The topic of NHL expansion has been a lively one of late, and with the announcement of a season ticket drive underway in Las Vegas to gauge the city’s ability to support a franchise, Gary Bettman and the NHL seem poised to hit the proverbial jackpot in Sin City. Although the rumors have been swirling for months, there has been no formal expansion process started yet, and Bettman has maintained his measured stance, telling the Canadian Press, “This is a discrete request to test the market, no more than that. Nothing else has been decided. Nothing else is being focused on.”
Aside from combat sports like boxing and MMA, the Nevada desert has been a tough nut to crack for the major leagues. No NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL franchise has ever called Las Vegas home In fact, the CFL attempted to set up shop in 1994 with the poorly named Las Vegas Posse, before being forced to fold after a single dismal season, both on and off the field. This past reluctance has been, in part, due to the strict anti-gambling policies within the major leagues as well as the lack of suitable venues and the perception that much of the city’s population work in 24-hour businesses, which would limit their ability to attend games on evenings and weekends.
Things are starting to turn around, however, for Las Vegas sports fans. Since the mid-2000’s there have been murmurings about a major league team coming to the desert. First, it was the NBA, then MLB toyed with the notion, and now it is the NHL’s turn to roll the dice. Expansion seems to be in the cards one way or another, and these are the 10 reasons why Las Vegas is the odds-on favorite to land the 31st NHL team and can be successful in the league.
10 The Arena
Currently being built on the strip, is the $350 million, 20,000 seat Las Vegas Arena which is slated for completion in Spring 2016. The arena, a joint venture between corporate giants MGM Resorts International and AEG Live, (owners of the Los Angeles Kings) already has over 100 events booked for its first year of operation. The fact that there now will be a brand new, privately owned facility on prime real-estate should go a long way in convincing the powers that be to bring hockey to the desert. It is rumored that the potential ownership group for a Las Vegas franchise and AEG already have a prospective deal in place should expansion take place. This is primarily what makes Vegas the current front-runner over Seattle, who likely won't begin construction on a new arena for another couple of years.
9 Competition With NBA
The NBA had seriously considered moving the Seattle Supersonics to Las Vegas, however, it ultimately decided not to, in part, because there was not a suitable venue. The same issues prevailed when the Nets were moved to Brooklyn. Now that there is a more than adequate facility, the NBA will no doubt make a push into Vegas. Hockey has always proven to be a much more difficult sell in the southern states, and if the NHL wants to succeed here, it must strike while the iron is hot, and carve out a strong initial fan base. The most successful sports franchises have found ways to incorporate themselves into their cities’ individual identities, and Vegas is ripe for the taking. If the NHL can get there first, establish a firm following, and get a city thirsting for pro sports to rally around them, it should be able to stay healthy when the NBA eventually comes calling.
8 Strong Local Ownership
The potential ownership group of a Las Vegas franchise is led by investor William Foley, and the Las Vegas based Maloof brothers. The Maloof brothers are local Las Vegas businessmen, who formerly owned the Palms Resort and Casino as well as the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. The NHL certainly seems attracted to this combination of deep pockets, local interest, and previous experience in sports ownership and appear to be communicating on a regular basis. A far cry from the combative relationship that developed between the league and previous prospective owner Jim Balsillie. Hockey has traditionally been a very difficult sport to sell in warmer climates. The ownership has recognized the exclusive nature of the sport and has plans to remedy this by expanding the city’s minor hockey system. Currently, there are only around 250 youth players, a number that is almost impossible to grow because rinks in the area are few and far between.. Part of the ownership plan is to build more rinks around the metropolitan area and partner with local businesses to increase and spread the exposure to hockey.
7 Large Television Market
When Gary Bettman was hired back in in 1993, it was with the explicit purpose of selling the game to the American market, completing expansion plans, and landing a valuable television deal. Bettman has not wavered from any of these goals, and the possible Las Vegas expansion is just another example of it. Las Vegas is listed as the 42nd largest television market in the United States. The only other viable city ranked higher is Seattle, but they have yet to even confirm building a proper facility. There is guaranteed money in U.S. television contracts, regardless of arena attendance, and no one knows this better than Gary Bettman. He will fight tooth and nail to keep as many franchises stateside as possible. Every major market with a franchise is another gambling chip when he goes to the negotiating table with a network.
