Photo by Associated Press.
LAS VEGAS — The NHL is making a big bet on Las Vegas.
The league will expand to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season after awarding its 31st franchise to billionaire businessman Bill Foley on Wednesday. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the decision after the league's board of governors met on a 109-degree day and unanimously voted to put an ice hockey team in the Mojave Desert's gambling mecca.
"We think this is a tremendously exciting opportunity, not just for Las Vegas, but for the league as well," Bettman said, calling Las Vegas "a vibrant, growing, global destination city."
Foley will pay $500 million to the NHL's other owners as an expansion fee. The new team will play in T-Mobile Arena, the $375 million building that opened just off the Las Vegas Strip in April.
Bettman also announced that an expansion bid from Quebec City was "deferred" indefinitely, allowing Las Vegas to enter the league alone in the Pacific Division. The league's alignment and playoff format won't change.
With nearly 2.2 million people in the last census, Las Vegas is the largest population center in the U.S. without a team in the major professional sports. Vegas was an economic boomtown in the previous decade, and Foley is betting that its slowed growth hasn't curbed the city's appetite for sports and spectacles.
"We want everyone to be a fan," said Foley, who fell in love with pond hockey while growing up in Canada. "We're dedicated to it. We'll leave no stone unturned in our dedication, in our pursuit of hockey for Las Vegas, not just for our team, but for the community."
The NHL is expanding for the first time since 2000, when Minnesota and Columbus each paid $80 million to join the league.
Bettman said the league made the move largely due to the persistence and strength of the ownership group led by Foley, a financial services tycoon, who has been working on the idea for three years. Foley is joined by minority partners Joe and Gavin Maloof, the former owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings.
Foley's also bid had the enormous advantage of an NHL-ready arena built with private funding and eager for a flagship tenant. Foley has already accepted more than 14,000 season ticket deposits and sold out all 44 suites in the 17,500-seat rink built by MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings.
"We won't sell out every game with season-ticket holders, but I believe it's going to be 85 percent, 90 percent (filled by season ticket holders)," Foley said.
Along with a top-six pick in next year's draft, the Vegas franchise will be stocked by a June 2017 expansion draft that will be more favorable than previous drafts, theoretically allowing Foley's team to become competitive more quickly. Las Vegas will have four nearby rivals — at least by West Coast standards: the league's three California teams and the Arizona Coyotes.
Although ice doesn't last long in the desert, Las Vegas has had an appetite for hockey since the Kings and New York Rangers played a memorable outdoor exhibition game here in 1991. The IHL's Las Vegas Thunder sometimes drew more fans than UNLV's beloved basketball team at the Thomas and Mack Arena in the 1990s, and the Minnesota Wild's Jason Zucker leads a handful of locals who went on to hockey careers.
The endurance of that appetite will depend on Foley's ability to keep fans excited about the newest show in town, but the NHL seems confident it's getting in early to a growing market. Foley announced plans to devote considerable resources to building community interest in youth hockey, including a two-rink team training complex that will be "open to all."
Sports leagues once rejected the city outright due to concerns about corruption from Vegas' sports betting economy.
But the NHL and the NFL no longer share those worries, with Bettman calling his sport "less susceptible" to gambling interests due to the small volume of bets placed on hockey.
Foley realizes his team might not be alone in Vegas for long. Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis is interested in partnering with Vegas interests to build an enormous domed football stadium for his team.
"I think the NFL would be great here," Foley said. "They have a different fan base than we do. I don't think it will affect us."
Foley hasn't decided on a nickname or logo for his team, but an announcement could be made in the next few weeks. He has strongly considered the Black Knights, a name that has special meaning to Foley, a West Point graduate.
"I love Black Knights," Foley said. "I'm an Army guy, but maybe that's not the right name for the team at this time. We're going to work through the league."
Bettman strongly praised the bid backed by telecommunications giant Quebecor to return the league to Quebec City, the former home of the Quebec Nordiques. Concerns about the Canadian dollar's fluctuation, the stress of a two-team expansion draft and the league's desire to correct its geographical imbalance — the Eastern Conference already has 16 teams, while Las Vegas will be the 15th in the West — prompted the governors to go with Las Vegas alone.
"There is no doubt as to the passion for hockey in Quebec City," Bettman said. "There is no doubt as to the suitability of the Videotron Centre as a home for a team, and there is no doubt regarding the ownership credentials or the eagerness to own a team of Quebecor, which has been an outstanding partner. These components, the ones within the control of the Quebec City applicant, are first-rate."