NHL Becomes the First Major Pro-Sports League to Take a Gamble on Las Vegas

On June 22, 2016 the NHL officially announced that the city of Las Vegas, Nevada will be getting an expansion franchise. Speculation has been rampant that a deal was in place — pending a vote by the NHL’s Board of Governors — for the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas. The NHL Board of Governors voted unanimously to approve the Las Vegas franchise, backed by Fidelity Financial Chairman Bill Foley, to begin play in the 2017-18 seasons. In the last few years Las Vegas has become very enticing for professional sports league’s expansion plans, or even for current franchise owners as a relocation destination or to use as a relocation threat should their current cities not pay for new stadiums. Previously, the city nearly became the home of the Florida Marlins in 2004, but more recently the Oakland Raiders pledged $500 million toward a new stadium with the approval of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

For the NHL, Vegas became an attractive sports destination for a variety of reasons. First, money talks!  In April of 2016, Las Vegas opened the $375 million, 17,000 seat T-Mobile Arena just off the vaunted Vegas Strip which was designed for both an NHL and NBA franchise. It was built entirely with private funds and was implicitly supported by many of the most popular businesses on the Vegas strip. Further, Foley heads an ownership group which is backed by the Maloof family, indicating the reported $500 million expansion fee was no issue. In fact, Foley has so excited to “bring hockey to the desert” the right way that he began selling season tickets for the not yet formalized team which garnered $2.1 million.

Second, Las Vegas has become a legitimate and viable sports market. The population of Las Vegas has more than doubled since 1992 and its 600,000 residents was the second-largest city in the United States without a professional sports team. In a city where time really has no meaning, watching sports in the traditional timeslots was always a challenge; however, with the advent of cable recording and ‘a la carte’ networks the sports base has grown. Simply put, Las Vegas is growing at a significant rate.

Third, and most importantly, pro sports leagues have significantly softened their stance on gambling. Las Vegas will now and forever be connected with gambling, specifically sports betting, which scared off numerous potential sports franchises. With the advent of daily fantasy sports and a decrease in the negative moral view of recreational gambling many of the major pro-sports leagues have changed their viewpoint as well. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has long been an advocate of sports betting, and even noted sports conservative Roger Goodell has claimed to have “evolved” on the notion of gambling.

So will a NHL franchise work in Las Vegas? I wouldn’t bet on it quite yet. There still exists numerous roadblocks. As much as the leagues have softened their stance on gambling they are still in long-running legal battles with states attempting to legalize it. Moreover, attendance has always been an issue with NHL teams in the desert, but a particular concern in Vegas where, when the games start at 7 p.m., there exists a vast number of people who are beginning their shift and will simply be unable to catch a game live. Another roadblock is the sheer gluttony of entertainment available in the city. Will patrons who save up and plan a trip to Vegas want to catch a two and a half hour hockey game instead of spend time in a casino or at one of Vegas’ famous shows? Finally, developing a strong fan base could be difficult given the quantity of people who are merely visit Vegas on vacation, are working on a temporary basis, or are only passing through to gamble.

At this point Vegas is a big gamble for the NHL, and it’s difficult to forecast its success or demise, but either way Bill Foley said it best: “it’s going to be fun.”

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