NHL Expansion To Las Vegas Might Be ‘Done Deal,’ But Move Remains Risky

Gary BettmanTourists in Las Vegas have plenty of activities to put on their vacation itineraries. Watching an NHL game might soon be one of them.

According to Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province, pro hockey expanding to Sin City appears to be a very real possibility.

“Sources close to the situation have indicated Las Vegas is a done deal, the only thing to be determined being which owner will be entitled to proclaim that he brought the first major league sports franchise to Sin City,” Gallagher writes.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged before Game 2 of the Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens playoff series in May that the league has received interest from prospective owners who want a franchise in Vegas.

“I think it’s very nice for the people of Las Vegas, and people who go there to visit, that there will be an arena,” Bettman said. “Beyond that, we haven’t made any plans. We, as I’ve repeatedly said, have received expressions of interest from people who might want to own a franchise in Las Vegas, as we have from a number of other cities. But we’re not involved in any expansion process.”

Expansion to Vegas brings several pros and cons, and it could impact other possible expansion cities.

Why Would The NHL Expand To Vegas?

Bettman always stresses the importance of a viable arena when discussing expansion or relocation, and the lack of a suitable stadium is one reason why Seattle’s dream of getting an NHL team could drag on for several more years.

AEG and MGM have teamed to construct a 20,000-seat Las Vegas arena expected to open in 2016. The presence of a state-of-the-art building is a huge advantage for Las Vegas over Seattle.

There’s already a little history between Vegas and the league. The Los Angeles Kings have consistently played a preseason game in Sin City for more than a decade, and the annual NHL Awards ceremony is held in the city, too.

Money, as expected, is a huge factor in expanding to Vegas — or any city, for that matter. Expansion fees, which some have speculated could be hundreds of millions of dollars, are kept by the owners and not shared with the players. If the league expands to 32 teams and the Western Conference adds two teams to give each conference 16 clubs, the owners could share a pot of $600 million or more from two expansion team fees.

What Are The Problems With Expanding To Vegas?

The main concern is building a strong enough season-ticket base. A Vegas-based franchise conceivably would draw visitors and tourists, some of whom might receive tickets as part of casino and resort packages, but is there enough of a local fanbase? The NHL, more than any of the other three major American sports leagues, relies on gate receipts to make a profit.

Three of the bottom five teams in attendance percentage during the 2013-14 season — the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers — played in warm climates. Filling the arena for games against the Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and other marquee franchise should be easier, but what about when the Panthers come to town?

The other notable concern in Vegas is illegal gambling activity, but as Gallagher notes in his column, these fears aren’t as much of a concern for the NHL.

“But people have been betting on hockey games for years,” Gallagher writes, “and to pretend games couldn’t be fixed just as easily anywhere as in Vegas is pretty ridiculous, so that posturing has fallen by the wayside.”

What About Quebec City?

Quebec City, which hasn’t had a team since the Nordiques moved to Colorado after the 1994-95 season, is the best pure hockey market that lacks a franchise. QC is a market with over 500,000 rabid hockey fans and is believed to have more opportunities for corporate backing than it did in 1995, when the Canadian dollar was struggling.

When the league returned to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season, Jets season tickets sold out almost instantly, and even though the team has struggled, fans continue to show incredible support. (The MTS Centre was filled to 100 percent capacity for Jets home games last season.) A return to Quebec City might be similar, only at a much larger scale. Running a profitable franchise in Quebec City shouldn’t be a challenge, and there’s already a beautiful arena expected to be completed by September 2015.

Great ownership for a Quebec City franchise also wouldn’t be difficult to find. Quebecor Media, which purchased the naming rights to the new Quebec City Amphitheatre, appear to be a strong candidate to own a future club. TVA Sports, the premier destination for French sports in Quebec, is now part of Quebecor.

The biggest hurdle for Quebec City is that there are already 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, so relocation might make the most sense for QC. It should be noted that when the NHL expands, it’s historically been a multi-year process involving more than two teams being added. The last round of expansion saw three teams added in Atlanta, Minnesota and Columbus from 1999 through 2001.

Conference logistics aside, though, the league has better markets than Vegas to consider. One of those is Quebec.

Have a Bruins/NHL question for Nick Goss? Send it to him via Twitter at @NickGossNESN

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