The NHL in Las Vegas would be a gamble with significant downside

Adam Proteau
NHL Las Vegas

A new Globe And Mail report on the NHL meeting with prospective owners of an expansion franchise for Las Vegas is exciting for hockey fans in Nevada. But if a team in Vegas became a reality, it has every chance of ending in disaster.

The NHL and Las Vegas have been linked for years – usually to Hollywood super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer – and part of the sell line any time the topic is broached is hockey’s best league being the first of the big four professional sports to set up shop in that city. But maybe there’s a reason why the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball haven’t put a team there. Perhaps there’s more than one reason. Maybe, for every good reason to expand to Vegas, there’s a drawback or potential pitfall.

For one thing, there’s the undeniable fact any pro team would be competing with scores of other entertainment options for people’s disposable income. If you’re a tourist coming into town, you have the option of seeing the world’s best singers, comedians, circus performers and magicians (sorry: illusionists) every night of the week. What on earth would compel the average consumer to choose a mid-season hockey game – something they can see at home at any point – over one of those events?

Some have speculated the league can avoid this problem if it arranged to have one casino bankroll a Vegas team by purchasing most, if not all available tickets and hand them out as freebies to their customers. But that’s not a guarantee those people attend games. In fact, it could lead to large blocks of seating sections being empty on many nights. In addition, thousands of Las Vegas citizens who would theoretically support the team are connected to the casino/entertainment industry – and as such, often are engaged in shift work that would prevent them from regularly being in attendance for multiple games; this is why the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers stage a midnight game every season. But you can’t do that 41 nights a year.

Yes, including Las Vegas and Seattle in the next round of NHL expansion makes sense when it comes to evening out the current conference imbalance that has 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West. However, how embarrassing would it be for the league to put a team in Vegas and have it relocated within a decade? In a town that’s made Carrot Top’s alleged comedy a viable financial enterprise, failure would be a stinging slight on the NHL product.

There would undoubtedly be a honeymoon period for the NHL in Vegas. But, like a lot of fast-and-passionate marriages consummated in that city, it quickly could disintegrate in the cold light of reality.