Well it’s Bill Foley’s dream or potential nightmare. The owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights made his dream come true when the NHL made Las Vegas its 31st franchise. Whether you are a Canadian who feels Canada has been slighted again by the NHL by not also accepting Quebec (Actually the NHL’s rejection of Quebec has nothing to do with Las Vegas though many websites seem to think so. Quebec was rejected because the NHL deems the potential owner unsuitable.), or a fan from an American city that has traditionally enjoyed hockey but still does not have an NHL franchise (Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee), one can only wish him and the Golden Knights well. They are taking a BIG, BIG chance.
To start with, the franchise entry fee is atrocious. When the franchise entry fee was announced at an obscene $500 million, the NHL had 16 potential bids but the entry fee whittled the numbers down to only fanatical Las Vegas/Foley and Quebec. The North American business world might well question the sanity of the two bidders. This “big 4″ expansion may be the only one in history where no rival cities were bidding against each other and the league involved had to accept whatever it could get. The $500 million fee is over 6 times the amount of the last NHL expansion in 2000 which was $80 million. Obviously the North American business world does not believe that an NHL franchise is currently worth anywhere near $500 million.
But Foley does and he let his money do the talking. He has a few things in his favor. If the season ticket drive is to be believed and is credible, he is off to a good start as far as building a fan base. Las Vegas is virgin territory as far as the major professional sports leagues go so he has no competition from the NFL, MLB, or NBA. He may also have good traditional rivals in Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose.
But he has a lot of potential strikes against him. Las Vegas is the only market in which sports have to compete against human vices, in this case gambling and prostitution which are both legal in Nevada. No other sports franchise in North America has to compete with these potential deterrents.
But even without these problems, Las Vegas is the type of city so often chosen during NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure. When it comes to expansion and relocation, Bettman has selected mostly American cities that have had no contact with hockey in their history. This was done primarily to impress American television networks that NHL hockey was a “big 4″ American sport and that by introducing the game all over the United States without heed to where it might be successful, it would be possible to get a rich, American television network contract. Some of these cities were successful and Bettman can take a well-earned bow, but the markets with the worst attendance are franchises like Raleigh, Miami, Phoenix, and Columbus where hockey is like an alien element. Las Vegas fits that pattern perfectly. One such market, Atlanta, has already been declared dead for the second time and moved north to Winnipeg.
Now comes worse news. The Arizona Coyotes, the NHL’s other “desert team”, one of Las Vegas’s potential close rivals, are in trouble again and may have to move to the other side of Phoenix at Tempe, Arizona in a yet-to-be-built arena. It is not a good omen for success in Las Vegas.
You have to admire Foley’s pluck (and question his sanity) to make his dream come true. Let’s hope the Golden Knights become one of the NHL’s better franchises and not another Phoenix. In the city that loves the high roller, right now Bill Foley is unquestionably the biggest gambler of all.