Penguins would find welcome nest in Kansas City

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:24 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

WARNING: This is a column about hockey; a sport that may have fewer viewers than the WNBA, professional bowling and, yes, arena football. You’ve been warned.

America’s most underrated niche sport may be coming to a city near you.

That’s right, Kansas City may soon be the permanent home of one of the NHL’s most exciting, resurgent franchises.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are considering making the move to the Midwest. Why should you care? Because the Penguins are exciting enough to bring in the fans who don’t know Gordie Howe from Howie Mandel. Even the most heinous of hockey haters will enjoy the team that may grace Kansas City. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, a transcendent player who is hockey’s next Michael Jordan. A big star is exactly what yields success in a new franchise.

The Steel City is becoming a rusty home for a fresh-faced franchise. A decrepit arena and a cumbersome multimillion-dollar deal clog any route to keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

But a short (850-mile) Zamboni ride from Pittsburgh is a city that seems like a perfect fit for an NHL franchise: Kansas City, a sports town with open arms and a new, rent-free arena desperately lacking a professional team.

But would a hockey team survive in a place that virtually drove a team away 30 years ago? The Kansas City Scouts lasted just two years after owners ran into debt problems and residents of Kansas City fell on hard times.

But Kansas City is back, and its median household income is higher than Pittsburgh’s. In fact, of the 30 current NHL teams, less than half (13) of the teams have a higher median household income than Kansas City.

Whatever the income is, Kansas City and its fans will pack arenas and stadiums to see a winner.

Look at the other two major sports teams in the city.

The Kansas City Royals had the third-worst attendance in the Major Leagues last season, filling just 42 percent of capacity throughout the season. But the Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, which easily scares fans away.

On the other hand, look at the Chiefs, who have the NFL’s third-highest attendance, filling both seats and the win column.

The Penguins are winners. Though they would barely make the playoffs if the season ended today, the Penguins are a team as structurally sound as the Sprint Center itself — and are built to last.

Sure, the newness factor would sell thousands of season ticket packages for the first season, but will those fans still be sprinting to the Sprint Center five or 10 years after they are graced with a team?

In reality, it is almost impossible to predict long-term success in franchise relocations. Who would have thought ice hockey would work in swelteringly sticky Texas?

When the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars in 1993, they were leaving a state that borders hockey’s home country for a strictly football state.

In spite of that, the fans came out, the Stars won a Stanley Cup and youth hockey blossomed in the area.

But when the new-team smell wears down in Kansas City and the $276-million Sprint Center loses its luster, can the city sustain a hockey team?

The answer is yes, because Kansas City won’t inherit a dying group of has-beens like expansion teams often do. Not even close. In fact, the Penguins’ most promising young stars, such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, are too young even to purchase a bottle of Boulevard.

That means the fresh faces will become franchise players and will be there to sell lots of tickets and jerseys for a long time.

These players, especially Crosby, are ones you just have to see play live. When Michael Jordan went on his final farewell tour with the Washington Wizards, fans packed arenas across the United States. They didn’t want to see the Wizards. (Nobody does). They wanted to see one of the greatest to play the game in the flesh.

Crosby, the NHL’s leading scorer at 19 and a human joystick on the ice, is already approaching that caliber.

It’s clear the Penguins would find a welcome home in the Midwest, so what’s stopping owner Mario Lemieux and company from pulling the trigger?

If you haven’t been following the story, the franchise would prefer to stay in Pittsburgh, but it is demanding that a new arena be built to replace the nearly 46-year-old Mellon Arena. A new arena that the Penguins must help pay for.

If it wasn’t so darn loyal to Pittsburgh, the franchise would have eagerly accepted Kansas City’s too-good-to-be-true deal. Under the offer, the Penguins would live rent-free in the Sprint Center, owe nothing

for its construction and even get a share of the revenue generated from concerts and other events held in the venue.

It just doesn’t make sense for the Penguins to stay put.

But as Kansas City gives the Penguins its best “come hither” look, mid-Missourians can hope that a great franchise will soon relocate to a great sports city that’s a short drive away.

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