As he's wont to do, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did his best to temper expectations in a state-of-the-league, board of governors press conference late Monday afternoon. But the topic he tried to soft-pedal – becoming the first of the Big Four pro sports leagues to set up shop in Las Vegas – cannot be soft-pedalled. And so Bettman's announcement that the league has given billionaire insurance magnate William Foley permission to conduct a season's-ticket drive in the city as a gauge of interest in hockey will lead to rampant speculation the NHL-to-Vegas is going to be confirmed sooner than later.
As it should. Some in the hockey industry have began operating as if an NHL franchise for the Nevada gambling mecca is a fait accompli.
"The league's confidence has never been higher, and with their costs controlled better than ever now, it's not a secret they've felt good about Vegas for months," said one prominent NHL agent, who spoke on condition his name not be used. "Look, you've got a billionaire prepared to pay the league's asking price (rumored by the New York Postto be in the area of $400 million) for the team and an arena that's privately financed and is going in whether the NHL is going there or not. The risk for the league is next to nothing at the moment, but there are still enough skeptics about the demographics that (league management) felt this was a first step they had to take to address the doubt. But this is a situation where, if you're asking the question publicly, you probably have a good idea of what the answer will be. Otherwise, you don't ask the question."
That is the key takeaway from Monday's news. Why would the NHL float this trial balloon if it weren't confident the people of Las Vegas would respond positively? It's handing the average citizen an opportunity to put that city on the pro sports map, and even casual hockey fans or non-fans might be seduced by the allure of something new and sign up for season's seats based on sheer exuberance alone. And rest assured Bettman doesn't want to have to step in front of microphones months from now and say something along the lines of, "Hey folks, remember that Vegas thing I mentioned a while back? Didn't work out. But the good news is the people told us it wasn't us, it was them."
So the NHL likely is aware of how the Las Vegas populace will answer Foley's ticket offer. But any short-term show of support from the locals doesn't put to rest all questions about the risks associated with an NHL team in Vegas. For instance – what happens when, two or three years down the road, a Vegas NHL team is unable to climb up the standings and suffers horrendous losses on a consistent basis? What is going to keep those casual and/or curious fans around and in the stands then? And if those people abandon their interest in the team and league, how quickly might the entire viability of the franchise come into question? The answer is nobody knows. A season ticket drive is no guarantee of anything in the big picture. The risk over the long haul remains considerable.
In a wide-ranging interview last year with THN, Bettman made it clear what the league needs before it commits to a city.
“The most important elements are market, arena and ownership,” Bettman said of what the league considers when looking at expansion. “But the issue is we have to first decide if we’re thinking about arena, market and ownership, if we have anything to offer."
Clearly, they're thinking about it. And clearly, Vegas' ducks are lining up. Arena? Check. Ownership? Check. Checks for all 30 other owners? Check.
Market? Sure, that's the final piece of the puzzle that puts an NHL team in a city where some might thought it never would be – and ahead of more deserving cities in Quebec City, Southern Ontario and Seattle – but Bettman and the owners wouldn't be looking for it if they thought it wouldn't be theirs.
So if you're a fan, you can go ahead and look into booking a flight to see your favorite NHL team take on the Vegas Buffets (or whatever they're going to be called). And if you're a visiting player, you can start researching advanced hangover cures. It's happening.