Is the NHL really going to put a team in Las Vegas? The rumors continue to pop up, but that doesn’t mean the long-term prospects for hockey in Nevada would be worth wagering on.
Despite the typically demure comments NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is famous for making on the subject of expansion to Las Vegas, the rumblings continue to grow louder: on Thursday, a report had casino giant MGM Resorts International holding talks with a group looking to situate a team in the Nevada city.
MGM is currently building a $375-million, 20,000-seat arena in the heart of the city – and their partner in the building is the Anschutz Entertainment Group. Anschutz as in Philip Anschutz, owner of the L.A. Kings and NHL power broker. If you want to get a foot in the door of the NHL, this is one of the ways you do it. Networking matters in this league. But if the NHL does decide to set up shop in the pre-eminent entertainment destination on the continent, there’s going to need to be some questions answered. Such as:
1. How on earth are they going to market a non-traditional product such as hockey in a marketplace that has hundreds of other options for consumers to dispose of their disposable income?
With all the glitz and glamor of the Vegas Strip fighting for the eyeballs and pocketbooks of tourists, what exactly can the NHL do to stand out from the rest of the pack? If you’re telling me an expansion team (with its lowered expectations and talent levels) in and of itself will be good enough to bring people through the doors, I’m telling you you’re wrong. The attraction can’t be the players on the roster, who will be the flotsam and jetsam of the league in an expansion draft. There’s also every chance the franchise will be mismanaged for years, if not decades (see Thrashers, Atlanta and Panthers, Florida). There has to be something more.
2. Once the honeymoon period wears off, how does hockey stay relevant?
There will be a certain amount of hype and happiness in Vegas if the NHL became the first professional sports league to operate there, but once that giddiness fades after a few years, there is next to no grassroots/amateur hockey scene in the area through which to reach young kids and cultivate them as players and fans. Absent that pipeline of support, what is going to grab the casual sports fan by the scruff of the neck and make them care about hockey?
Even if MGM gives away tickets to its casino patrons, there’s no guarantee those tickets will be used. And don’t tell me hockey fans will fly to Vegas specifically intending to see a game. By and large, old tourists are there to gamble, young tourists are there to party, and many local sports fans have shifting schedules thanks to their jobs in the entertainment/gambling industry. This is not a traditional city nor a traditional hockey market. And what happens if another sports league follows the NHL’s lead and moves into Vegas? Basketball, football and baseball all have more natural connections in that area than hockey. All it would take would be one of Major League Baseball, the NFL or NBA to put a team there to push the NHL into the shadows.
Is there a chance the NHL could defy expectations and make hockey work in Las Vegas? Sure, just like there was a chance in Atlanta, and Kansas City, and Cleveland and Hartford. All those places seemed like good ideas at the time, but for a variety of reasons, it didn’t take long for best-laid plans to be laid to rest.
And a Las Vegas NHL team would come out of the gate with all sorts of challenges reducing the odds of their long-term survival.