Golden Knights Are Struggling to Win the Crowd

The last time the NHL expanded was in 2000, the same year the movie Gladiator was released in theatres. Halfway through one of my favorite movies of all time, slave owner Proximo tells Russell Crowe’s fallen character how his own freedom was won in the Colosseum and shares his strategy with Maximus…”win the crowd.”

The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights are struggling at this strategy in a town where residents don’t like waiting in line, much less wait for its first-ever major sports team to get their act together. Growing pains are understandable, such as the VGK name reveal glitch last November or pushed back ticket and jersey reveals. But it looks like 14 months of lead time has revealed some issues with less than 14 days left until the regular season. Oh yes, there are some elephants in the room we should discuss.

Who Is Speaking Up?

I’m Jonathan West, a California kid now Chicago broadcaster covering yearly NHL events before hopping on-board with The Hockey Writers earlier this month. As a former Las Vegas resident, I was a public address announcer for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and continued in-game operations as a game host for the CHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. After my mother’s failed influence towards a figure skating career and my failed attempt at a basketball one, I’ve been an avid goalie for the last 17 years.

In Calgary for the 2011 NHL Heritage Classic with my WHL host jersey.

At the 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta with the NBA event in Vegas a year earlier, I asked Commissioner Gary Bettman about the possibility of an NHL team in Las Vegas. He had a gleam in his eye and a wondering smile. Then he had the words “no expressed interest,” while my fellow media members playfully jabbed me for the left-field question. From Rich Rose’s 1991 outdoor NHL exhibition at Caesars Palace to the junior showcases at the old Santa Fe Station rink, the Vegas Valley has waited a long time for this opportunity.

I also remember as announcer seeing poor crowds inside Orleans Arena during Kelly Cup runs. That memory is a reservation I’ve always kept concerning the city stepping up to “prime time” hockey. Many claim it’s not the same argument, but let us remember stories like NHL All-Star John Scott before having aires of pretension. Hockey can be appreciated at any level. Now talking about Vegas as an occasional Texas-Hold’em player, let me “deal” some issues.

The Television Deal

Or lack thereof, as many Golden Knights fans are still waiting to see their team in action as the pre-season games continue to roll by. In Monday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal article by Steve Carp, he describes the current hoop-jumping fiasco of blackouts and provider issues. Take the random case of new Vegas hockey fan Pierre Martin, a Bay Area transplant living in Reno. He shared his frustrating story with The Golden Knights NHL Fan Club on Facebook. Here’s a fan considering quitting the team altogether because AT&T Sportsnet Rocky Mountain is unavailable in Reno. And his second option NHL.TV considers his area a blackout zone from 329 miles away! Here is their explanation excerpt:

Please keep in mind that broadcast rights are applicable whether or not a specific game is being shown, and must be protected even if the rights holders choose not to broadcast the games.

Hockey Night in Vegas?  (Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY)

If a goal is to get more people in The Strip rink seats, why did the team release standing room only tickets (lowering demand) instead of waiting for the secondary ticket markets to recede? Speaking of VGK season tickets three days until the first T-Mobile Arena game, their recent partnership with AXS and StubHub has also resulted in back-end issues and lost tickets. What I do admire about majority team owner Bill Foley, besides his ambitious ticket drive with the Maloof brothers, is recently accepting responsibility over the television saga. Will he do the same concerning tickets and more?

The Local Deal

After a refreshing trip to the “Desert of Excess” around the Mayweather vs. MacGregor fight, I started heading home at McCarran Airport. I spotted some Raiders football gear inside a concourse Hudson Books and quickly inquired about any Golden Knights goods. The attendant directed me to the bigger retail store in the wing, which also had no VGK merchandise. I flew home shaking my head; no gear in obvious spots 14 months after the team was announced?

It was awesome to see the new Vegas team deliver season ticket-holder jerseys on Friday and how they took a road trip to win-over fans in Idaho, Montana, Utah and Washington a month ago. That was the first time I saw a true sense of community by this organization since the 2015 ticket drive. But why did the road show stop there and not continue for another day or two, rolling through the most important cities and zip codes? Those areas including Boulder City, Centennial Hills, Henderson, Laughlin, Mountains Edge, North Las Vegas, Pahrump, Southern Highlands; along with Sobe Ice Arena and the Las Vegas Ice Center. Publicly showing love to half of these fan hubs would make a positive impression on others. And future consideration of using broadcast talent from the Vegas Valley or the Western US would help to shape the local perspective.

The Team Name Deal

With many of people moving in and out of Las Vegas per month, this is a transient city that longs to grow its roots in something more meaningful than gambling and debauchery. Because of this overwhelming search for identity, Bill Foley made the wrong choice by choosing to satisfy his own military roots in naming Vegas’ team instead of giving the rights to its residents. Nearly half of all current NHL franchises were named as a result of a public contest. The popular argument against this strategy is the potential for an outlandish name gaining popular appeal. And the simple solution to this problem is accepting the public’s suggestions, filtering those names through the League, and having a small list for a public ballot.

London Knights
The other Knights.  (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

The most gold mined in the US comes from Nevada, but most “Battle Born” residents are also proud of their “Silver State” slogan. If military honor was Foley’s context, the embarrassing snub here is Nellis Air Force Base, home of the famous Thunderbirds flying team. And contrary to Adidas VGK jersey designers (in a video now offline), there is a hockey history in Las Vegas to go by: The Las Vegas Thunder & Wranglers from roughly 1993-2014. Yes, the 10-month-old issue is over and done, but it’s not a choice I would have made while shutting out the community. And an issue that isn’t dead is the loss of merchandise revenue to unauthorized sellers after the recently failed trademark protection.

The Good Deal

Marc-Andre Fleury. Besides gaining a fantastic player and veteran on the ice and in the locker room, the Golden Knights have their community “ace in the hole.” What NHL player do you know that sticks around after a team media day to take shots from beer-leaguers? He may only have a few years left to play, but if he keeps up impromptu antics like the video below, he will win local hockey hearts forever. The man behind this trending Twitter account is team digital man Dan Marrazza. Besides a few over-the-line posts, it’s no surprise @GoldenKnights is the hottest social in the NHL. The Adidas-created logos, jerseys, and color schemes also get a big nod. Very stylish and uniquely made, with good local ties such as the Las Vegas Strip star & Red Rock Canyon.

Maximus won over the fickle Colosseum crowd in Gladiator, but still met an untimely albeit glorified death. So who knows what the future holds for this franchise based on its community reach. After living in 13 different states and provinces, I consider Las Vegas as a second home and stick up for my former neighbors when writing this article. In a desert city that can be easily pigeon-holed by national media, the Golden Knights better take local notice. That is before the Las Vegas Raiders or a local casino dangles a bigger carrot, and we see those Orleans Arena crowds again.