Las Vegas has a market population of 1.7 million with a combined metro population of almost 850,000. This would rank it around 13th among other U.S. cities. Its population has large numbers of rabid sports fans. It has major businesses that would buy luxury boxes, sponsorships and naming rights. Yet, it doesn't have a major professional franchise.
That is about to change.
Wealthy businessman Bill Foley recently announced a season-ticket drive for a prospective NHL franchise. He was flanked by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. A new 20,000-seat arena costing $375 million, located behind the New York-New York resort, is set to open in April 2016. It is being built by a well-heeled partnership of MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group. The response to the season-ticket drive showed real commitment in the Las Vegas market. At least 10,500 fans put up deposits ranging from $150 to $900 to reserve seats. Casinos will certainly buy more.
The argument against putting franchises into Las Vegas has always been a fear of gambling connection with the multiple casinos. Sports put a public face on a church-and-state separation regarding gambling. The reality is that leagues know that gambling on games provides major fan support for sports. There are also franchises benefiting from advertising in casinos, plus they take a position in fantasy sports.
Casinos have spread across the nation. Riverboat gambling goes on in New Orleans -- no one is threatening to pull the Saints or Pelicans from the city. Gary, Indiana, is close to Chicago and is the third largest gambling site in the country. The Bears, Bulls, White Sox and Cubs don't seem to be jeopardized. Casino gambling exists proximate to many major cities with franchises -- this is the new reality.
Las Vegas is no longer a city of tourists -- it has a huge and eager population. Green Bay, Salt Lake City, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Buffalo all have franchises, and they are dwarfed by the population of Sin City. Indianapolis, Columbus, Charlotte, Detroit, Seattle, Denver, Memphis, Boston, Nashville, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Portland and Milwaukee are all smaller than Las Vegas. The city clearly has the resources and attendance base to make any franchise successful.
The next specious argument is that there are few Las Vegas natives and their allegiance will be with teams outside the market. I remember growing up in Los Angeles as part of a baby-boomer generation that was born here. The same arguments were made doubting the willingness of a largely transplanted population. The Dodgers moved in 1958 and carefully marketed in the community like it was a small town. The team has led baseball in attendance for most of its’ history.
Gavin and Bill Maloof are partners and boosters in this effort. They own the Palms Hotel and were owners of the Sacramento Kings. They have the experience to make a hockey team a success. Las Vegas has great experience in hosting events. What happens in Las Vegas is about to stop staying in Las Vegas as a NHL team seems inevitable for the 2016-17 season. If the franchise is successful, it will open the door for other franchises to come.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.