Time to get serious about NHL’s future in Vegas

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talks about looking into expansion to Las Vegas and the Hockey Central analyzes the possibilities.

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The conversation is real now. The debate is on.

By allowing prospective owner Bill Foley to conduct a season-ticket drive in Las Vegas, the NHL has taken a hypothetical discussion about its suitability as a market and turned it into something more concrete.

There are all kinds of potential issues that come with bringing a pro sports franchise to the unofficial gambling (and partying) capital of North America, and figuring out if there will be a suitable fanbase is really just the beginning.

“We haven’t studied it yet,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday night. “We’ve seen the surveys people have shared with us. I think in a whole host of ways, some of them very good or extraordinary, it’s a very unique market.”

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Bettman was extremely careful in how he described the latest development in Las Vegas. He made it clear that this was not the start of a formal expansion process and emphasized that the league’s board of governors didn’t vote on the season-ticket drive during Monday’s meeting.

Basically, all he said is that none of the 30 team owners objected to Foley’s desire to conduct one.

That’s it.

As a result, the NHL governors can’t be seen as being overly invested in the outcome. They’ve yet to even lay out the parameters of how exactly the drive will work, but clearly the commissioner and Foley are interested in determining if the necessary season-ticket base is there.

“It’s important,” said Bettman.

This type of thing isn’t necessary in Quebec City, or even in Seattle, where the NHL already has confidence that enough hockey fans exist.

It is really the unique nature of Las Vegas that requires it. The city has never had a major pro sports team to call its own — the CFL’s Posse lasted one miserable season — and the strange hours people work and transient nature of the place are a reason for that.

However, as soon as the shovels went in the ground earlier this year on an impressive new arena beside the strip, it was clear that the question of Las Vegas would eventually have to be tackled.

Even after this season-ticket drive is conducted that will continue to be the case.

“The fact is, if they get it — get it meaning sufficient interest — it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t then have to reach an agreement and go through an expansion process, and the board would have to decide whether or not it even wants to expand,” said Bettman.

No promises, sure, but another reminder about the importance of playing by the NHL’s rules.

That’s what Mark Chipman did so well in the years before the Winnipeg Jets were reborn and what ultimately kept Jim Balsillie from gaining entrance to this exclusive ownership club. You may recall that Balsillie conducted an unsanctioned season-ticket drive in Hamilton during his failed attempt at buying the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy.

Foley quietly reached out to the NHL more than a year ago, according to Bettman, and has expressed considerable interest.

The chairman of Fidelity National Financial recently earned a spot on Forbes’ list of “Billionaire Up and Comers” and dabbles in distressed wineries on the side. He grew up on a cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle and is an accomplished golfer, which certainly sounds like the kind of resume you’d expect to find at a board of governors’ meeting.

There are people who meet that criteria in Quebec City as well — namely Pierre-Karl Peladeau, who owns Quebecor, a company that was represented here on Monday by president and CEO Pierre Dion.

While Dion addressed the governors about TVA Sports’ national French coverage, Bettman indicated that all of the talk about Las Vegas didn’t mean that Quebec was on the outs as a possible landing spot for a team.

“There is no temperature,” he said. “It’s not less hot, it’s not more hot. Pierre Dion and the board did not discuss at all the new building or the team; the discussion was purely about our television arrangement with TVA.

“There is no measure here. We haven’t ranked teams. We haven’t ranked markets. There is no process.”

Yes, but expansion remains on the horizon. After Monday’s meeting, Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos told Yahoo’s Nick Cotsonika that he’s in favour of adding more teams.

Some are starting to muse about the possibility of a $500-million expansion fee, which would put more than $16 million in each owner’s pocket. Bettman even entertained the idea of expanding by just one franchise.

“Considering that we’re out of balance now, for those concerned about symmetry, you know, if you could play (with conferences of) 14 and 16, theoretically you could play 15 and 16,” he said.

This was a day that included a projection on the 2015-16 salary cap — it could be $73 million if the Canadian dollar doesn’t plummet — and assurances that the Coyotes sale to Andrew Barroway remains “on track.”

However, there was only real talking point, and it’s one the NHL would prefer isn’t discussed too much.

“The perception will be whatever you create, which is why we’re having this very candid, precise (discussion),” said Bettman. “Please do not make more out of this than there is.”

There was good reason for his cautionary tone — in addition to being unsure about the potential season-ticket base, there is still some trepidation at the highest levels of the league about Sin City.

And as the most powerful group in hockey headed into the night for a dinner at Larry Tanenbaum’s swanky digs, there was already some chatter about Las Vegas.

“This one is going to draw a lot of debate,” said one governor.

Yes, it’s on now.

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