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The Golden Knights real target market: a city of sports fans beyond The Strip

Matt Larkin
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The Golden Knights real target market: a city of sports fans beyond The Strip

Jason Garrison, Deryk Engelland, Braden McNabb and Marc-Andre Fleury will all soon get to know the many sides of the NHL’s newest home. Image by: Vegas Golden Knights

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The Golden Knights real target market: a city of sports fans beyond The Strip

Matt Larkin
By:

Away from the bright lights and high rollers on The Strip is a good old-fashioned homegrown base of local sports fans champing at the bit for their Knights to suit up.

Don't think about the ending to Casino. Just stop. Speeding down a highway bound for the Nevada desert, though, on a record-tying 117-degree day, the mind wanders to the grisly demise Joe Pesci’s character meets in a freshly dug hole during Martin Scorsese’s crime epic. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The movie is 22 years old. If you haven’t seen it, it’s your fault.

The truth is that a trip in Las Vegas anywhere off The Strip, the gauntlet of spectacular hotels in the entertainment capital of the world, is a novelty. It invites silly mob stereotypes because, like so many people, I know almost nothing about the real Vegas. I don’t know where this cab is going, only that it’s bound for the offices of Black Knight Financial Services, which is chaired by William ‘Bill’ Foley, proud owner of Sin City’s first NHL franchise. The drive through the desert ends at something I had never previously encountered in the state of Nevada: a real live neighborhood.

The BKFS office in West Las Vegas, which for now serves as the business headquarters of the Golden Knights before they eventually shack up in the team’s new state-of-the-art practice facility, looks more like the mob boss’ mansion in the movie than a typical place of business. It’s lavishly decorated, with luxurious furniture and fancy artwork. You’d probably find leather-bound books if you looked hard enough.

It’s June 20, one day before Vegas will reveal its 30-man expansion roster, and it’s busy. People in suits scurry left and right. Foley sits across the front foyer, literally ready for his close-up, with a camera in his face, filming promotional footage for the expansion draft. I’m parked in the lobby as the hockey operations crew, led by GM George McPhee, may or may not be finalizing their picks in the next room. Team president Kerry Bubolz arrives as the welcoming committee, a friendly face and also a convenient distraction lest I accidentally hear anything.

He’s here to share the story of how a cab ride just like mine changed his perception of Las Vegas. A year ago, Bubolz made the same maiden voyage outside the city grid as I did. He had been to Sin City about 20 times earlier in his life, but quickly realized it was time to view the market through a new lens once he accepted the job. He was blown away by what he saw when he went exploring with his wife: beautiful red-rock mountains and communities filled with schools, churches, playgrounds and salt-of-the-earth people, the same types for which sprawling cities like New York are known and romanticized. As Bubolz explains it, roughly 43 million people visit Las Vegas each year, most of whom don’t stray from The Strip. That’s about 827,000 tourists a week, and the workforce to service all of them didn’t appear out of thin air. These people come from somewhere. They form metropolitan Las Vegas’ population, which is about two million. And they, not the tourists, are the key to the NHL succeeding there.

They’re the blackjack dealers and bellhops and concierges and executive chefs. Virtually every one of them you bump into, old or young, male or female, has something to say about the Golden Knights. Some are enthusiastic without knowing ice hockey from field hockey and clearly have a lot to learn about the game, but some are already hardcore fans. For example, Ryan, an Uber driver, is a hockey nut so knowledgeable you’d swear he was from Toronto or Montreal. He’s a transplanted Detroit Red Wings diehard who rhymes off the team’s entire protected player list for the expansion draft. He laments GM Ken Holland’s decision to keep goaltender Jimmy Howard and expose Petr Mrazek. And Ryan, not a bunch of Canadian dudes cruising in for a bachelor party, is Vegas’ target demographic. The locals are the ones who will fill T-Mobile Arena for games, so the front office hopes.

And, not so coincidentally, one of those locals now plays for the Golden Knights. Defenseman Deryk Engelland was one of two UFAs signed during the team’s exclusive 72-hour negotiating window leading up to the expansion draft. It was a symbolic commitment. Engelland lives in Vegas, having met his wife, Melissa, there
when he played for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers from 2003 to 2005. He understands how passionate the fans are. He’s quick to point out the Wranglers were a borderline top-five attendance team while he was there, regularly topping 5,000 fans, which is respectable for third-tier pro hockey. They had a strong 11-season run before folding in 2014 after failing to secure a new arena. And he’s convinced the passion the Wranglers fans showed will return with the Golden Knights in town.

