Unjustified expansion: not just for Russia any more

That’s right, we’re bringing the hockey-geopolitics metaphor back, but now in reverse, to talk about hockey. In case you didn’t know, talk of NHL expansion is afoot. A report surfaced listing Toronto, Québec, Seattle and Las Vegas as potential expansion candidates. And although the NHL quickly denied the report, in modern media, denials are parsed for being admissions of something only slightly different. Thus everyone became convinced that expansion of some kind is going to happen. At Grantland, Sean McIndoe goes over the pros and cons. His biggest takeaway: expansion is actually awesome because it involves an expansion draft and those things are craaazy.

So, you might say, cool, let’s go ahead with expansion. I want to try to dissuade you. Also, as someone who has avowed conservatism (not in politics but in worldview) several times on this blog, I want to write an opinion that is actually conservative in some way. So what are the arguments against expansion? One needn’t go any further than the best argument for: the expansion draft. Hockey-peripheral events like the draft and the trade deadline are way more fun for the pundit than they are for the hockey fan. So they often blow the amount of fun of the event out of proportion. I like hockey, but I don’t care about the draft, and I wouldn’t care about the expansion draft either. It might be fun for McIndoe, but basically everyone else won’t care. And that’s the best reason to do it? I have already written about why I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring hockey to Seattle. But really, all those arguments are nothing. My main contention boils down to one thing: rent seeking. So here it is, the least sophisticated, most foolproof argument against any expansion, ever: are you a fan of an NHL team? Yes? Well, with expansion, the team you’re a fan of is going to be less likely to win a Stanley Cup.

Fig. 1: probability of at least one Cup-less team as a function of seasons played

Fig. 1: probability of at least one Cup-less team as a function of seasons played

Simple. However, we at Rated Zed are nothing if not top-notch hockey analytics people (hire us!) and so we proceed to quantify just how much worse for you, as a fan, a 34-team league is than a 30-team one. What we shall see is that while over the course of a season, the difference between a 30 and 34 team league is small, over the course of your entire fanhood, they can be large. And pretty tragic. Basically, entire fanbases will be turned into the sad spectacle that is the Chicago Cubs faithful.

We go with the following assumption: there is absolute parity. Each season, a random team wins the Stanley Cup, and there is no correlation between one year and the next. This is obviously not true and not desirable, but if you care about this, it’s probably because your team hasn’t won anything in a while, and so this assumption is actually excessively optimistic. If your team sucks now, keep in mind that everything we say from now on is actually going to be even worse in your case. Also, you’re not 5. So you have even fewer fan-years left.

In fig. 1,  we list the chances that there is a team that has never won the Stanley Cup, after a given number of seasons, for several league sizes (the calculations are done analytically, by counting all possible arrangements of n-1 winning teams in an n-team league). Here we see that the 30 team league is already a destroyer of dreams. Chances are that somewhere today (Buffalo? Probably Buffalo), a baby boy is born kicking and screaming that will be dragged (kicking and screaming) into hockey fanhood as a toddler. A century later, he will be a wizened old man, the oldest in town, telling his great-great-grandchildren about that one time his team almost made it. “The skate was in the crease!” (or some similar nonsense) he will ramble droolingly, as all his descendants look around, embarrassed. This is incredibly sad. With a 34-team league, that depressing scenario becomes a near certainty.

probability of a league with at least three Cup-less teams as a function of seasons played

Fig. 2: probability of a league with at least three Cup-less teams as a function of seasons played

But who cares about the very worst team! After all, you say, I’m not a fan of the Sabres / Canucks / Leafs / Bluejackets / Panthers / whoever your preferred goat is. Surely my team will not be the one paragon of futility! Here is where the currently talked-about expansion really bites you: the number of cup-less teams will grow. For example (see Fig. 2) the likelihood of three cupless teams over an entire fan-life (assuming one can’t make conscious fanhood decisions before 5 and a life expectance of 80 years) goes from less than 40% likelihood for a 30 team league to over 70% for a 34 team one. It’s not any more encouraging if you look at shorter timescales. For example, the likelihood of your one preferred team winning a Cup within the next 25 years, already just barely over 50%, takes a 5% drop from expansion. Want to look at the stats more in-depth? Don’t. It’s too depressing.

Fig. 3: misery from expansion increases more than proportionally

Fig. 3: misery from expansion increases more than proportionally

This is of course unsurprising: more teams means more cupless teams even if proportionality was conserved. But it’s actually worse than that, as Fig. 3 demonstrates. There is much more likely to be 3 cupless teams in a 36 team league than 2 cupless ones in a 24 team one. This too is pretty straightforward if you think about it. But somehow no one ever mentions this as a drawback to expansion. Part of the reason we watch sports is because we want our favourites to win. For most North American sports leagues, expansion has already obliterated that dream for most fans at anywhere near a reasonable timescale. Adding more teams means more sadsack fanbases and more misery. Don’t do it.

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3 Responses to Unjustified expansion: not just for Russia any more

  1. Zuuko says:

    nice… so u’re saying i’ll be dead before the Canucks win.

  2. Pingback: In Praise of the Fair Weather Fan | Rated Zed

  3. Pingback: Prediction Special: 2018 NHL Playoffs | Rated Zed

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