NHL’s Las Vegas Gamble Remains a Big Question

NHLVegasWith NHL franchises at an all-time high in value and a new television broadcasting deal in place, it’s easy to understand why several North American cities are extremely interested in landing an expansion team in the coming year. Perhaps the highest-profile market to ever enter the process is Las Vegas. Though Sin City isn’t what could ever be referred to as a traditional hockey market, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has shown he is not afraid to commit to non-hockey markets.

One well-known supporter of NHL hockey in Las Vegas is Canadian-born pro poker star Daniel Negreanu of Toronto, who believes Vegas is a viable location for a new or existing franchise. If an expansion team doesn’t pop up in Nevada, the Arizona Coyotes look like a possible target to move there in a few years. Ownership issues have plagued that franchise for far too long, and recent fights with the City of Glendale almost saw the team without a rink for the upcoming season.

This means the immediate future of the Coyotes is up in the air, and in a roundabout way, it brings us back to the possibility of NHL hockey in Las Vegas. If the Coyotes pack up and leave the Phoenix area, they don’t have far to travel if other league owners decide Vegas can support a team. The city already has a potential owner in Bill Foley and his Hockey Vision Las Vegas LLC company and a helping hand in the 40-year-old poker-playing Negreanu.

When Foley recently tested the local market with a season-ticket drive he was helped out by a group known as the Founding 75, which consisted of people who attempted to sell the idea of an NHL club in Las Vegas. One of its most prominent members was Negreanu, who spoke to NHL.com of his fondness for hockey and why he believes it would be a perfect fit for Sin City. “The town’s starving, absolutely starving, for a professional sports franchise,” he said. “I’ve found the support to be overwhelming. People that live here, they’re dying for this.”

Despite the ticket drive resulting in about 11,000 committed sales, Foley, Negreanu and Bettman continue to weigh if Las Vegas’ growing population of about 2.2 million people, will provide enough stable support for a team that would also rely heavily on tourists who are typically just visiting for less than a week at a time. That’s just one of the concerns surrounding a city that isn’t exactly located in a hockey hotbed and doesn’t have a track record of housing professional sports teams.

What Las Vegas will have, though, by the midpoint of 2016 is a brand-new $350 million 17,500-seat arena which will be looking for a fulltime tenant. If Foley and Negreanu have their way, the venue will be home to an NHL franchise. Foley claimed that season tickets will be available in several price ranges and holders will have an option to lock in their seats for periods of one, three, five or 10 years.

Negreanu said he believes Las Vegas will attract non-traditional NHL fans since everything in the city is a spectacle and hockey will be the same. Other supporters of the project feel vacation package deals could be sold which consist of flights to Vegas along with a three or four-night hotel stay and a hockey game. Since the city attracts visitors from all over the globe, this makes sense. Also, if the arena is located close to the Las Vegas strip the team may also see a lot of walk-up fans who decide an NHL game may be the perfect way to start the evening before heading out to the casinos.

He also helped push the drive for hockey in Vegas by promoting it as much as possible to the poker world through social media accounts and by starring in a few YouTube videos. Negreanu visited some of the casinos, met fellow poker players and tried to sell his fair share of season tickets. And even though Bettman claimed the season-ticket drive was a success, he remarked that it certainly doesn’t mean the NHL will be forced to launch a franchise in Las Vegas. As it stands, it looks like the earliest an NHL team could play out of Las Vegas would be the 2017-18 season. Even with the new arena — which is being built by MGM Resorts International and AEG — getting the city set up to host a new franchise as early as the 2016-17 campaign seems like a bit of a stretch.

Prospective owners and fans such as Negreanu will know more about the chances of realizing their dream when the NHL’s Board of Governors provides an update on Foley’s bid in the coming months. If the market is awarded an expansion team, the fees will reportedly be approximately $450 to $500 million. However, Las Vegas isn’t the only city which is being considered for an NHL franchise, as Quebec City is also hoping to be given a second chance. Once considered a strong contender for an expansion team, Seattle, Washington failed to submit a bid in time to be considered for the next stage of expansion.

For the time being, poker Hall of Famer Negreanu and others who are working hard to bring a team to Las Vegas, will simply have to wait to see what Bettman deals them. While Negreanu makes a fine living from playing poker, he lists hockey as one of his passions and is even considering becoming a part owner of a Las Vegas-based NHL franchise. He recently told The Hockey News, “That depends on what it looks like, but I am certainly interested in exploring it. Going forward, once the franchise is awarded, I may be involved as a minority owner.”

Negreanu and Foley have already laid their cards on the table and now they’re waiting for Bettman and the NHL’s Board of Governors to do the same.

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