“It’ll be great,” Engelland said. “From the ticket drive to the hype around town, everywhere you go, you see Knights stuff. Hats, shirts, everything. Talking to people around the rink and anywhere, they’re just excited for a team and I think it’ll go really well.”

It won’t go well in the standings early on, however. Peruse the list of players Vegas selected in the expansion draft, and it’s clear this team wants to tank. It loaded up on draft picks via trades, securing 11 extra selections on expansion draft day alone, and should contend for lottery picks over the next several years.
The players who showed up in person on expansion draft night – Engelland, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jason Garrison and Brayden McNabb – raved about “how good” the team looked on paper, and anyone would say the same in their shoes. The reality is the Golden Knights will try to emulate what the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs have done in recent years, stockpiling high-end prospects via a roster deliberately rigged to sink in the standings and secure prime draft slots.

The Oilers waited 10 seasons between playoff berths, and the Leafs missed in 10 of 11 seasons before their breakout in 2016-17. The Golden Knights fans, then, will have their patience and attention spans tested. The desert neighbor Arizona Coyotes and their forever flagging attendance rates serve as the cautionary tale. Before finally making some aggressive trades this offseason, the Coyotes were a franchise suspended in a state of building for the future and amassing prospects, and their fan base long ago gave up waiting for a standings ascension. Arizona has finished 28th or worse in attendance percentage for eight consecutive seasons. Foley promised a Stanley Cup within six years of the franchise’s inception. If you buy that, try the $11.99 steak and lobster special over on Fremont Street. It’s the best in Vegas! But, hey, it’s nice to see an owner aim high. In any case, building via the draft lottery is the prudent path to a championship, so the Golden Knights are on the right track.

Before a championship must come a champion, and Engelland will gladly play the role of campaigner. No player in the league knows the city like he does.

“If you live here, everyone’s like, ‘You live in Vegas? Other than The Strip, what’s there to do?’ But it’s a city. It’s a great place to raise kids and have a family. It’s the same thing for the hockey team. People will come here more often and find that out.”

The franchise’s decision-makers match Engelland’s confidence in the local fans. The Golden Knights have earmarked just 10 to 15 percent of their tickets toward visiting fans, which could include blocks purchased from businesses and the big hotels, who will likely offer them as comps the same way they’ve always
hurled show tickets at their guests. But 85 to 90 percent of the tickets are aimed at Vegas’ long-term residents.

“A lot of perceptions are, ‘Is this team going to survive on the tourist marketplace?’ ” Bubolz said. “And the answer is we’re not. We’re going to thrive first and foremost on the two million people in this marketplace. It’s an underserved market. They love sports here.”

Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights Author: Josh Holmberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Part of servicing the local market, the average fans who want to see hockey games, means a decreased focus on big season-ticket packages. The Golden Knights capped their season-ticket offerings at 12,000 even though they easily could’ve sold more. The person most responsible for that decision: LeBron James.

Bubolz was the Cleveland Cavaliers’ president of business operations until 2016. He joined the NBA franchise in 2003 and experienced the high of LeBron’s first tenure with the team and then the crush of him taking his talents to South Beach in 2010. The Cavaliers survived without their favorite Akron-born son for four seasons despite the worst aggregate record in the NBA over that timespan, but they still fell upon some hard times. A prime reason why: the Cavs handed out full season-ticket packages like candy at the time, and when LeBron left, fans didn’t want to pay for such big investments anymore. They backed out.

When LeBron decided to return in 2014 for what would end up being his championship tenure with the Cavs, the franchise was determined not to make the same mistake. This time, it would offer fans a much larger variety of smaller ticket investments, from 21- game packs to 10-game packs to individual tickets. With a lower-risk commitment, fans would be much less likely to walk away from a weakened on-court product. It’s insurance for when LeBron retires or leaves Cleveland again.

That’s the lesson Bubolz brings from the NBA to the NHL. He understands the Golden Knights will be a basement-dwelling team for the first several years of their existence, and offering smaller ticket commitments to the fans should keep them coming back for what will be a fun night out, win or lose. Doing so will also prioritize the local fans.

