How Badly Does Las Vegas Want an NHL Franchise?

The ownership group is in place. The arena is rising behind the Strip. And a season-ticket drive is about to commence. It looks like there’s just one thing left for Las Vegas to do to land an NHL franchise: Prove that it wants it. 

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

William Foley’s father was in the Air Force, up in Ottawa for three years in the early 1950s when Foley was just starting elementary school. Under those circumstances, pond hockey isn’t so much something you take up as it is part of the atmosphere. You put on a hat because it’s cold, you go to school because you have to and you play pond hockey because it’s January in Canada.

Foley, the 69-year-old chairman of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Fidelity National Financial who made Forbes’ “Billionaire Up and Comers” list in 2013, drifted away from the game in his subsequent years. When he talks about his favorite hockey teams today, he sounds like a presidential hopeful stumping across primary states. (“I like the Blackhawks. I live in Northern Cal part of the year, so I follow the Sharks. I’ve got to say the Blackhawks and Sharks are kind of my teams.”)

Perhaps not for much longer. That’s because Foley is the head of a group (which includes the Maloof family) that’s trying to put an NHL team in the under-construction MGM/AEG arena by the start of the 2016-17 season. And he’s not shy about his ambitions for what would be this city’s first major professional sports team: “Our feeling is we want to have a really fast team. We don’t want to be the big guys who get into fights. We want to be highly skilled. The first couple of years are going to be difficult. But we’re going to invest in the team, and my goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to Las Vegas within eight years. It may take eight years, but we can do it if we make the right investment in the team. The Islanders did it.”

Finance mogul William Foley

Finance mogul William Foley

And that’s true. The Islanders did come into the league for the 1972 season, and by 1980 they won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. But expansion doesn’t always go that smooth. Neither Columbus nor Minnesota, the NHL’s last two expansion teams in 2000, have even reached a Cup finals. Hell, the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, who both entered the league two years before the Islanders, have combined for five appearances in the finals and zero Cups.

The bigger hitch, such as it is, is that the NHL hasn’t formally committed to any kind of expansion or relocation. And even though the potential Vegas franchise is regularly touted as expansion, and is viewed by this ownership group as expansion, Foley says the ultimate decision on whether to expand or relocate would be the league’s.

So if all this sounds like it’s putting the cart before the horse-with-a-nasty-slap-shot, it might be. But, to quote the famed socio-political futurist Magie Huiteball: All signs point to yes.

“I heard [NHL expansion rumors] the whole 11 years I was there,” says Billy Johnson, the former president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers, the East Coast Hockey League team that played at the Orleans Arena from 2003 to 2013. “There was always that possibility. This one’s got legs.”

For Foley and the Maloof brothers—George, Gavin and Joe—bringing an NHL team to Las Vegas would complete Step 1. Step 2 would be to learn from the mistakes that have plagued the NHL’s other desert franchise: the Arizona Coyotes, based in Glendale. | Photo by Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

For Foley and the Maloof brothers—George, Gavin and Joe—bringing an NHL team to Las Vegas would complete Step 1. Step 2 would be to learn from the mistakes that have plagued the NHL’s other desert franchise: the Arizona Coyotes, based in Glendale. | Photo by Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

What Foley and the Maloofs have—that no other dreamer who wanted to be the first to bring the big leagues to Las Vegas has ever had—is the blessing of a league to conduct a season-ticket drive. More importantly, they have a viable building in which to house a franchise. When MGM Resorts International and AEG announced their intentions in spring 2013 to put an arena behind New York-New York, it officially put the city on the NHL’s radar. Without the arena, Foley says, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman never would have considered the rest of the proposal.

So how did we even get to this point? Joe and Gavin Maloof, while in the process of selling off the NBA’s Sacramento Kings in 2013, went to see Foley in Jacksonville while they were there on business. The three of them started talking about buying a football team. The consensus was it would be too expensive—besides, the NFL didn’t have much available. They parted ways, but a couple of months later, the Maloofs called Foley with a simple question: “What about hockey?” Thus the Las Vegas Black Knights (the name Foley, a West Point grad, favors)—or whatever they’ll be called after a name-the-team contest—was conceived.

