Vegas on Ice: Ace in the Five Hole?

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Vegas is in the running for an NHL franchise if the league decides to expand. Can Sin City really support a sport born on the frozen rivers of Montreal?

Written by Kyle Magin

If the Tampa Bay Lightning win Lord Stanley’s Cup over the Chicago Blackhawks, there’s going to be a lot of righteous Sun Belt-bashing. A subset of lazy hockey writers and the insufferable fans who agree with them are going to say it goes against cosmic justice for a place without a real winter to win the Cup.

I hold that it’s distasteful for the birthplace of jorts and the post-meth whiskey-tango drug scene to win anything, but that’s besides my point.

A lot of the same anti-Sun Belt arguments will pop up again if, as looks slightly better than probable, Las Vegas is awarded an NHL team. The city already has a 17,500-seat arena in the works that will be ready by 2016. Placing hockey in a nice weather town isn’t some sort of moral hockey failing, but it could be a financial one.

Sin City’s squad could go one of two ways, the Nashville or Miami models, for our purposes.

Music City, like Vegas, boasted a population of hockey neophytes and some knowledgeable exiles from colder places when the Predators dropped anchor there in 1998. It’s a city centered on the entertainment industry boasting a thriving tourist scene.

Over the last two years, according to Forbes, the team turned a $1.7 million profit thanks to a dedicated fan base (98.5 percent of capacity this year) and a hockey culture the club has nurtured in Tennessee—rinks stand all over the metro area and it’s not uncommon to now see Nashville-area natives on major junior and college rosters. Fans have found that hockey season is a reasonable way to kill time between SEC campaigns.

Miami, like Vegas, is a place with 8 months of spectacular weather and a go-to vacation and debauchery destination for residents of some of America’s most populous metro areas. Unfortunately, Miami, on the other hand, hosts the moribund Florida Panthers. They play to a 66 percent capacity crowd (last in all of hockey) and lose about $16 million annually, again according to Forbes. (Losing money in the era of multi-billion dollar TV contracts—the NHL has $6.9 billion worth of them between NBC and Rogers—is perplexing.)

Unlike Nashville, a hockey culture hasn’t followed the team. Kids from one of America’s poorest cities are more likely to strap on a football helmet or baseball glove than spend thousands on rinks and ice time. You can ditto much of the above for Phoenix—the most geographically similar team to Vegas—which is perpetually in danger of losing a team just 13,000 people per night showed up to watch play.

For every Nashville or LA or Anaheim—warm-weather cities where hockey thrives—there’s a Phoenix, Miami and Carolina—where it doesn’t.

Vegas is walking a tightrope between the two paths. While hockey will need a stable, year-round population to adopt it and head to mid-week February games in Vegas, it will undoubtedly benefit from visitors who may feel left out of the live performances (anyone who’s not over 50 or gay) and club scene (anyone not under 24 and the influence of molly.) I fall into that category and contend that a night at a hockey game will be the perfect way to separate a day getting drunk at the pool from a night getting drunk on The Strip.

A home game during March Madness will be some sort of bro-tastic Nirvana, the equivalent of Going Clear for anyone in a backwards hat and khaki shorts. Neighboring California has embraced hockey to a fantastic degree with all three teams drawing more than 98 percent of capacity this year. Californians are easy to find on NHL rosters and that of nearly every feeder league. Vegas has a lot of similarities with California in terms of population makeup and is a rabid, frothing sports town without a big club to hang their hats on.

East of I-5, though, the sport struggles until one hits the Rockies. Salt Lake City couldn’t support a top- flight minor league team even after the hysteria accompanying the 2002 Olympics. Phoenix, as previously mentioned, can’t bank on its status as Death’s Waiting Room for Chicagoans to find a profit in hockey. Western cities in this part of the country often exist on an island—the divider between city and rural environments are stark.

There are no collection of 100,000-plus population cities and counties emanating from desert metropolises, the types of places that are close enough to supply a steady stream of fans (who may make their money in unrelated industries) on any given night. There are the immediate suburbs and then the towns which Stephen King based Desperation upon.

Vegas relies on one population center with effectively one industry—tourism—leading the way. Las Vegans will point to the successful effort by Bill Foley and the Maloof Brothers (formerly of the Sacramento Kings) to sell more than 10,000 season ticket deposits for a team that does not yet exist as evidence that it’s an economically-viable option.

The real feat would have been canvassing for those perspective ticket-holders seven years ago in the thick of the Great Recession, when American en masse decided they’d rather watch Bill Engvall at their local tribal casino than Frank Caliendo at the Mirage and unemployment closed in on 20 percent in Sin City.

As far as the other aspect—growing a hockey culture—we can only wait and see. The city sports a few youth leagues, a small minor league team, a club program at UNLV and a smattering of high school-aged clubs. In that respect it may be no different than San Jose or Nashville were before they landed teams.

But growing a base of local, knowledgeable hockey fans will take patience—never a virtue associated with Vegas.

Given the evidence, I’d put Vegas at slightly worse than even money to support an NHL club if they land one. Only two Sun Belt cities—Atlanta and Oakland—have failed (so far) in their quest to retain hockey after landing it. It can work, but it’s going to take someone with a big ass pile of chips and the ability to let it bleed for a long time, if necessary.

Is the NHL that someone, with a trio of warm-weather franchises already withering on the vine?

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