirroring a surge in franchise values across the NHL over the past decade.
The average NHL franchise is worth $1.01 billion—crossing the 10-figure mark for the first time—and up 9% from a year ago. The total value of the league’s 32 clubs, including ownerships’ stakes in real estate, venues, TV networks and team-related holdings, is $32.4 billion. The Toronto Maple Leafs rank first at $2.12 billion, $110 million ahead of the New York Rangers.
Like the NFL and NBA, which soak up many of the sports business headlines, the NHL has similar levers that make the clubs valuable. David Blitzer, global head of tactical opportunities at Blackstone, has acquired ownership stakes across the five major U.S. sports leagues, including the New Jersey Devils. He laid out his two most powerful drivers for the investment in sports teams at Sportico’s Invest in Sports event last month.
“These leagues and teams are amazing content creators,” Blitzer said. “And you have a supply situation where there are very few new franchises being created, and the demand for them is growing quite dramatically, and you can see it show up with how many people show up at different situations to try and get involved in the process.”
Blitzer hit on a fundamental issue that is driving rising franchise valuations across all sports leagues. More billionaires are being produced every single year, and the supply of teams is relatively flat. Another plus for these trophy assets: Most of them turn profits now, after years of just scraping by or losing money.
The Predators are in the process of adding Haslam as a minority owner. He is the brother of Jimmy Haslam, who owns the Cleveland Browns and Columbus Crew. Bill Haslam will take control of the franchise by 2025 through a series of four payments, with the final one putting an enterprise value of more than $900 million on the club. Factoring in a discount for the time value of money puts the current value of the deal at $775 million, according to people familiar with the transaction who were granted anonymity because the details are private. The Preds rank No. 23 in Sportico’s NHL valuations.
Haslam pointed to three reasons for his interest in the Predators in an email to Sportico. “I am very bullish on Nashville as a sports and entertainment center,” Haslam said. “There are a lot of factors that make Nashville a very desirable town, and I don’t see any of those changing any time soon. Secondly, I am a believer in pro sports in general, and hockey in particular, as good long-term investments. Finally, like a lot of other people, I love sports, and I look forward to enjoying Predators hockey for a long time.”
The $775 million valuation represents 4.7 times the team’s $165 million revenue for the 2021-22 season. It is roughly the same multiple of revenue that Fenway Sports Group paid in December for the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose value ranks No. 16. That $900 million transaction is the most expensive NHL team purchase.
Many investors see the NHL as good value in a world where MLS clubs sell for more than 10 times their revenue. One of them called the league a “hidden gem” in North American sports, although it’s far less hidden to consumers after re-signing ESPN as its national broadcast partner last season. FSG has been after an NBA team for a few years but hasn't been able to land one and instead added the Pens to its deep sports portfolio.
NHL teams are valued at an average of just over five times revenue, compared to the NFL (7.6) NBA (8.4) and MLB (7.4). Hockey teams possess a relatively young, affluent fan base and the same avenues to grow their businesses, whether it is through sponsorships, content, gambling, blockchain or real estate developments, but at a dramatically lower entry price. The average NFL team is worth $4.1 billion, while the NBA came in at $2.6 billion last year and should push $3 billion in Sportico’s next franchise valuations.
Arctos Sports Partners has made private equity investments in at least four NHL franchises: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins (through its FSG stake) and the Devils (via an investment in the team’s parent, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment).
The Ottawa Senators are widely expected to be the next team to sell. In March, longtime owner Eugene Melnyk died and left the team to his two children—Anna and Olivia—who are both younger than 25. The team has already interviewed sell-side bankers, according to multiple people, and there is significant interest in the franchise.
Sportico values the Senators at $655 million, up a league-high 21%. In June, the team signed a memorandum of understanding for a much-needed new downtown arena at the LeBreton Flats site. There are still many steps between the MOU and an arena opening, but securing that agreement in connection with the sale would likely drive the price even higher. It has been more than a decade since an NHL team was sold in Canada (Winnipeg in 2011).
NHL teams generated $6.1 billion in revenue during the 2021-22 season, including non-NHL events, like concerts, in cases where the team owner also operates or owns the venue. It was nearly three times the prior-year revenue, when COVID-19 restrictions wrecked team finances for a league that is heavily gate-dependent, lacking the big TV contracts that prop up football and basketball.