That said, the tourists matter a lot to the Golden Knights, too. They’re a crucial tool. Before his NBA run, Bubolz was a hockey man, working as vice-president of sales for the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes. In those days, his job was purely to sell tickets, and he was doing so in two brand-new NHL markets that had transplanted their teams from hockey-friendly Minnesota and Hartford, respectively. He had an eyeopening experience when Carolina reached the 2002 conference final and battled the Toronto Maple Leafs. Driving into the parking lot for an afternoon game in Raleigh, he spotted a sea of RVs with Leafs fans tailgating, and he was even more impressed when he got into the arena. That’s when a light bulb went on in his head.

The Leafs fans were rowdy even before the opening puck drop, and the Hurricanes fans started trying to match their intensity. The Leafs fans cheered not just for goals and saves but also for the little things, the nuances such as killed penalties, conscientious backchecks and defensive-zone faceoff wins. And the Hurricanes fans began to mimic their behavior. Bubolz wants to encourage the same learning experience in Vegas.

“As much as I want to make sure our building is full of Golden Knights fans,” he said, “there’s a part of me that understands that, at least early on, those fans of those other strong, passionate hockey markets are a good thing. Because they’re going to cheer at times, and our fans will say, ‘What? They’re cheering?’ They’ll ask questions and learn.”

These are different times, of course. Golden Knights fans won’t stumble blindly into their first pre-season games with no idea how to watch or cheer a hockey game. It’s the social media era, and fans have better access to information than ever. Thus, we won’t see remedial explanations of rules on the jumbotron, the way we did for San Jose Sharks games in 1991 or the Nashville Predators in 1998.

And the most recent example of a non-traditional fan base coming into its own is, of course, the Predators, who have been flourishing for years but really exploded into mainstream consciousness with their recent run to the final. The Golden Knights see a lot of commonality between the two franchises and really look up to the Predators as a role model. Not only has Nashville become a respected and knowledgeable “hockey town,” but it also is one of the NHL’s most unique markets because it embraces its personality. Nashville is Music City, and the Predators’ game experience reflects that. It’s totally country, with the industry’s most talented musicians regularly appearing at games and performing. There’s an obvious parallel to Vegas, another city founded on entertainment, and the Golden Knights fully acknowledge that.

The team plans to avoid the more obvious “lowbrow” Vegas stereotypes, so don’t expect to see Wayne Newton crooning on a stage flanked by the Rockettes. But there’s obviously a tremendous opportunity to blend hockey with the Vegas experience. The Golden Knights have partnered with Cirque de Soleil and will feature showcases during intermissions of select games throughout the year. Just as the Los Angeles Kings weave celebrities into their game presentation, with videos of locals like Will Ferrell hyping the fans, the Golden Knights will do the same. They have dozens of big-name local acts, from Celine Dion to Britney Spears to Penn & Teller, and hope to include them during game festivities.

Fans will also witness plenty of those only-in-Vegas moments in game presentations, too. That could mean, for example, a Cirque to Soleil contortionist, known for shooting a bow and arrow with her feet, doing so on the big screen after a defenseman snipes a long-distance goal. No other NHL market can offer something like that and call it relevant. Vegas also intends to milk everything it can from the team name: the Golden Knights. They want to embrace the imagery of armored warriors from a faraway time. And yes, they fully recognize the potential to exploit Game of Thrones’ success as a cultural phenomenon. Knights are cooler today than ever.

“You think about the knight and what it represents, that medieval timeframe, and fearlessness,” Bubolz said. “Always advancing, never retreating, which speaks to the hockey part of it. A lot of our entertainment experience is going to revolve around that with the goal of creating an environment that, candidly, is not very fun for the visiting teams hen they come in.”

Picture the costumed fan base that characterized the Oakland Raiders and the Black Hole for years in the NFL, and maybe Vegas will achieve something similar someday. The on-ice product might not be pretty in the early days, but the Golden Knights plan to win their earliest battles off the ice. They’ll do that by dressing up the experience in a way only Sin City can, and they’ll do that by embracing what they feel is an underrated, unappreciated, untapped local fan base. No matter what happens, everyone involved should have a lot of fun doing it. That’s the Vegas way.

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The Golden Knights real target market: a city of sports fans beyond The Strip