There’s so much to unpack when it comes to the NFL’s near-unanimous decision to follow the money and approve the move of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, which will likely be completed two years from now.
First, it underlines how differently the NFL and NHL approach their businesses. The NFL is the most successful sports league in the world, but that hasn’t stopped it from relocating a mind-boggling three franchises in the past 15 months. There is no league that follows the money better than the NFL, whose principles and actions are guided by the almighty dollar and only the almighty dollar. There is also no league more willing to cut ties with markets it feels no longer work, regardless of their historical significance.
The NFL was lured most of all by revenue streams that could be created with a $1.9 billion stadium, $750 million of which will be paid for by the good working people of Nevada. It’s a mind-blowing skewing of priorities. As Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who privately built his $375 million arena, aptly pointed out, that money could have been better spent on police, firefighters and teachers. But apparently people there are just fine with their tax money going to monuments to the rich.
The NHL, meanwhile, continues its sometimes-pointless fight for flagging markets in Phoenix, South Florida and Raleigh – all products of commissioner Gary Bettman’s Sunbelt strategy – seemingly against all logic. Taxpayers paid for and built a $400 million arena in Quebec City that is waiting for an NHL team in a fertile market. But it sits empty, save a junior hockey team that will play there until it is eliminated, possibly as early as tomorrow night. (Full disclosure: The group leading the efforts to bring the NHL back to Quebec is Quebecor, which also owns The Hockey News.)
The other matter to consider is how the earth-shaking move of the NFL will affect the Golden Knights and their attempts to establish a foothold in the Sin City market. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of hand-wringing among NHL types, largely because they must have seen this coming. As early as a year ago, NHL executives were saying off the record that there was almost no way the Raiders would be going to Las Vegas, but we now see how quickly things can change. But they had to know that if this, or something like this, wasn’t going to happen in the short-term, it certainly was inevitable in the long-term.
This is a franchise that has had a great running start and will have two years, possibly even three, to engender itself to sports fans before the NFL even plays a down there. The expansion rules laid down by the NHL will not make this team a Stanley Cup contender immediately, but the league has given Vegas the most generous expansion terms ever. This will be a group off the hop that will be very, very difficult to play against, chock full of good veteran talent with above-average goaltending. That’s a really good start. So is having a guy like Lindy Ruff behind the bench. (Follow the tea leaves here. There’s likely no way Ruff survives beyond this season in Dallas, especially since his contract is up. Based on nothing more than a hunch, my prediction is Ken Hitchcock winds up back behind the Stars bench and Vegas quickly snaps up Ruff as its first coach.)
The Golden Knights have the right GM in place in George McPhee. Not only is he an able team-builder, more importantly he has vowed to put a product on the ice that will intrigue and excite fans. McPhee thinks winning and entertaining are not mutually exclusive and that is the absolute best way to think when it comes to the Golden Knights. Had they had the market to themselves, the Golden Knights might have been able to afford a few years of dull, defensive, low-skill hockey aimed at finishing near the bottom of the standings in order to stock the organization with young talent. That strategy has almost certainly gone out the window with the NFL news because now the Golden Knights have two seasons to get their fans hooked on the speed, skill, grace, physicality and passion of hockey before the locals begin having to make decisions on how to spend their sports entertainment dollars.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it will keep Vegas on its toes and there will be no opportunity for complacency to work its way into any cranny of the organization. The Golden Knights will have to be both competitive and entertaining off the hop. If they are not and they end up being buried by the NFL in a couple of years, then the NHL will come to the realization that it was never a viable hockey market in the first place. And it can continue to fight for Vegas the way it does its other wards of the state.
That would be a shame and it does not have to happen. Las Vegas is big enough to support two teams if the will to embrace hockey is indeed there by the fan base. The seasons do collide, but the bigger issue will be how people choose to spend their discretionary dollars. The NHL was never going to have this market to itself in perpetuity and to base its decisions on thinking that provincial and insular would have been a mistake. This competition was always coming. It’s just arrived a little earlier than expected.
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