Las Vegas residents are once again being teased with the possibility of major league team; this time an NHL franchise. Should this become reality, it would be the first major franchise in the city’s history. Yes we’ve had professional sports, and still do: Las Vegas Gladiators (Arena Football), Las Vegas Outlaws (XFL), Las Vegas Thunder (International Hockey League), Las Vegas Wranglers (East Coast Hockey League), Las Vegas Stars/51s (AAA Baseball). Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe) is planning to bring a new Arena Football League franchise back to Las Vegas (Las Vegas Outlaws?). The Las Vegas Wranglers suspended operations this season because their arena lease expired and they could not find a new home in time. Only the Las Vegas 51s are in active operation. But an NHL franchise would be our first from one of the four premier sports leagues in the United States (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL).
MGM Resorts and AEG broke ground on a 20,000 seat arena behind the New York, New York and Monte Carlo casino resorts several months ago, with an expected opening in April 2016. Meanwhile, an ownership group led by millionaire businessman Bill Foley is working with the NHL to bring an expansion team to Las Vegas. The NHL has allowed Foley to investigate the feasibility of putting an NHL franchise and run a season ticket drive, which is scheduled to begin in early 2015. It would not surprise me if, in addition to the expansion rumors, the NHL is also looking at franchise relocation. There appear to be several franchises ready to relocate in search of profitability.
I’ve lived in Las Vegas since 1996, except for the 3+ years my wife and I lived in Central Virginia from late 2007 to early 2011. Throughout those years there have been numerous rumors of MLB, NBA and NHL bringing a franchise to Las Vegas, only to have those rumors squashed. The biggest obstacle has always been gambling, because Nevada allows legal sports betting. Until recently, it was the only state to allow legal sports betting.
One primary concern is fixing and points shaving. In the early days of sports, when players weren’t paid much for their services and were bound to their teams for life, unless traded or released, there were very real possibilities of gamblers fixing games by paying off participants so that they could reap the rewards. One of the most famous examples is the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Nowadays, because player salaries are millions of dollars, and the players with the most influence on games make mega millions, it would take an extraordinary amount of money to “bribe” a player to adjust his performance. In addition, the gambler would have to bet even more money to cover his “expense” to fix the game. Bookmakers will notice when extremely large sums of money are wagered on one game (or series of games) and will investigate. Game fixing and points shaving in professional sports are not likely to happen in this day and age.
Another primary concern is players, coaches, management and even referees betting on games. One of the highest profile examples is Pete Rose, who bet on the Cincinnati Reds while he was the team’s manager. Each league has it’s own rules about sports betting, but the penalties are harsh. While these cases to pop up from time to time, the effect on game outcome is usually minimal.
Even though sports betting is only legal in Nevada and Delaware (Montana and Oregon are also allowed to conduct sports betting, but haven’t implemented it), it really isn’t all that difficult for anyone to place a legal bet on sports.
Profitability and Support
The other thing that is preventing Las Vegas from acquiring a major sports franchise is profitability and support. Some question Las Vegas’ ability to support a franchise. There are multiple reasons given; here are a few:
- It’s a tourist destination.
- A large percentage of potential fans are working, regardless of the time games may be played.
- There are too many other forms of entertainment competing for people’s money.
- Las Vegas doesn’t have a large enough population.
Let’s discuss these “excuses.”
Yes it is. Las Vegas makes a lot of money from tourists and convention attendees. In addition to gambling, they spend money on concerts, shows, hotel rooms, food, shopping, nightclubs, etc. Why is this a drawback? I have no doubt some of those visitors will attend games, especially if the arena/stadium is on or near the Las Vegas Strip (which is the plan at this time). Some people will travel to watch their team play in Las Vegas, especially fans of regional teams and if those games are on weekends. I know quite a few people who travel to Las Vegas from the Los Angeles area to watch the Kings play in Frozen Fury every September. They usually play the Colorado Avalanche and its fans also travel to Las Vegas for the game. Not as many fans will travel here for games as would NFL fans, but some will come.
I think the impact of this reason is overstated. Yes, at any given moment a decent percentage of people are working. Perhaps more so in Las Vegas than in other cities. But other cities still do have many people working during games. Most of those jobs are low paying food and retail jobs. Usually, these people are not necessarily the target market for a franchise, simply because, sadly, these people usually can’t afford the prices charged for tickets.
