NHL Expansion Roundtable: Las Vegas

Wayne Newton, the guys from The Hangover series and… the NHL?

It’s been a long-debated topic since the NHL moved its annual awards show to Las Vegas in 2010 – will the NHL be the first professional sports league to house a team in Sin City? With big money dominating the strip and a slew of potential endorsement deals, NHL executives seem to be drooling over the idea more than a middle-aged woman who just hit three cherries.

So come watch Penn Jillette dazzle your eyes, listen to the hilarious antics of Carrot Top and be visually stimulated by the up-and-down play of the new Las Vegas NHL team, because, baby, it don’t get better than this.

I have assembled a group of five hockey personalities who want to weigh in on the possibility of the NHL expanding to the city in Nevada. The people who fill out our expert panel of judges are as follows:

It’s a stacked deck, so get your bets in as we take a look at what these hockey minds think about the NHL entering Las Vegas:

A large concern is that Las Vegas would not be able to support a team with a strong local fan base. Is there truth to this?

Chris Wassel (TodaysSlapshot.com) – There is a good bit of truth to this. The ECHL team in Las Vegas is on a one-year hiatus while they get their act together. Their attendance is middle of the pack, teetering on the lower third over the last ten-plus years. They have plateaued around 4,500 fans over the last two years, but even that doesn’t half fill their arena. That is undoubtedly a problem. Nevada has so much going against it. When that much of your city’s income is derived from a source that relies on people outside the area, this is what often happens.

Can they develop a fan base of sorts from transplants? That may be the next question. Local fans, given the economy in Nevada, are not going to be an easy proposition… err bet. People have to understand, also, that it takes a full generation (20-30 years) to develop a fan base. This is especially true if the market is either dominated by other markets, or if it’s a local area that has to generate it almost all on its own (like what Vegas would have to do).

Las Vegas would require a lot of work to foster and develop a local fan base. Marketing would have to be aggressive and pricing structures for tickets would have to be adjusted to reflect the local economy.

Last preseason, Brandon Mashinter and the Rangers skated in a preseason game in Las Vegas (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
Last preseason, Brandon Mashinter and the Rangers skated in a preseason game in Las Vegas (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Carl Pavlock (FiveForHowling.com) – I don¹t think there is.  While we tend to think of Vegas as a vacation town, which it very much is, it is also an extremely large metropolitan area.  The Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV metro area is 31st in the United States with a population over 2 million, ahead of cities that currently have NHL teams like Columbus, Denver, and Nashville.  The NHL would also have no competition from other professional sports teams, and although tourists mostly enjoy seeing shows, locals would be far more likely to latch on to something like a professional sports team.

Brendan Porter (FiveForHowling.com) – No. The Vegas area would likely have some initial difficulty bringing together fans, but the area is also more compact than the Valley. If the arena was built in a centralized area that was easy to access, then I think they should be fine over time.

The Puck Drops Here – Las Vegas is one of the largest cities in the United States that does not have a professional sports venue.  Sin City has experienced large population growth over the last decade with the current population just over 600,000. The median household income is just over $52,0000 per year.  The city also supports an ECHL hockey team, the Wranglers, and a minor league baseball team, the 51s. The Wrangers’ attendance was among the lowest of the league, resulting in the team suspending operations for the next year to secure a new home.

I think an NHL team would be able to survive there if it was marketed well while introducing the highest level of hockey to the city. Whoever would have thought we would have a team in Glendale, Arizona?

Shawn Reznik (TheHockeyWriters.com) – I’d strongly disagree with this assessment. Las Vegas has almost 600,000 people living there, according to a 2012 census. And while the amount of people living there is a few ten-thousand people less than Seattle (another expansion city), it does have one of the largest tourism industries in the U.S.

It is also one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. By 2020, the projection is that Vegas will have upwards of 800,000 people. But with a population comparable to Seattle, along with the outlying area, there should be more than enough people who would be interested in the new NHL team.

How do you think this will affect the Arizona Coyotes fan base, if at all?

Chris Wassel (TodaysSlapshot.com) – This is not going to have much of an effect at first. Arizona has a tough enough time attracting fans, while still facing some legal problems. That being said, if a rivalry were to somehow develop, it could at least help both fan bases in the long term. The problem is that everyone is so concerned about the short term right now – and rightfully so.

Again, stay tuned on this one. Las Vegas is one of the NHL’s biggest concerns.

Carl Pavlock (FiveForHowling.com) – Geographically, Las Vegas is a potential rival, which could help the fan base. However, it doesn¹t seem likely that the two would be competing over fans, so the effect would be minimal.

Brendan Porter (FiveForHowling.com) – The number of Phoenicians who vacation in Las Vegas might actually create a Coyotes presence in another city. I highly doubt it would affect the fan base, as the two major metropolitan areas in Arizona are Phoenix and Tucson, well away from Vegas.

Arizona would be a close NHL market to Las Vegas (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Arizona would be a close NHL market to Las Vegas (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

The Puck Drops Here – If Las Vegas was to land an NHL franchise, I don’t think it would affect the Coyotes’ fan base at all;  300 miles separate the two cities. Arizona has had its attendance woes in the past, but I think the Coyotes are on a rebound with their new start under new owner Anthony LeBlanc. Las Vegas will have to teach its fan base the game, much like, I think, Arizona is currently doing. Vegas most definitely have the population to support a franchise.

Shawn Reznik (TheHockeyWriters.com) – It certainly can’t hurt, especially since the Coyotes aren’t a huge draw in Arizona as it is. It’s also about the same distance from Vegas to Phoenix as it is from Vegas to Los Angeles/Anaheim.

With many of the people in these areas making frequent trips to Las Vegas as it is, hockey has the ability to flourish in a city that’s never had a professional sports team.

