Who wants a ticket? Las Vegas NHL dream depends on locals, not casinos

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Who wants a ticket? Las Vegas NHL dream depends on locals, not casinos
Who wants a ticket? Las Vegas NHL dream depends on locals, not casinos

LAS VEGAS – Many from this gambling city's business elite – casino operators, wealthy developers, powerful politicians, – stood, riveted, Tuesday in a small conference room in the MGM Grand as Bill Foley officially kicked off his bid for an NHL expansion franchise.

In addition to the rich and powerful, there were those who had for years tried to make minor league sports work in a city that for more than a decade was the fastest growing in the country. After failure upon failure, they were eager to celebrate even the slightest hint that the town could finally land a major league franchise.

One by one, they'd all attest to their belief that Las Vegas, a city which has rarely supported professional sports in any meaningful way, would be able to sell at least 10,000 season tickets that Foley wanted to sell as a barometer of the city's interest in hockey.

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand as Las Vegas began its season-ticket drive. (Getty)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand as Las Vegas began its season-ticket drive. (Getty)

Rossi Ralenkotter, the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, spoke of how well the city draws for the National Finals Rodeo each year, as well as for the Professional Bull Riders' annual stop. He noted that the March NASCAR event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of the best-attended of the year.

All of those, though, rely significantly on tourists to buy the tickets and fill the city's 150,000 hotel rooms.

The goal for a potential Las Vegas NHL franchise would be decidedly different. There have been theories advanced by franchise supporters that it would be able to attract Pittsburgh Penguins fans when Sidney Crosby and Co. hit Las Vegas or that snow-bound Canadians would fly to the city to enjoy some of the sunshine and nightlife while their favorite team was in town.

While that may be true, those people aren't the ones that Foley began to chase at 1:30 in the afternoon Pacific time Tuesday when his website, vegaswantshockey.com, officially began accepting season-ticket deposits.

Asked if a team could thrive with a large percentage of its ticket sales going to tourists, Foley didn't hesitate. He was as blunt as a slapshot to the chops.

"No," he said, firmly. "That's why this ticket drive is all about getting deposits from local residents, not from casinos, not from people from out of town. Our ticket drive is based on a 35-mile radius from downtown Las Vegas.

"That's what we want, and that's what we're getting."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the news conference and said all the right things when he went to the podium. He spoke of how persuasive Foley was in getting him to agree to allow the ticket drive to gauge interest.

Foley created a group he named "The Founding 75," whom he tasked with selling 60 season tickets apiece. Nearly to a person, they all said they were confident that not only would they sell all of their required tickets, but more. Most of them said they believed that before it was all said and done, all 17,500 seats in the new arena just off the Strip would be sold before the first puck is dropped.

But even if that happens, the cold, hard truth is that there is no guarantee there will be expansion or that Las Vegas will get one of the franchises if the league votes to expand.

Asked for his thoughts on the likelihood of the success of Foley's ticket drive leading to a team, Bettman passed.

Even if the ticket drive is a success, it's no guarantee that Las Vegas will get an NHL team. (Getty)
Even if the ticket drive is a success, it's no guarantee that Las Vegas will get an NHL team. (Getty)

"It's too soon to tell," he said.

For a large portion of the past 25 years, entrepreneurs have come to Las Vegas with the idea of bringing minor league sports to the city. Few of them ever drew at all and nearly all of them died.

The city's baseball team is still around, but it's playing in a dilapidated stadium and has some of the worst attendance figures in Triple-A.

Las Vegas had two cracks at hockey before. The International Hockey League's Thunder succeeded, at least briefly, in the early-to-mid 1990s before going under after sustaining heavy financial losses. The Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL were never able to capture the public's imagination.

There were maybe 4,000 hardcore fans for the Thunder, who rooted on big names like Alexei Yashin, Curtis Joseph and Petr Nedved, among others, who played for the team during contract disputes with their NHL clubs.

There's also been myriad arena football and soccer franchises, several different pro basketball leagues, roller hockey, the XFL and more that at one point or another called Las Vegas home. All were born with high hopes and a dream. All went under amid a dizzying stack of bills and a decided lack of interest from the city's residents.

The Thunder were perhaps the most successful of all of the franchises that gave Las Vegas a try. That team's general manager, Bob Strumm, who went on to scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets for 12 years after the IHL team folded, is one of those optimistic the NHL will work in Sin City despite its sorry history of supporting sports.

"This is major league sports we're talking about and so I'm not sure that all of those other failures are applicable here," Strumm said. "Professional sports today, no matter what league, is corporate entertainment. The corporations [buy] the tickets and the suites and they support the various teams in the various leagues. That's the ticket for Las Vegas.

"With the Thunder, we had a pretty good run for three years and then it tapered off. But we couldn't get the support of the corporations. There was only one casino that supported us, and that was Caesars. The other thing is that the IHL was like Triple-A baseball and this is the big leagues. I think Vegas is a big-league city."

The NHL Awards have been a success in Las Vegas, but hosting a franchise is another story. (Getty)
The NHL Awards have been a success in Las Vegas, but hosting a franchise is another story. (Getty)

Real estate developer Gary Goett is one of The Founding 75. He lived in Calgary when the time the Flames moved from Atlanta and said there are several parallels. Goett is the developer of the swank Southern Highlands Golf Club, which for several years was a host to the city's annual PGA Tour stop. The tournament has historically always had abysmal attendance, but Goett said he believes an NHL franchise would be different.

"I think it's an interesting comparison with Calgary and Las Vegas," Goett said. "Before the Flames came to town, Calgary was getting 3,000 to 4,000 for their hockey. As soon as the Flames came in, they sold out right away and it's been sold out ever since.

"The NHL brings an entirely different aspect to sports in Vegas. Professional hockey will work here, I believe that. The city will have to be patient to get a competitive team, but if they are, I am convinced this will not only work, but work in a big way."

Jeff Sharples, who played 105 games in the NHL, was an original member of the Las Vegas Thunder and still lives in town. He believes that it can work, but said it will be important for the franchise to get the locals fired up about it.

It's hard to look past the string of failed sports franchises in this town whenever assessing the viability of a major league team. Even for the big-time boxing and UFC events, the majority of the audience is from out of town, and many of those are given tickets by the casinos.

It's going to be extremely difficult to get locals in a 24-hour town like Las Vegas, where a third of the population is always asleep and another third is always at work, to reach into their pockets regularly and buy tickets.

Foley, though, has heard all the horror stories and isn't deterred. He's not looking to own a franchise elsewhere. He said he wants to make it work in Las Vegas and is confident he can.

"I want to own an NHL franchise in Las Vegas and my wife and I want to be here and I want to be actively involved in the team," he said. "I'm not interested in getting my foot in the door and then putting a franchise in a cold-weather city.

"I like Las Vegas and I think it has a lot to offer as a location for a franchise. The economy is diversifying greatly and I think getting this franchise is the next logical step in the city's development."

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