Yet, one bad year did not dent the appetite for these teams. “These are generational assets where you have a 20-year or 25-year time horizon,” Drew Dorweiler, a valuations expert at boutique Montreal investment bank IJW, said in a phone interview. “And they are low-risk assets with content that is only going to be more valuable and more coveted.”
A handful of teams, mainly in Canada, opened the 2021-22 season with fan capacity restrictions, but it was a huge bounce back year for NHL finances overall. The $1 billion escrow debt the players owed the league based on the previous revenue shortfall and CBA provision to split revenue 50-50 is expected to be paid back by the end of this season. That’s well in advance of original projections, thanks to the revenue rebound. Hockey-related revenue, which determines the salary cap, was $5.4 billion last season, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman; non-NHL events and portions of luxury suite and sponsorship revenue are not included in HRR.
The Maple Leafs are the most valuable team for the second straight year. Toronto is the best hockey market in the world, and the Maple Leafs are the only game in town, versus three NHL franchises in the New York market. The club is a financial juggernaut, including Scotiabank Arena, which is also owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The Leafs booked an estimated $284 million in revenue, net of revenue sharing, during the Covid-impacted 2021-22 season. It was second just behind the Rangers, who netted more than $30 million in revenue by making the Eastern Conference finals; the Leafs were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rangers joined the Leafs as the NHL’s only $2 billion franchises after its value rose 7% to $2.01 billion. MSG Sports, which owns the team, boosted ticket prices for the 2022-23 season and says the playoff run helped boost ticket, suite and sponsorship demand. It will also be the team’s first full year with sports gaming partnerships, following the legalization of betting in New York State and deals reached with BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook and DraftKings.
“These partnerships demonstrate the unparalleled exposure we offer to companies trying to reach consumers in the New York market,” Andrew Lustgarten, MSG Sports CEO, said during an August earnings call.
The Montreal Canadiens ($1.7 billion), Chicago Blackhawks ($1.44 billion) and Boston Bruins ($1.41 billion) round out the top five teams. The top 12 clubs by value all have real estate or NHL-related businesses, with an average value of more than $200 million by our calculations, as teams increasingly look beyond just the NHL franchise to expand their reach (click here for a detailed methodology).
Witness the Vegas Golden Knights ($975 million, No. 12), who have been a recent expansion success story, and who's revenue should hit $200 million this season before any playoff bump. It owns a 15% stake in its venue, T-Mobile Arena, but has also built a business outside the NHL club. Its AHL franchise, Henderson Silver Knights, generates more revenue than any other AHL team. The Knights operate the arena, Dollar Loan Center, which also hosts Indoor Football League, G League and Big West Conference basketball championships. It also hosts youth hockey tournaments in Henderson, as well as at its training facility, City National Arena in Vegas.
Clubs at the bottom of the NHL’s financial table are all up double digits on a percentage basis, including the Carolina Hurricanes ($615 million), Columbus Blue Jackets ($600 million) and Florida Panthers ($595 million). These teams continue to lose money most years but are subsidized by the NHL’s revenue-sharing system, which transfers 6% of HRR each year to low-revenue teams. Bankers see the minimum entry price for an NHL franchise at around $600 million with one exception.
The NHL’s biggest unicorn—and not in a good way—is the Arizona Coyotes ($465 million), valued at more than 20% less than the Panthers. But even their value is up 13% as they opened the 2022-23 season in a college arena on the Arizona State campus that seats 5,000 people. The move gets them closer either to a new building in Arizona or a relocation. Both would trigger a surge in value, and the $465 million serves as kind of put option on one of those two scenarios.
The Leafs, Coyotes and every NHL club in between have a new revenue opportunity with the introduction of jersey advertisements this year, and more prospects will develop, like the new digitally enhanced dasherboards, as the technology cycle moves forward.
“The NHL has a very passionate following in North America,” Rob Tilliss, founder of Inner Circle Sports, said in a phone interview. “It is deep, and having a really hardcore fan base is a big positive as we continue to move into digital streaming and a more targeted advertising world.”