Military discounts will likely be offered and there is a large military population stationed at nearby Nellis AFB. There is also a large population of military veterans in Las Vegas.
In a hockey layout, I think the arena capacity is something like 18,000 people. The fact that a lot of people are working when games are played should have little significance on filling the arena. If the team contends each year, the arena will fill up regularly.
I’m not sure why this is an issue. Most other cities also have competing entertainment: shows, concerts, movies, other high school and college sporting events, go kart racing, arcades, museums, miniature golf, bowling, target shooting, etc. That’s in addition to the non-dollar entertainment activities like hiking, relaxing at the park, staying home and watching TV, parties with friends, etc. Perhaps those who use competing entertainment as a reason against a sports franchise in Las Vegas is that gambling (playing slots and tables) is a form of entertainment that competes with other forms of entertainment.
However, I’d venture to guess that the majority of Las Vegas residents, who should be the target market for a sports franchise, do not gamble with regularity. That’s not to say that we don’t play the slots or table games occasionally, but we don’t go out every night to gamble. We can’t afford to.
The population of metropolitan Las Vegas, which includes Henderson, North Las Vegas and unincorporated areas of Clark County, is more than 2 million people. Las Vegas is the 34th largest metropolitan population in the United States and the largest city without a major league sports franchise. That’s a larger population that 26 cities that have at least one major league sports franchise.
Clearly a lack of population isn’t the reason.
Will a Major League Sports Franchise Succeed in Las Vegas?
Minor league teams have been moderately successful in drawing fans. The Las Vegas Wranglers ECHL franchise, which has suspended operations for at least one season after its lease at the Orleans Arena expired, averaged between 4,000 and 5,500 fans per game since its inaugural 2003-2004 season. The Las Vegas AAA Baseball franchise averages around 4,800 in attendance per game, and that is in an old (by modern standards) outdoor stadium in a less than desirable part of the city. The (defunct) XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws sold out (40,000 seats) every game at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Big League Weekend, spring training games at Cashman Field, sell out every March, including standing room only and the grassy hills in foul territory down each foul line.
So, can a major league sports franchise succeed in Las Vegas? I think so. The population is here. I think the city is ready to support a major league sports franchise. The city is sports starved.
Since the NFL will never locate a team here while Roger Goodell is in charge, it’ll have to be an MLB, NBA or NHL team. There was some speculation that the Sacramento Kings would move here, but that was before the Maloof’s sold the team. Plus the NBA seems more interested in putting a team back in Seattle than in Las Vegas. While there were rumors years ago that the Oakland Athletics could move to Las Vegas, it was never a serious rumor. Plus, as much as I’d love a major league baseball team in Las Vegas, I don’t think the city will support one long term. 82 home games requires a lot of fan support. It would need an indoor stadium too. So, it looks like the NHL is the city’s best bet.
Can an NHL team succeed in Las Vegas? I think it can. Frozen Fury, a preseason game featuring the Los Angeles Kings and, usually, the Colorado Avalanche sells out every September. Fans of regional teams (Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche) are likely to visit when their teams play here, especially when they play here on weekends. There are only 46 home games in an NHL season. That’s not too many. The city has a lot of northern transplants.
As I mentioned, the Las Vegas Wranglers have drawn around 4,500 fans per game since it started operations in the 2003-2004 season. They’ve had competitive teams every season. In the short term, people will attend games because it’s new, exciting and fun. But for the team to succeed in Las Vegas for the long term, the team will have to be competitive with regularity, just like in any major league city.
Expansion v. Relocation
If an NHL franchise is located in Las Vegas, will it be an expansion team or will another team relocate?
One option is relocation. There are a few teams that could be candidates for relocation: Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes and the Carolina Hurricanes. Moving the Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricanes would balance the conferences, but each conference would have an odd number of teams. Since there is cross-conference play, that’s not a big issue, like it was for Major League Baseball before inter-league play was approved. The Phoenix Coyotes could move, except, I think, they recently signed a new lease with their arena. So, despite the fact that the team is not profitable in Arizona, it’s unlikely the Coyotes will move because of the arena lease.
