As Gary Bettman walked to the podium in a ballroom deep in the bowels of the Encore hotel in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon, we all knew what was coming. Anticipation is a word for it, but healthy skepticism fits a bit better.
“The board of governors approved the plan of expansion that will bring a National Hockey League franchise to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season,” Bettman said. “In the fall of 2017 when we celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Hockey League we will do so as a league of 31 teams.”
There it is. The yet to be named Vegas franchise will compete in the brand-spankin’-new T-Mobile Arena, just behind the strip near the New York New York. Majority owner Bill Foley thanked his supporters, who now become customers, on a sizzling triple-digit day in Nevada.
“Well Las Vegas, we did it,” said Foley. “It wasn’t easy, was it?”
Bettman pointed to the successful season ticket drive as a driving point behind the league’s openness to a Vegas franchise, but don’t forget the $500 million expansion fee that comes with it. The NHL is not the league most expected would break into Las Vegas first for more reasons than the oppressive heat. But here we are.
The team joins the Pacific Division in 2017 and will take one player from the 30 current teams in an expansion draft next summer. This expansion, the league’s first in many years, has been understandably met with skepticism. As drama rules the Carolina Hurricanes currently and tormented the Arizona Coyotes recently, it seems odd that the NHL would choose to go deeper ever deeper into the sun belt.
But there are factors here that may spell success for Las Vegas. First, an owner that at least seems deeply committed to making hockey work in Sin City. Second, a world-class arena that was specifically designed for hockey right in the middle of all the action on the Las Vegas strip.
“Las Vegas is my home along with 2.3 million people,” said Foley. “We want everyone to be a fan. We’re dedicated to it. We’ll leave no stone unturned. My obligation is to hold this team in trust of the community.”
Say what you will about cultivating a fanbase in a city of transplants, but it helps that many of the physical barriers that have hurt other expansion teams don’t factor here. As the city of Las Vegas constantly morphs and shifts, perhaps its first top-level professional sports team can help craft an identity for the permanent residents.
Or maybe it won’t. The reasons teams like the Atlanta Thrashers failed go well beyond “people in hot places don’t like hockey.” The real test for a team like the new Las Vegas franchise is the same for most businesses: Sales. I’m not talking about pushing season tickets, though that’s important too. Foley and company have to sell the city on Las Vegas Hockey — whatever form that takes.
There won’t be much winning right away in all likelihood, but if Foley listens to his fans and shows a willingness to adapt to their wants and needs, maybe this can work. The first steps have been taken, now we see what Las Vegas will do with hockey now that it has it.