25 June 2016

Can the NHL succeed in Las Vegas?

It has seemed like a pretty solid bet that the National Hockey League was preparing to put a team in Las Vegas (pun absolutely intended). And now as of this past Wednesday, it is official: there will be a 31st NHL franchise at the start of the 2017-18 NHL season and it will be the Las Vegas (fill in the blank)s.

Anytime any of the major pro sports leagues expands is a big deal but this is a unique challenge considering that this franchise will be the first major professional sports franchise in Sin City. Will it be a success?

As you would expect, people were already deeming this as soon as beloved NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made the announcement as something doomed to fail. Therefore, let's break down what are the more common reasons why this will not work out.

First off, the idea that hockey cannot succeed in the desert. After all, the Arizona Coyotes have had their fair share of problems since relocating from Winnipeg 20 years ago with various financial issues, low attendance and arena problems. But I don't see Las Vegas being an identical situation. First of all, unlike in Phoenix which already had 2 sports franchises in the mix (the Suns and the Cardinals), the Vegas team will get the chance to plant the seed and have the first crack at building a fanbase. Second, the arena situation in Phoenix immediately put that franchise in a bind considering that they first played in an NBA arena that was horrible set up for hockey and then moved to an arena in a horrible location for the majority of the demographic area. In Vegas, they got a brand spankin' new venue, the T-Mobile Arena, on the south end of the Strip next to a major highway.

Second, there is a question about whether the market is big enough to sustain a professional team and that I think is a concern to an extent. Las Vegas itself isn't particularly big but it is growing. But beyond the city limits, the DMA is not that big considering that the city is surrounded by desert. According to our good friends at Nielsen, it is only television market #40 which would make it one of the smallest markets in American sports and the second-smallest American NHL market ahead of only Buffalo.

But Las Vegas also has an advantage that other smaller markets lack and that is it will basically become the top road ticket in the league. After all, it's Vegas! People flock there anyways and don't you think that fans of say the Blue Jackets or the Predators would be down for a short trip to Vegas?

Now the question of whether a franchise can compete with all the entertainment that Las Vegas provides is a very legitimate question. The gambling really isn't that big of a piece of the pie anymore compared to the cornucopia of shows and entertainment that are there. But there is more of Vegas than just the Strip, which is basically all tourists (and degenerates) and thus the locals who don't do that action now have another option.

But what happens if the NFL comes to Vegas? The Raiders have been openly campaigning to relocate to Nevada for several months now and the venerable Sheldon Adelson has worked hard to get a stadium deal going to bring the team to town. Now if the Raiders come to town, would the NHL club get blown out of the water? Surely they wouldn't be able to compare but I think the hockey team would be fine but if an NBA franchise also came to town, then that would be a problem.

For what it's worth, I think an NHL franchise can succeed in Las Vegas. Surely there are some hurdles to deal with but I think they could be manageable. But as we all know, the key for this team will be if they could win because since they are not the only show in town (pun intended), a loser will definitely fall through the cracks.