The NHL is ready to roll the dice on Las Vegas.
A person with direct knowledge of the NHL’s decision says the league has settled on Las Vegas as the home for its next expansion franchise, provided organizers can come up with a $500 million fee.
The person spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity because details of the plans have not been released by the league ahead of its Board of Governors meeting on June 22 in Las Vegas. Quebec City was also strongly considered for expansion.
A second person who had been briefed on the decision said Las Vegas was a "done deal" following the recommendation of the NHL’s executive committee.
The Vegas franchise is expected to begin play in the 2017-18 season, which is the earliest the league could expand, according to a third person who has been briefed on the decision.
The franchise would be the NHL’s 31st team and the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas, the rapidly growing gambling centre of the American West.
The NHL hasn’t expanded since 2000, when Minnesota and Columbus paid $80 million each to join the league. Prospective Vegas owner Bill Foley is a wealthy businessman who isn’t likely to blink at the elevated price tag previously proposed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as an expansion fee.
The Las Vegas bid says it has secured more than 14,000 season-ticket deposits for the new team, which will play in T-Mobile Arena, the sparkling new multipurpose building on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. The arena, which seats 17,500 for hockey, was built entirely with private money by MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owners of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Las Vegas area had nearly 2.2 million people in the 2010 census, making it the largest population centre in the U.S. without a major pro sports franchise. Public support for Foley’s bid has been robust, and the NHL has noticed the appeal of being the only major sports show in a town that loves a big event.
"This could be a watershed moment for our community and sports in Southern Nevada," said Jonas Peterson, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. "Having a professional hockey team will not only boost our economy, but also our sense of community pride."
Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she couldn’t confirm the expansion, but said she senses a "great probability" for the decision because of a shift in the conversation in the last two weeks.
"H-E double-hockey-sticks yes!" said Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, the first person to make a deposit on season tickets. "I’m excited, but I’m waiting for the official announcement from the NHL. Las Vegas has been waiting for this for decades. We’re a major league city. We deserve major league sports. I can’t wait to see that first championship parade down the Las Vegas Strip!"
The days when sports leagues were wary of the potential corruption in Vegas’ massive sports betting scene are apparently finished, making the growing, multicultural city an attractive candidate for sports looking to get in on the market.
The Oakland Raiders have held serious discussions with Vegas leaders in recent months about a move to Nevada, with owner Mark Davis suggesting that he and his partners, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, could build a $1.4 billion domed stadium near the Strip with substantial public money. David Beckham met with the group in April, and the English soccer superstar suggested Vegas would be a candidate for an MLS team with that new field.
But Foley and the NHL have been working much longer to bring hockey to the city — with the enormous advantage of an NHL-ready building freshly opened in town. T-Mobile Arena had its grand opening April 6 with a concert featuring Wayne Newton and the Killers, and Canelo Alvarez knocked out Amir Khan in a middleweight title bout on May 7 in its first competitive sporting event.
The NHL has debated expansion for a few years, with Seattle and the Toronto suburbs also generating interest for another team. Foley has always been the leader, with the league accepting a $2 million deposit and thoroughly vetting his financial plans last year.
Quebec City still has a strong bid for expansion, but owners have expressed concerns about the strength of the Canadian dollar and a geographical imbalance if they add another team to the Eastern Conference, which currently has 16 teams to the West’s 14.
Bettman has said he doesn’t worry about the league’s product suffering from dilution.
Even with the serious financial woes of the Arizona Coyotes, who were owned by the league for four years while losing money and struggling to find permanent ownership, the NHL remains opposed to relocation of any franchise, and confident in its belief that hockey can thrive in a non-traditional Southwest market.
Vegas is in the middle of the Mojave Desert, but it has grown as a hockey town over the past 20 years since local youngsters like Jason Zucker, now with the Minnesota Wild, had to practice on one of the three rinks in town.
The IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder attracted large crowds in the 1990s when they played at the Thomas and Mack Center, and the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers took the Thunder’s place until 2014 while playing at the Orleans Arena.
Foley hasn’t said what he will call his new team, but the bid is run by a company named Black Knight Sports and Entertainment, the same name as his financial services company. Foley graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.