What would be the best team name for the franchise?

Chris Wassel (TodaysSlapshot.com) – The Las Vegas Gamblers was pretty good but sadly, for legal reasons, won’t happen. The Hitman was kind of funny but, alas, probably another no. Let’s try the Las Vegas Dicemen. It won’t be used, but it at least has ice in there.

Carl Pavlock (FiveForHowling.com) – Las Vegas Aces.

Brendan Porter (FiveForHowling.com) – Las Vegas Slots. Seriously though, the Las Vegas team could easily do a promotion where every goal from the slot wins a fan some kind of casino prize.

The Puck Drops Here – There are so many options here to reference Las Vegas. Because we don’t think the NHL should have a team tied to what Las Vegas represents, we steered away from the obvious “Aces”, “Gamblers” and “Black Jacks.” So we went with something a little different: the Las Vegas Invaders (reference to Area 51)

Shawn Reznik (TheHockeyWriters.com) – Given what the city is known for, I’m a big fan of either the Las Vegas Aces or the Las Vegas Gamblers. Others I have heard that I’m ok with are the 51s, 21s, Jokers or Rounders.

Just looking at the current NHL landscape, how would the divisions work out with Vegas and possibly Seattle joining the league?

Chris Wassel (TodaysSlapshot.com) – There is a reason why Las Vegas and Seattle are not slam dunks, and this is because these two expansion teams would have to be placed in the Pacific, right? It would look weird to have Las Vegas in the Central, but that is just me. At this point, Seattle is more likely to get a franchise than Vegas. One way this could work, however, is if Arizona has to relocate due to its legal problems, but even that is a long shot. Then you could throw Arizona to say… Kansas City (Central). There are a lot of “What Ifs”. The number of scenarios alone are mind-boggling. First things first, we have to actually see what happens with expansion. Nothing is set in stone, but anything before 2017 would be considered premature.

Carl Pavlock (FiveForHowling.com) – I would think that for things to make the most sense, either Arizona, Calgary or Edmonton would go to the Central Division with Vegas and Seattle being in the Pacific.

Brendan Porter (FiveForHowling.com) – The NHL might actually have a minor problem on its hands, because Las Vegas is geographically closer to the coastal teams than Arizona. Therefore, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the league shift Arizona into the Central Division, given splitting up the Alberta teams is not going to happen. Maybe the NHL would consider shifting both Edmonton and Calgary to the Central while moving Colorado to the Pacific.

The insertion of Vegas into the NHL could create a divisional problem [photo: madlyinlovewithlife CC]
The insertion of Vegas into the NHL could create a divisional problem [photo: madlyinlovewithlife CC]
The Puck Drops Here – With expansion comes changes to divisions.  With the potential of Seattle and Las Vegas entering into the NHL, some shuffling will need to be done.  For these two teams, we see a few things possibly happening; The first would be seeing both expansion franchises being added to the Pacific Division. However, this move leaves the Central Division short. This would see Arizona switched to the other division in the Western Conference.

Another possibility is seeing a complete realignment again.  Under this circumstance, we envision four four-team divisions or the last possibility is seeing three divisions, two of which will carry five teams and one division with six. Under both of these realignment scenarios, we see playoff spots as each division-winning team getting a top seed while the remaining seeds would be sorted out by final points.

Shawn Reznik (TheHockeyWriters.com) – It would help even out the teams tremendously. With Seattle’s team probably going to the Pacific Division, Las Vegas can be slotted right into the Central division.

Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the world.  What does this mean for a professional sports team playing in the area?

Chris Wassel (TodaysSlapshot.com) – It means a boost-no question but, again, we have to see what will be worked out as far as revenue, etc. Casinos will likely buy up tickets for high-profile guests and packages. Hey, come see an NHL game while you are in Vegas. Snowbirds will love it, as well. There is potential in leaps and bounds, but the new franchise will have to be competitive, and that will be no easy task.

By the way, Las Vegas is still regarded as being last on the short list of expansion candidates. There is a little bit of time, so let’s see what shakes. After all, at some point, a franchise has to try Vegas, right?

Carl Pavlock (FiveForHowling.com) – I don¹t see there being any impact.  The NHL should maintain strict rules regarding sports-betting by players and coaches, but that should be the same no matter where the teams are located.

Brendan Porter (FiveForHowling.com) – It means team security and their personal conduct-enforcement teams will be very, very busy. Thus far, the NHL hasn’t had to deal with a major gambling issue like the NBA or MLB has had to face. They’re going to have to be vigilant in ensuring that the league’s permanent presence in Las Vegas doesn’t create any long-term problems.

The Puck Drops Here – One of the biggest problems of placing an NHL franchise in Las Vegas is the concern of gambling; this stretches across all professional leagues.  One fear is the potential of players gambling on their own games. Could this lead to players and/or teams manipulating the outcome of a game?

Another fear is that players may get too caught up in the “sinning” ways of the Las Vegas reputation.  With today’s contracts, players are going to have money to burn and they need to burn that money somewhere – what better place than the Vegas Strip?  The smell of trouble is strong here, and we would not be surprised if the NHL folded on this hand and looked elsewhere.

Shawn Reznik (TheHockeyWriters.com) – There’s always the inherent risk with the city given the extravagant night life, gambling and temptations, but these are professional athletes who should know the right things to do. The other vice that might be worrisome is the high crime rate in the city. For hockey teams though, there are bigger concerns to worry about.

For starters, you need to ice a team that can compete right away so they can begin making some money. Starting behind the 8-ball won’t bode well for a new team as they will have some debts to pay shareholders, while needing to garner interest from fans. If the team starts losing early, they won’t get the backing from the fans that they need to stay in Las Vegas for long.

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Check out the rest of this four-part series!

Quebec City
Las Vegas
Seattle
Toronto