Despite Ticket Drive, Las Vegas Remains A Doubtful City

As the NHL expansion drama develops, it seems like Las Vegas and Quebec City will be inevitably chosen. Significantly the NHL’s excessive terms have changed the minds of possible bidders from Hamilton, Toronto, Hartford, Seattle, Portland and Milwaukee. I chose these cities because they and Quebec City have one significant different characteristic from the front-running city, Las Vegas, a credible fan-base.

In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a pre-expansion tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and gave them the three terms for readmission. These were credible ownership, an NHL acceptable arena, and an adequate fan-base. These conditions are mandatory for every bidder in any future NHL expansion.

The arena and ownership issues are in various stages of development for all the above cities, but all these cities have deep roots in hockey and have no problem with the third condition, the fan-base – except the front-running city, Las Vegas.

Las Vegas typifies the kind of American city that has been so characteristic of the relocation/expansion city choices made during Gary Bettman’s time as Commissioner. Except for Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, none of them have much interest in or have much history with hockey. Columbus, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, Anaheim, Raleigh, Phoenix… many of them had to be introduced to and “taught” the game of hockey. Some of them have been successful; many have been money-losers.

They were chosen not because the “fans” in these cities loved hockey but because Bettman and the NHL wanted to be a “big four” sport in the United States, with a lucrative American television contract like the NFL, MLB and the NBA. By spreading the game of hockey all over the United States in unfamiliar markets, it was hoped to make hockey an “American game” – and win that lucrative television contract. As noted above, the results have been very spotty. In some seasons, as many as ten American NHL franchises were losing money.

Meanwhile in Canada and the north-western United States, the areas so conspicuously ignored by the NHL when it came to expansion/relocation, there was fury and bitterness at the NHL’s expansion/relocation choices. Hockey-loving cities like Winnipeg, Quebec City, and Hartford were stripped of their teams in favor of money-losing cities like Phoenix. The NHL was deemed anti-Canadian.

There was a “see I told you so” response from Canada when Winnipeg got its team back from Atlanta. And if Quebec City gets the Nordiques back, as seems likely during this coming expansion, more wounds will be healed. Nor can Canadians complain if cites like Seattle, Portland, Hartford, and Milwaukee got a franchise. They all have extensive experience with hockey in the NHL, at the American university level, or deep roots in Canadian junior hockey.

But a city like Las Vegas, like so many other choices made during the Bettman years is at best a 50-50 proposition. It is an interesting novelty now, the first time a “big four” sport tried to establish itself in the city, but will it remain so? Will fans stick with the team during the initial bad times that all expansion teams have at first or will interest wane as the defeats pile up? Everybody knows that except in extreme circumstances, cities like Quebec, Hamilton, Seattle, Portland, etc. are going to stick with their teams through thick and thin. That has not been the case with many American franchises during the Gary Bettman years.

But there are positive signs. The prospective ticket drive has been a success, indicating that many Las Vegas sports fans are willing to put their money where their mouths are. And if hockey does take off in Las Vegas, there is no reason for anybody to complain. Las Vegas, unlike Seattle was ready with both an arena and ownership. Right now, they deserve all the support and best wishes they can get. If they are a success, they will have deserved the hearty congratulations of everybody. They will have earned it.

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