The other option is expansion. The ownership group that is trying to bring NHL hockey to Las Vegas is trying to get approval for an expansion team. The NHL seems open to expansion, but they would need to add two teams. The only other cities that I’ve heard mentioned for an expansion team are Quebec and Seattle. It definitely won’t be Atlanta, which lost it’s second NHL franchise recently. Quebec has an arena and fan base. But, the Eastern Conference has 16 teams, while the Western Conference has 14 teams. A Quebec franchise would be in the Eastern Conference. That would create an odd number of franchises in each conference. It’s not a big issue, but I suspect that the NHL would like to balance the conferences so that there are 16 teams in each conference. Putting a team in Quebec would mean moving a team from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference. Detroit and Columbus (Ohio) are the teams furthest west in the Eastern Conference. Either of those teams will have travel and time zone issues. So really, the only choice is to add a team in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. That leaves Seattle as the primary option, though I suppose Houston, Kansas City and Oklahoma City are possibilities. But I haven’t heard the NHL mention any of those cities.
It looks like expansion is the likely option. But here’s what needs to happen to bring an NHL expansion team to Las Vegas.
- The Las Vegas ownership group needs to show the NHL that it can sell a large number of season tickets.
- The Las Vegas ownership group needs to show the NHL that it can sell the suites to corporations or wealthy individuals.
There are other things that will be necessary for ownership to do to secure a franchise in Las Vegas: financing, arena lease, etc. But I think the ownership group will be able to put those things together without a problem. The two things I specifically identified above are likely to be the things that will make or break the bid. If they can do those two things (in addition to everything else the NHL requires) and the NHL can get a second expansion team to commit, I think the NHL governors (team owners) will approve expansion.
It sounds like the Las Vegas ownership group will be able take care of #2 with little trouble. The Las Vegas ownership group is hoping to sell a minimum of 10,000 season tickets. I think they can get that number. So, it looks like it’s on the NHL to find a partner team to enter the league with Las Vegas and approve the expansion.
But one thing that can’t happen is what happened to the Las Vegas Thunder. They played at the Thomas and Mack arena on the UNLV campus. Anytime the arena was able to book a higher grossing event, such as a concert, and the date/time conflicted with a Thunder hockey game, the Thunder had to move the game to a different day. The lease the team signs with the MGM/AEG arena can’t allow that to happen. The arena and NHL must work together to eliminate event conflicts.
Personally, I’d prefer an expansion team. I don’t really want the cast off from another city, particularly, from Florida, Carolina or Phoenix. None of those teams are very good. If we’re going to have a “lousy” team in the beginning, I want it to be one that started here rather than a hand-me-down, unwanted franchise.
What would the Las Vegas franchise’s team name be? Well, Foley is partial to Black Knights, which sounds pretty good to me. But I’ve heard that there will be a contest to name the team. Which, I imagine, means that ownership will solicit names from the general public and choose one, or select several and allow fans to vote on one of them.
What Would I Call the Team?
I do like the Las Vegas Black Knights and wouldn’t mind it one bit if that ultimately becomes the team name. Some obvious names that need to be forgotten as soon as they are suggested: Las Vegas Gamblers, Las Vegas Strippers, Las Vegas Luck, and the like. There are herds of wild mules/burros around the area, but I don’t think Las Vegas Jackasses will work, do you? There are quite a few abandoned mines in the area, but Las Vegas Miners just doesn’t sound good. 51s (reference to nearby Area 51) is good, but it’s already taken.
Some team names I do think are pretty good…
There are herds of wild horses around here. So, how about the Las Vegas Mustangs or Las Vegas Stallions?
We can get some pretty powerful thunderstorms during the summer monsoon, so perhaps the Las Vegas Storm? (Is that too similar to the Hurricanes?)
Most desert animals aren’t very appealing as team names/mascots, though Las Vegas Sidewinders or Las Vegas Scorpions aren’t bad.
We could bring back the old IHL team name, the Las Vegas Thunder, though I don’t know who owns the name.
Nellis AFB is nearby. How about using one of the squadron’s nicknames? Las Vegas Panthers (Panthers is already used so scratch that one), Las Vegas Thunderbirds (might need permission from the USAF), Las Vegas Raptors and Las Vegas Vipers.
NHL Hockey in Las Vegas?
The season ticket drive is in full swing and they got commitments for 5,000 season tickets in the first week. Off to a good start. I’m still undecided whether or not we’ll place a deposit for season tickets as they are expensive. But even if we don’t, we’ll definitely attend a few games each year. NHL hockey in Las Vegas? YES PLEASE!