MAVEN’S RAVIN’: LAS VEGAS IS A GOOD EXPANSION BET FOR NHL — OR IS IT?

@StanFischler

The NHL has always liked Las Vegas as a site for its awards celebration and will do it again next week.

Now, the NHL is about to love Sin City, but for a different reason — $500,000,000 to be specific.

At the league’s annual awards ceremony next Wednesday, a new award will be created. It appears that Vegas will be awarded a major league hockey franchise, for five-hundred million simoleons. Not exactly chump change.

But, is this newest romance of Bettman Inc. a good fit for his world’s greatest hockey league? Even at that inflationary price?

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That topic will be debated until the first puck is dropped at the glittering, new 17,500-seat T-Mobile Arena, where the Las Vegas Black Knights are said to make their NHL debut for the 2017-18 season.

The pro-Vegas backers — which include Commissioner Gary Bettman and other NHL power brokers — will cite non-traditional market successes as proof that big league hockey can succeed in T-shirt towns.

Once ridiculed, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Nashville, among other warm weather NHL cities, have become hockey hotbeds.

On the other hand, naysayers will point to such expansion disasters as Oakland — remember the California Golden Seals? — Hartford, and Atlanta, where franchises went Kaput with a capital K.

But, by major league standards, those are minor examples. What’s real is that next week, owners will hand Nevada hockey promoter Bill Foley a certificate of NHL membership for his soon-to-be Black Knights. Don’t blame me, I didn’t name them.

“This is sports at a level Las Vegas has never known,” Bettman enthuses. “The potential impact of an NHL team, socially and economically, is immeasurable. Plus, Las Vegas has national and international prominence”

Another goody-goody is that the 30 existing owners will divvy up the Vegas $500 million turnstile fee between them.

Do you want more plusses? How about the fact that the league needed another team in the West to create balance, or that the NHL’s American network (NBC) likes the idea of having the Nevada metropolis in the ice fraternity.

“Las Vegas has been waiting for this for decades,” says Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak. “We’re a major league city. We deserve major league sports.”

Such rah-rah responses are expected from the world’s gambling capital. After all, Foley has spent several years pushing the league for acceptance.

He made his best lobbying case with Bettman by delivering 13,200 season ticket deposits. Having a luxurious state of the art new arena at his disposal didn’t damage his case either.

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As for Bettman, he knew that some of his brethren didn’t think Vegas was a ginger-peachy idea. If he expected unanimous approval, he was sadly mistaken.

“Right from the get-go,” says one top NHL executive, “some owners were skeptical of Vegas. There were five or six of them. Some were heavy hitters. Their thinking was why add a team when we have franchises now that need help?”

It was a tough question for Bettman to answer, especially since one who questioned the Vegas move was the Commissioner’s own boss, Chairman of the Board of Governors and Bruins boss, Jeremy Jacobs.

Another issue that has remained subdued, but must be addressed, is territorial.

Do either the Kings or Ducks deserve compensation since Vegas might be determined as infringing on their not-so-distant Southern California markets?

Despite a thumbs-down here or there, Bettman’s pro-Vegas group so far has prevailed on the basis of better arguments pro than con.

As one general manager puts it, “The player talent pool now is bigger than ever. We have skaters not only coming from all over Europe, but even from warm weather states here in America.”

True enough, the first Draft pick will likely be forward Auston Mathews, and he’s from Scottsdale, AZ. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun of Boca Raton, FL could go as high as eighth in the Entry Draft.

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Optimists also point out that critics once said that big league hockey would fail in such cities as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles when the NHL originally expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967.

Each of the above socko-successes have become the inspiration for Vegas boosters. They point out that folks are in Vegas not only for a fun time.

“There are people who live and work here,” says Las-Vegas Review-Journal reporter Ed Graney. “They raise kids here, have businesses here, and they’d like something communal from the sports standpoint to get behind. Next week, Las Vegas as a sports town will change forever.”

What do some Metropolitan Area fans think about the imminent approval of Vegas?

“Hockey needs to continue to expand,” says Sam Stern of Nanuet, NY.

Rini Krishnan of Smithtown, NY agrees, “It’s a financially strong and economically sound move. Warm weather regions are becoming hockey markets with junior hockey leagues growing in those areas.”

“With non-traditional markets becoming more popular,” says Jon Silverman of Great Neck, NY, “an owner with deep pockets and a will to spend will succeed in the right place. Vegas is one of those right places.”

And finally, Robert Taub of Freeport, NY, “Expansion is the best thing the NHL has done in a while. Hockey has always been behind the other top sports. By expanding to Vegas, the league is declaring that a new age is coming.”

Make no mistake, there exists a bloc of critics who remain skeptical about the Vegas move. Hockey News columnist Ken Campbell is one of them.

“When this team is bad and boring, as it undoubtedly will be at some point, who’s going to come to the games?” asks Campbell. “Who is going to watch the product on television?  And, is an owner who’s not accustomed to sinking money into losing ventures, going to continue to pour resources into it?”

Other seasoned observers are riding the fence with a wait and see attitude. One of them is Toronto Globe and Mail columnist, Eric Duhatschek.

“Snowbirds haven’t flocked to games in Arizona or Florida the way those teams hoped, but the belief is Vegas can be different because people go to Vegas with a mindset to get out on the town,” writes Duhatschek. “Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.”

Sports-business guru Evan Weiner declares that there are three basic questions which will determine the success or failure of Vegas.

“Is there government support?” asks Weiner. “And the answer is Yes. Does Las Vegas has a large enough TV market and will TV produce significant amount of revenue for a Las Vegas team?

“NHL owners seem to think yes. And is there enough of a corporate market?. Again, NHL owners seem to think yes although the corporate market may instead mean casino backing.”

Ideally, the NHL would like to fill out with a 16-16 balance of East-West teams. The hope at Bettman, Inc. is that the 32nd franchise would be located in Seattle. There’s only one problem, there’s still no building there, nor is there any firm idea of when one would be completed.

As one executive puts it to The Maven, “Until there’s a shovel in the ground, all bets are off for Seattle.”

Then there’s little, old Quebec City, with a brand new building, a built-in fan base and a fervent yearning for the Nordiques to rise again in the NHL.

There’s minimal support for QC within the Board of Governors because the Canadian dollar has been more erratic than Phil Kessel and, frankly, the NHL would prefer a larger market below the 49th parallel.

By contrast, all bets are on for Las Vegas — and those bets will be cashed in next week.