Although he was careful to say that the NHL hasn't even decided on whether it intends to expand, league deputy commissioner Bill Daly spoke in detail about the possibility of having a franchise in Las Vegas.
As Daly explained to the attendees Wednesday at the IMG World Congress of Sports presented by SportsBusiness Journal/Daily in Los Angeles, a group headed by billionaire business Bill Foley has been authorized to mount a season-ticket campaign. It has a goal of reaching 10,000 commitments without a guarantee of actually landing an NHL franchise.
"The response in Las Vegas has been very impressive and certainly suggests that there is an ability to support a professional sports franchise and particularly an NHL franchise at this point in time," Daly said while speaking on a panel with other sports business insiders. "We have a Board of Governors meeting coming up in June. We'll obviously report on the results of the Las Vegas ticket drive and we'll have a discussion with our ownership as to whether they want to entertain the concept of expansion; they haven't made that decision yet. And if they want to entertain the concept of expansion, how they want to do it."
But Daly was more emphatic that if the Las Vegas project comes to fruition, it would be a new franchise, not an existing team moving there. The NHL hasn't added teams since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets began playing in the 2000-01 season. The Atlanta Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets in 2011.
"I don't expect any re-location in our league," he said. "We went through a period a couple of years ago in and around the work stoppage where we had some situations, which were unstable in our league. Quite frankly, with new ownership we've been able to generate in the National Hockey League, we've never been more stable, certainly in my 18 years at the league, but probably in its history. We're really comfortable with where we are from a franchise standpoint, so if expansion comes, I think it would come in the form of expansion."
The Vegas plan includes a 20,000-seat arena, to be built between New York-New York and the Monte Carlo, to be open in time to have a team for the 2016-17 season.
Flames president Brian Burke had a more cautious outlook, citing how the NBA, NFL and MLB haven't actively pursued Las Vegas as a potential franchise city. (The Oakland A's once played some home games there on an emergency basis when their home stadium needed to be repaired.)
"There's a reason for that," Burke said of the other leagues not being there. "No one's believed in the financial base of the market, and no one's believed that transitory people become fans and buy tickets. This is a way to test-drive the market without committing to it, so I think it's a sensible approach. I'm not sure if it works or not, but fortunately that's way above my pay grade. I would like another team in the West, I can tell you that."
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum isn't convinced that Las Vegas can work as a franchise city, even though the league has held its All-Star Game there in 2007.
"There's so many opportunities for, and competition for, entertainment dollars there that it's just a crowded marketplace," Tatum said.
Oliver Luck, the NCAA executive vice president of regulatory affairs, drew upon his experience working in MLS to explain why Las Vegas could succeed.
"I compare it to Orlando, which was always accused of being a transient market, a service economy, etc.," Luck said. "And the MLS franchise there is doing gangbusters. I think it can work."
Outside of the Las Vegas question, if the NHL does decide to expand, a second team in the Toronto market is a bad idea, according to Burke, who spent more than four years as Maple Leafs president. He said in general sharing a market is a detriment, regardless of size.
"You've got the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs in a huge market, a 10-million market, and one of them suffers unless they're in first place," Burke said. "I don't see a second team working in Toronto or any other Canadian market for that matter."