What it Would Mean if the NHL Drops the Puck in Las Vegas

The NHL is flirting with Las Vegas. What will it mean if the relationship gets consummated?

Construction continues on MGM Resorts’ new arena behind New York-New York. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Construction continues on MGM Resorts’ new arena behind New York-New York. | Photo by Jon Estrada

If you’re of the age where you couldn’t get a date in junior high without dressing and having a haircut like Vanilla Ice (What’s up Kristie del Vecchio—now who doesn’t look “remotely cool”?) then you remember a time when the youth of America, for whatever reason, couldn’t get enough overalls: Overalls at school. Overalls at the dance and at church and while you’re shopping for more overalls. Point being, everyone had them in the 1990s, no one knew where they came from, and somehow they were shockingly successful.

Stadiums and pro sports in Las Vegas: Welcome to your overalls moment.

By now, you know all the players: the still-hanging-around UNLV Now project; the Las Vegas 51s’ still-theoretical stadium adjacent to Downtown Summerlin; the never-was stadium for the Wranglers at the Plaza; the proposed Major League Soccer facility at Symphony Park; the Jackie Robinson-shepherded $1.4 billion, NBA-lusting All Net Arena and Resort next to SLS. Then there’s the venue that actually is sprouting out of the ground: the MGM-AEG 20,000-seat arena behind New York-New York. It’s slated to open in 2016, and it’s at the heart of rapidly metastasizing NHL expansion talk.

Last week, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly admitted to the Minneapolis StarTribune that he had toured the arena site and met with an ownership group, outed by The Hockey News as being led by real estate/finance mogul William Foley and the Maloof family, who declined comment.

It’s worth noting that the NHL hasn’t officially committed to expansion, let alone picked out its cities. But it’s also worth noting that a “no comment” isn’t a denial, and that names of ownership groups don’t get leaked if, as Daly protested, the issue has barely come up in Board of Governors meetings. (Perhaps that will change during the next league gathering December 5-6.)

As the NHL-to-Vegas rumors were simmering, NBA honcho Adam Silver was lighting the gauntlet on fire and flinging it out of a catapult with a candid op-ed in The New York Times in which he called for the widespread legalization of sports gambling. “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated,” Silver wrote.

Silver’s now-on-the-record opinion bodes well for Robinson. Once a major professional league opens up shop in one city, others more often than not follow. Of the 41 American markets with an NHL, NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball franchise, only 10 are single-team cities, and three of those sport an MLS club.

Of course, local support is critical to the success of any pro franchise, but Las Vegas is a unique market where a significant chunk of the workforce works at night. While Daly was quick to point out this obstacle, Don Logan, the longtime 51s president and COO, says tourists could make up for the loss of third-shift locals. But Logan sees another, more subtle speed bump: Corporate sponsors like Anheuser-Busch are already dumping significant money here, both in the resorts and their existing arenas.

Assuming Bud and MGM can square it up, the next logical question is: Where might Las Vegas land on the NHL attendance spectrum? Near Chicago, Detroit and Toronto, which average 20,000 fans per game? Or closer to the Florida Panthers, where less than 9,000 people a night can clearly hear the sounds Roberto Luongo makes when he stands on his head. According to the most recent Harris Poll on sports, 5 percent of people say hockey is their favorite sport. That translates to roughly 90,000 puck die-hards in the Valley. If they all attend two games a year, that’s about 4,400 per night, or about what the Wranglers averaged during their 2013 season. That’s a big burden for casual and tourist fans to carry.

The Maloofs sold the Sacramento Kings for more than $500 million, and Foley is worth north of $600 million. They’re equipped to handle the $400 million expansion fee, a reasonable price to pay to go down as the group that finally brought pro sports here. If they close the deal, let’s hope they’re wise enough to adopt the Wranglers’ smartest tradition: an annual midnight game to accommodate our hockey-loving swing-shift souls.

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