Gary Bettman (left) and Bill Foley (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
It looks as though expansion to Las Vegas is a board of governors' rubber stamp away from being reality, which means more hockey in the Sun Belt and another team in the desert.
It appears that expansion is simply a board of governors vote away after news surfaced that the NHL’s all-powerful executive committee will recommend the league grant a team to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season. The owners will happily accept Bill Foley’s $500 million and the NHL will now be known as The Original 31.
Approval from the board of governors is usually a rubber-stamp process. But when deputy commissioner Bill Daly talked about it prior to the Stanley Cup final, he said he would never pre-suppose the results of a board vote, particularly on a file as contentious as this one. Which is code for saying that not everybody thinks this is a great idea.
There are downsides to expansion. One of them is not, repeat not, that the hockey talent will be harmfully diluted by adding a 31st team. Yes, roughly 23 players will now be playing in the NHL who were not good enough to play before. But the talent pool is vast and varied that it won’t make much of a difference. And if it does, that actually could be a good thing. Hockey has become so dull not because the players aren’t good enough, but because they’re too good. You want to increase scoring, scoring chances and excitement? Nothing will do that more effectively than injecting the league with bad players, goalies and coaches.
No, what concerns your trusty correspondent more than anything else is one utterly inescapable truth about Las Vegas. It is in the desert. Full stop. And we’ve all seen how putting a hockey team in the desert has worked out for the NHL so far. Hint: it has been an unmitigated money-pit of a disaster.
Las Vegas has a wonderful new arena, an owner with extremely deep pockets – although we’ll be checking the length of his arms once the bills start piling up – and a fertile professional sports market. All good things. But it’s still a hockey team in the desert. And what should concern everyone involved is not the first five years of this team’s existence. Because during that time, it will be cute and cuddly and people will be drawn to that. And if and when this team gets good, the people will probably come. But what about the lean years? There are bound to be some of them. And has any Sun Belt fan base, with the possible exception of the San Jose Sharks, displayed even a slight willingness to support a hockey teams when times are bad?
(Speaking of the Sharks, here’s how difficult it is to make money in a non-traditional market. Despite having 12 home playoff dates and having an average attendance of 16,746, the Sharks will not make money in the 2015-16 season. Part of that is because they have a terrible local television contract. But another reason is attendance figures don’t begin to tell the story when it comes to making money. Revenues do, however, and your revenues are limited in a non-traditional market because there’s only so much you can charge for tickets.)
When this team is bad and boring, as it undoubtedly will be at some point, who is going to come to the games? Who is going to watch the product on television? And is an owner who is not accustomed to sinking money into losing ventures, going to continue to pour resources into it?
This is all due diligence that the executive committee has no doubt already done. And it has come to the conclusion that Las Vegas is a suitable market for the NHL, more suitable than Quebec City, where people actually have a hockey background and would be willing to pay top dollar for tickets. But they’re always good hockey markets at this point in the process. Have you ever heard a sports league say, “Yeah, you know, we’re not really sure about this market, but we’re going to give it a go and see how things work out.” No, there is always all sorts of reason for optimism until reality kicks in.
And the reality is the Las Vegas Knights or Aces or whatever they’re going to be called will still be a hockey team in the desert. And there is nothing that will ever change that. But in the short term, that almost $17 million in expansion money per team is certainly going to come in handy.