6 Other Markets Just Aren't Ready
The way things are going now, the league seems pretty gung-ho on adding another team and they have essentially narrowed the possibilities down to four cities: Las Vegas, Toronto, Quebec, and Seattle. As previously mentioned, the arena in Seattle has been there since 1962, and while it has undergone substantial remodeling, it just wouldn't make the cut. Plans for a new rink are underway in Seattle, but ground has yet to be broken and the timeline for completion is well down the road. Adding a second team in Toronto has been a popular notion, but again, would also need several years to build a facility. Quebec, on the other hand, does have a new arena, but a lead ownership group has yet to take charge and it’s clear the NHL is more focused on adding American teams, specifically in the West. It appears, if anything, that the league will keep Quebec City and Toronto off in the wings as alternate fail-safes should another franchise be forced into relocation.
5 Attractive Financial Landscape
Why do rich people move to Las Vegas? Strippers and gambling? Probably, but also because Nevada is one of seven states that does not tax personal income. Immediately, regardless of winning potential or any hockey-related variables, this makes Las Vegas a very attractive destination for players. This would drastically enhance the team’s abilities to sign skilled players, which leads to increased chances of winning, and conversely, makes it much easier to create a loyal, and healthy fan base. On top of that, there is an ever-increasing corporate presence in the area. The more businesses that flock to its tax-free shores will only mean more opportunities for corporate partners and exposure, a necessity for new franchises trying to get a foothold in the marketplace.
4 It is in the West
Right now, the NHL is operating at a significant imbalance. There are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, and 14 teams in the Western Conference. In the interest of fairness and just all-round symmetry, adding teams in the West and balancing the conferences is certainly a priority for the league. When asked whether the league could expand by just one team, Bettman said “Considering that we’re out of balance now, for those concerned about symmetry, you know, if you could play 14 and 16, theoretically you can play 15 and 16.” Sorry Quebec City and Toronto, it looks like you may have to wait a few years, or be the failsafe in case the plug is pulled on the Florida Panthers.
3 History of Minor-League Success
While major league sports teams have shied away from the desert, minor league sports have been embraced by the city. Attendance records that are consistently above league averages should help bolster support for a major-league franchise. Minor League hockey has been in Nevada since 2003 with the inception of the ECHL team, the Las Vegas Wranglers who have shown consistent attendance numbers and firm local support. The Las Vegas 51’s of the Pacific Coast Baseball League, also the AAA affiliate to the New York Mets, have had great success in cultivating interest around their team both on and off the field. Last season alone, they sold out the 12,000 seat Cashman Stadium four times, en route to setting club records in attendance. An impressive feat, considering the competition inherent in a tourist mecca like Vegas. If multiple minor league teams can successfully call Las Vegas home, then surely there is space for at least one major-league franchise.
2 40 Million Tourists per Year
Las Vegas is not a huge city. The city proper is home to more than 600,000 and the population of the entire metropolitan Las Vegas area is around 1.9 million. This is about the same sized market as Columbus, which, by itself, could raise alarm flags. What Colombus doesn’t have, however, are the nearly 40 million tourists that will visit Las Vegas this year, looking to spend their hard earned dollars on nothing but entertainment. This represents a tremendous gold mine that no other mid-size market team can boast. If the ownership group is able to secure a healthy, 10,000-12,000 season ticket holders among native residents, then it shouldn’t be too much of a chore filling out the rest of the building with everyone who couldn’t get Celine Dion tickets. Will tourists be flocking to the city just to see hockey? Doubtful, but even a tiny percentage of those 40 million visitors could have a drastic effect on attendance revenue.
The potential move to Vegas, plain and simple, is a money grab. Over the entire last season, the Florida Panthers accrued a league-worst $15.6 million deficit. The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning also posted significant deficits, well over $10 million each. With the fire sales of both the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes still fresh on the minds of NHL brass, recouping these losses has to be a priority. The proposed Vegas ownership group has agreed to pay the league an expansion fee reported to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $450 million. This money would go directly to the league and owners without players or anyone else getting a sniff. In today’s financial climate, with significant losses in the recent past, it would be very hard for the league to turn down an instant cash influx of almost half a billion dollars. In the end, the owners and board of governors face a difficult decision. They may find themselves in a situation similar to the cartoon Wimpy - promising to pay on Tuesday, for a hamburger today and when that hamburger is worth $450 million, it might be tough to turn down.