Las Vegas’ probable hockey team should take the ice beginning in 2017. There’s a ton of work for the franchise to do between now and then.
By Kyle Magin
For the first time ever, major professional team sports will have a franchise in Sin City. Led by owner Bill Foley, who will pay $500 million to join the club, the Vegas team lands in a promising-but-untested market. The following conditions need to be met by various stakeholders for the experiment to be successful and hence justify the expense:
For the NHL:
Create a legitimate expansion draft. Foley is paying an emperor’s ransom to enter your league and taking a phenomenal amount of risk by opening a new market in a part of the continent that isn’t hockey-centric. Past expansions have left new franchises basically starting from scratch due to the greed and hubris of the league’s front offices. Atlanta was left to flap in the wind for more than a decade—constructing teams through the draft and begging over-the-hill free agents to take a few more paychecks before closing up shop and heading to Winnipeg a failure. Ditto Oakland, and you’re maybe seeing the death throes in Phoenix, Carolina and Miami. Hockey can work in Sun Belt markets—LA and Tampa each finished in the top-10 of percentage attendance this season. It won’t work, however, if you protect every good NHL veteran from having to play there. You can’t force bad hockey on new fans with a high potential for indifference; their fandom needs an incubator, needs to be nudged along for the league to be successful. The NHL has already made noises about reducing the amount of players a team can protect in the expansion draft. It’s nice, but a concrete plan needs to be laid out that prevents teams from creating back-door contracts and gaming the system. Teams and the union must be brought into line–harshly, if necessary–to achieve a common goal. Foley–and the Vegas fanbase–are the big blind in this pot. Make sure the small blind is serious about keeping the game interesting.
Create favorable schedules. Marry the home schedule to weekends when you’re already going to have sports fans in town–the conference basketball tournaments, March Madness and major fight nights. Schedule Friday and Saturday home tilts against Anaheim and LA at every conceivable opportunity to capture the I-15 crowd. Have the ‘Hawks in town the weekend the Cubs play their annual spring training tilt at Cashman. Vegas’ current sports culture/landscape certainly isn’t bereft, so capitalize on it.
Cultivate the Fanbase. Insist that the league meets you halfway on the expansion draft. Educate your fans on hockey, a half-step up from the basics. For an end-to-end goal scoring sport (in the vein of football, soccer and basketball), hockey has a remarkable amount of nuances. Find a telecast team who can explain those without condescension–huge in a sport that can live pretty far up its own butt and has a tendency to push the uninitiated away. Vegas hockey can become a cornerstone of life in Vegas–get home, put the game on and watch or listen to it with family. Bring families along like people you want 100 years of business from, a la baseball and its generational connections with warm, professional broadcasters.
Create a hockey culture. Expand Vegas’ current youth leagues (and maybe help pay for the gear!) Assist in cultivating a D1 program at UNLV. Hockey can’t just be a sport that exists on TV and the Strip, it has to shed its elitism and expand its reaches to the city’s blue collar general population.
Embrace Nevada. This is probably my pipe dream, but I think using Nevada as the team’s geographic name is a vital idea. Vegas’ TV footprint–which goes as far as anything in determining a team’s actual value–will be limited outside of the 2.1 million residents of Clark County. Foley will need every last set of eyes to argue for revenue and attempt to avoid the woes of a Phoenix or Atlanta, so he needs to expand the ice as widely as possible. Naming the team the Nevada Xes goes part of the way to doing that, explicitly bringing another half-million potential fans into the fold and telling them that they belong to this movement just as much as the valley’s residents. Establishing a minor-league AHL team in Reno and kicking off the season with a statewide caravan tour probably aren’t bad ideas, either.