Obstacles facing the NHL’s expansion team in Las Vegas
The National Hockey League is officially coming to Las Vegas. Yes, the same city that saw temperatures reach 114 degrees Fahrenheit last week will host a sport played on a giant slab of ice.
Sin City is an attractive place for the NHL’s 31st team for a number of reasons. Unless the NFL’s Oakland Raiders relocate before 2017, the currently unnamed hockey team will be the only major professional sports franchise in the city. With the current 16-14 alignment between the Eastern and Western Conferences, adding another team out West makes the layout a little less awkward. Also, this is Las Vegas, a sexy location for a league that could use a publicity bump.
But while this may be a good move for the NHL, what is the product going to look like on the ice? Expansion teams have historically struggled out of the gate, and in some places in the NHL, winning alone isn’t even enough to bring fans to the arena. This team’s peculiar location, combined with the conditions of the expansion, may spell an uphill battle unique to this particular situation. Here are three obstacles that the Las Vegas hockey team may face during its’ inaugural season and beyond:
Warm-weather teams tend to fare poorly at the gate
Among the NHL teams that cracked the top 10 in attendance in 2015-16: Montreal, Toronto, Calgary. All of these teams missed the playoffs, but they still brought in a healthy amount of fans each night. In the bottom 10: Anaheim, Florida, San Jose. Not only did those three make the playoffs, the Ducks and Panthers won their divisions, and the Sharks made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Yet, each team averaged less than 17,000 fans per game.
It’s fair to say that Canada is colder than the United States, and Canadian cities innately boast bigger hockey fan bases than most American cities due to hockey's stature north of the border. The sport has its hotbeds in the U.S.—the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres for example finished fourth and eleventh, respectively, in attendance—and it is making inroads in places like Arizona, the home of this year's No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews, though the Coyotes ranked 29th at the gate last season (Carolina was 30th).
Here is a chart plotting team’s attendance in 2016 against average high temperatures in January:
Cold temperatures and snow don’t subliminally force people to take shelter at their local hockey rink, and the relationship is one of correlation rather than causation. But hockey is often most popular to play in cold weather cities, and those who grow up with the sport are more likely to become attached to it as a fan. And while youth hockey has grown in Vegas over past years, there is certainly not the following that there is in Quebec, another city that made a bid for an expansion team. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, only 400 boys and girls play youth hockey in the Las Vegas area, and there are only three rinks in the entire valley. The hope is that this team will inspire that number to grow, but it’s not a guarantee. Hockey is an expensive sport to play.
If you want a more direct comparison, look at the hockey team that currently plays in the desert: The Coyotes, who have finished in the bottom three in attendance during every year since 2007, and who have been on the cusp of leaving for cooler pastures more than once. Even in 2011–12, when they won their division and made it to the Western Conference finals, they still finished dead last in attendance. One reason is due to the location of their arena, which is in the suburb of Glendale, a 25 minute drive from Phoenix. The Coyotes face the same challenge the New York Islanders did during their years in the suburbs of Nassau County. Without convenient mass transit links to games, fans are required to make more of an effort and spend more money to get to them.
The team could turn into a show for visiting fans
Las Vegas is the tourism capital of America. In 2015, the city brought in more than 42 million visitors, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The city’s population, however, is only 583,756, a fraction of the number of tourists the city sees in a given month. The city is consistently chock full of people who don’t live in the state of Nevada–especially near the Las Vegas Strip, where T-Mobile Arena stands. Residents of Las Vegas avoid the Strip like New Yorkers avoid Times Square.
Consider a group of friends from Chicago, who, in the process of planning a weekend in Vegas, notice that the Blackhawks have a night game around the same time of their trip. Surely, they’ll at least consider buying tickets, donning their Jonathan Toews jerseys and cheering on their hometown team, along with the hundreds of other Chicagoans who happen to be visiting that weekend. Las Vegas is not Glendale, and its massive tourism market will definitely draw fans to the arena–but possibly the wrong fans. And who would want to play for a team where their fans are outnumbered in their home arena? The Tampa Bay Lightning have on occasion even taken measures to limit the presence of fans of their opponents.
People come to Vegas to see shows, and with an arena so close to all the action, a hockey game could easily become an alternative to Cirque de Soleil. It’s true that there is no other major professional sports team in Vegas, and the incoming hockey team will have a monopoly on the city’s fandom. But the large amount of out-of-state tourists, combined with the spectacle that is Las Vegas, may make it hard for the expansion team to build up a devoted fan base–at least one that will consistently go to games in big numbers.
The talent pool is comparably thin
We’ve talked about the conditions surrounding the Vegas expansion, but what is the actual team going to look like? Commissioner Gary Bettman has set forth a reasonable system for the 2017 expansion draft, one he believes will make the team competitive right away. Las Vegas will be allowed to select one player from each of the 30 existing teams, and their selections must account for somewhere between 60 and 100% of the salary cap. The team’s general manager will be allowed to pick and choose a team largely to his own liking.
But the fine print allows some pretty hefty protections for the other 30 teams. Each club has the right to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or eight players at one position and one goalie. Plus, any player with a “no-movement” clause in his contract is automatically exempt. Few teams in the current NHL have seven difference-making forwards, and most teams will be able to hold onto their valuable players without issue.
There is the consolation that Las Vegas will pick no lower than sixth in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. But from a draft perspective, this expansion was a year or two off from the jackpot. There are no game-changing prospects in next year’s draft like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews were in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
So, this team will play in a desert city with little attachment to hockey, its’ arena will be located in a tourist trap that will attract out-of-town fans, and the talent level of the prospective team is likely to be low. And all of this excludes the tricky gray areas inherent in placing a pro sports team in a city with legalized sports gambling. Bettman hasn’t exactly taken a pro-gambling stance in the past, and in 2012 said he was “concerned how gambling and betting affects the NHL game and changes the perception of and challenges the integrity of the NHL game.”
Bettman likely understands all of these issues, and probably debated them with his group in deciding where the league's next team should go. Vegas may be a shrewd business decision for the NHL, and should give the it some much-needed exposure. Just don’t expect the Strip to be lined with rabid fans wearing Vegas jerseys.