Once MGM/AEG committed to the arena, the pieces started to fall into place. While the arena got Bettman’s attention, what can seal the deal is the season-ticket drive. That the NHL is allowing the proposed owners of a team that doesn’t exist to hawk tickets to games that might never happen is in itself significant. When Winnipeg was trying to bring the Atlanta Thrashers north in 2011, it used a ticket drive to prove its viability. Fans purchased 13,000 season tickets. It was enough: As was the case with the Flames, Atlanta lost yet another NHL franchise to Canada.

Glendale, the home of the Arizona Coyotes | Photo by Tim Roberts

Glendale, the home of the Arizona Coyotes | Photo by Tim Roberts

“We’re interested now in proving the viability of the team by being able to sell at least 10,000 season tickets, [though] I’d like to see us at 12,500,” Foley says. “The suites will all go. In fact, most of the [42] suites are already gone. The loge suites and the bunker suites [located at ice level] are already gone.

“We’re creating a group called the Las Vegas Founding 50. [We want] to get at least 50 local businesspeople and personalities, to commit to selling 60 tickets each. That would be 3,000 season tickets that would not be casino-based or corporate-based.

That last part is significant for a couple of reasons. First, as Johnson points out, attendance is nice and all, but what matters most is covering your nut. To that end, average transaction is key. And nothing raises your average transaction like sold-out luxury suites. The other important element is that, as configured for hockey, the capacity of the MGM/AEG arena would be about 17,500, says Mark Prows, MGM Resorts senior vice president for arenas. That means 10,000 season tickets would put Las Vegas at 57 percent capacity as a jump-off, before factoring in single-game ticket sales (which average $62.18 in the NHL) or additional season packages.

Though it trails the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball in terms of TV popularity, the NHL’s franchises routinely fill the house on game nights; 27 of the 30 teams run at 85 percent capacity or more. In fact, six squads top 100 percent, with standing-room-only tickets pushing the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks to 112.2 percent and 109.7 percent, respectively. What about the three teams averaging less than 85 percent? Those would be Arizona (76.0), Carolina (66.5) and Florida (63.7)—three warm-weather franchises in nontraditional markets that have played poorly, or can expect to play poorly, for several years.

Just like a potential Las Vegas team.

“One of the things they’re going to have to define is whether this is a sports market, a sports-gaming market or an events market,” says the Wranglers’ Johnson. “I found that it’s an events market and a sports-gambling market, not necessarily a sports market. We avoided for years Sunday afternoon games because in-season there was so much money riding on the NFL, people weren’t paying attention [to the Wranglers]. It’s a very hard market for hockey.”

Like most everything else in this Valley, Johnson says the success of an NHL franchise here will hinge on marketing. “It depends on if they’re able to make it an activity. If they make the experience as important as winning, there will be a high tolerance level [for losing]. When we first moved here, they had the Las Vegas Gladiators of the [Arena Football League]. I remember our ad campaign was fun and irreverent and sarcastic—we didn’t talk about winning. We didn’t talk about hockey that much. But the Gladiators at the time were promoting ‘Armed and Dangerous.’ They created this expectation and this brand that we’re going to win eight home games this year. What happens when you lose your first four? Economically, you just blew a hole through your entire marketing effort. You put out a message that’s unobtainable and you turn yourself into a joke.”

Construction continues on the MGM/AEG Arena behind New York-New York.

Construction continues on the MGM/AEG Arena behind New York-New York.

So how do you go about selling a disparate market of hockey fans who have deep allegiances to, say, the Blackhawks or Rangers or Maple Leafs? You start by putting the arena in the right spot, says former Dallas Stars chief marketing officer Mike McCall, who was with the International Hockey League when the Thunder set up shop here from 1993-99. For instance, the Arizona Coyotes’ ongoing struggles, he says, have much to do with the Gila River Arena being placed in outlying Glendale instead of the more-hopping Scottsdale. (Hopping, we’ve got covered.)

