No NHL Las Vegas team yet, but expansion process could start in June

Photo by Bryan Steffy/WireImage

WINNIPEG – The NHL will not announce the awarding of an expansion franchise to Las Vegas when the board of governors meets there in June. But the league could announce the start of a formal expansion process if the board decides to proceed. It is unclear how long that process would take.

Potential Las Vegas owner Bill Foley has been running a season-ticket drive to gauge the viability of the market since Feb. 10. His stated goal has been to gather 10,000 commitments from everyday people and land a franchise that would begin playing in 2016-17 after a new arena is completed on the Strip.

Foley announced March 16 he had reached 9,000 commitments. He hasn’t announced anything since, but reported March 30 he had gathered more than 10,000 commitments and now was reaching out to large corporations, including casinos. 

“I know there’s been a lot of speculation about it,” Bettman said Monday before Game 3 of the Anaheim Ducks-Winnipeg Jets playoff series. “What I’m hearing is that the season-ticket drive has gone and is going extraordinarily well. When we get to the board meeting in June, I will report to the board as to where things stand based on the expressions of interest, and we’ll figure out then what if anything – if anything – we want to do.”

Asked directly if Foley had reached 10,000 commitments, Bettman said: “I’m not commenting on the count. Ultimately that will be for him at the appropriate time, but he’s doing well – very well.”

Why would Foley not announce he had reached his goal if he has? Perhaps to keep people making commitments, so he can say he has exceeded his goal when he makes a grand, final announcement.

The NHL did not know what to expect from the season-ticket drive and has been impressed by the response of the market. Despite some lulls, Foley has convinced people to commit real money without any guarantees in a city that has never had a major pro sports franchise.

No one expected Las Vegas to be like Winnipeg, which lost the original Jets in 1996 and sold out 13,000 season tickets in 17 minutes in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers were available to relocate.

“My guess is Mr. Foley in Vegas had some conversations with [Jets chairman] Mark Chipman about the mechanics of doing a season-ticket drive,” Bettman said. “Obviously the time frames are a little different. Here it took 20 minutes but everybody knew a team was coming. What they’re doing in Las Vegas to gauge interest is ask people to commit and give a deposit on a franchise that doesn’t exist.”

Bettman has said repeatedly the NHL has been listening to expressions of interest and has not started a formal expansion process. He reiterated that Monday. The next steps for Las Vegas are for Foley to complete his drive, Bettman to report to the board in June and the board to decide whether to start a formal expansion process. 

“He’s keeping us periodically updated on what’s going on,” Bettman said. “But again, let’s remember the origin of this. He wanted the opportunity to gauge the level of interest in professional sports in general and in a hockey team in particular in Vegas so he could decide whether or not it was worth continuing to pursue.

“From our standpoint, we were happy to let him do that, because as I think everybody knows, Las Vegas is not your typical market, and if – if – there’s going to be any movement for it, it’s good to know where things stood, because obviously if the market wasn’t going to support the ticket drive, he was going to lose interest and drop out.” 

There is no indication Foley or the NHL has lost interest in Las Vegas.