The NHL has descended on Las Vegas for its annual awards show. But this year, the winners will be overshadowed by far bigger news, as the league finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in hockey: the NHL is putting an expansion team in Las Vegas. Commissioner Gary Bettman made it official on Wednesday.
But will it work? That’s the question, and it’s one that has more than a few observers feeling skeptical. So let’s try to figure it out by working our way through the pros and cons of NHL hockey in Las Vegas.
Pro: Las Vegas is a big city, and seems ready for a big league team
Until today, Las Vegas was one of the largest cities in the United States without a team in any of the Big Four professional sports leagues. (For the purpose of making that point, we’ll just agree to ignore the fact that there isn’t really a Big Four anymore, and probably hasn’t been for years.) Depending on how you measure the population, Las Vegas is already a bigger market than several cities that already have NHL teams, including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St Louis. And it’s growing.
And that’s just the basic population; it’s not counting the massive number of tourists who are there at pretty much all times. Those tourists flock to buy tickets for all sorts of entertainment options, including magicians, ventriloquists and trapeze acts. Surely pro sports couldn’t be that hard of a sell.
If anything, the numbers say that the city should already have a team, if not several. Part of the reason they’ve been shut out is gambling, and the reluctance of major pro sports to be perceived as getting anywhere near it. But that taboo has been fading for years, and as it did, a Vegas big league debut started to feel inevitable. Vegas has been a rumored home for a major franchise for years now, including current reports that they could be a potential home for the NFL and the NBA.
Con: Hockey still feels like a weird choice to be first
Picture an ideal hockey market. Did you picture a desert? Probably not.
Yes, some league was going to be head to Vegas eventually, but it’s still a little odd to see the NHL taking the lead. The city has had minor league hockey teams before, but there’s not exactly a ton of history with the sport to draw on. And the occasional anecdote aside, there’s little evidence that sports fans in Las Vegas are really all that interested in hockey.
That doesn’t mean that the NHL can’t succeed in a southern market – the three California teams have proven that you can, at least to some degree. But it adds a degree of difficulty, and given the spotty history of NHL expansion attempts, that’s not necessarily what you want to be facing.