After that, you have to be inclusive of the luxury, corporate, family and individual fan segments—something, it’s safe to say, our city already has a firm grasp on. As for the notion that cold-weather natives and local hockey fans who already have existing team loyalties, McCall sees that as a strength. “Whether it’s the [Los Angeles] Kings or Boston or Philadelphia—when those teams play in Las Vegas there will be 3,000 to 4,000 fans [of those teams] who live in Las Vegas, and they’re going to come to the games,” McCall says. “It really creates a great atmosphere. If you’ve got 17,000 people in the building and 4,000 of them are for the other team, it gets the dander up of the local people. That’s how you start developing rivalries.”

McCall also says it will be crucial that the NHL be the only game in town. Which doesn’t necessarily mesh with the arena plans of MGM/AEG, whose ambitions seem to be landing an NHL team, followed by an NBA franchise, thus creating a Strip-side Staples Center or Madison Square Garden: two teams, one building, gift-wrapped for sports-betting-agnostic Adam Silver.the_park_rendering_courtesy_mgm_resorts_international_WEB

“The arena is ready for an NBA expansion [team]. It’s been vetted by that league as well,” says MGM’s Prows. “Our partnership with AEG has been one that gives us a lot of ability to carry on detailed conversations [with] the NBA. The league has made it very clear to AEG and to us that they’re not ready to expand or to bring a team to Vegas. They told us that’s probably not going to happen for a few years.”

So even if the NHL falls through, MGM/AEG can hedge with basketball. Certainly, though, one existing franchise tends to prove the viability of the market for other teams sniffing around for expansion or relocation destinations. If that sounds like a lot of dominoes that hinge on the Foley/Maloof group’s ticket drive, well, that’s because there’s a lot riding on the Foley/Maloof group’s ticket drive.

Foley says he plans to launch it right after the Super Bowl and hopes to have a good understanding of the public’s response by St. Patrick’s Day. Hit that 10,000 goal and it opens the door to some very ambitious plans beyond just the team. Foley wants to build a major practice facility in the Valley with four or five rinks that would be open to the public, help develop youth hockey and possibly work in conjunction with a hospital group to develop a sports medicine program. For Foley, it would mean him relocating from Jacksonville to Las Vegas and phasing out his day-to-day responsibilities with Fidelity National. For the Maloofs—who declined interview requests for this story—it would mean redemption after a less-than-glamorous exit from Sacramento. And who knows, maybe it could end up with the family’s third crack at NBA ownership; multiple-team ownership by the same person or group in a single city isn’t uncommon.

It could even mean a return of the Wranglers—who lost their home when The Orleans declined to renew the team’s lease in 2014—to serve as the feeder team for our NHL franchise, similar to what the Dallas Stars did when they brought the Texas Stars to Austin from Iowa. Johnson says when he left the team this year, there were two proposals on the table to resuscitate the franchise. Being a minor-league affiliate of the local NHL team could present a third option. He also hopes a Las Vegas NHL team would revive one of the Wranglers’ most successful promotions: midnight hockey. “I think that would be an awesome legacy for our team. I hope they rip off that idea.”

Marketing plans? Even by the standard of getting ahead of one’s self, that seems like a stretch, doesn’t it? In a word: Nah. Foley has the demographic research to prove it, and he has a city that by all accounts is starved for and ready to embrace its first pro team. He also has a league that has the rare opportunity to be the most forward-thinking unit in pro sports—and wouldn’t that be something new for the NHL?

All Foley has to do now is convince at least 10,000 people in a region of 2 million to come along for the ride.

The venue would be ready to house an NHL team by the 2016-17 season.

The venue would be ready to house an NHL team by the 2016-17 season.

 



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