On Monday, the prospect of NHL expansion to Las Vegas took a big step forward.
At the league’s Board of Governors meeting, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the NHL was going allow potential franchise owner Bill Foley to conduct a season-ticket drive to assess how much interest there would be in a team based out of the city.
Of course, Bettman didn’t put it quite that plainly. He took great pains to downplay the news. The video of the announcement is well worth watching just for the sheer number of limitations and caveats that Bettman arranged around that one bit of hard news:
Bettman didn’t even say that the NHL was allowing the season-ticket drive—he instead said that the league’s board had “no objection to giving them an opportunity to explore what the level of interest in having a professional sports team in Las Vegas might be.”
He stressed that there was no agreement to expand, let alone sell a team to any given ownership group in any given city. He made it clear that there might not be sufficient interest in Las Vegas, and further that even if there was, it would just be the first step in the process. He added that there had not only been no vote on potential expansion, but that no vote had even been contemplated.
There are two different ways to take the announcement. The first is to view it as a non-story, just a trial balloon being floated by some guy with basically no ties to the league in a market that may not even be ready for a major league sports team. That’s the way Bettman sold it in his announcement.
The problem is that the commissioner doth protest too much.
It’s not hard to figure out the probable reason the NHL decided to announce this news preemptively.
Expansion is a hot-button topic for hockey fans, and Las Vegas is the city most often mentioned at the forefront of those discussions. When the news that a deep-pocketed businessman like Foley was holding a season-ticket drive came out, the obvious conclusion would be that expansion to the city was a done deal. By announcing it this way, the league can get out in front of the news.
But as much as Bettman attempted to downplay the story, it’s a significant step forward in a process that multiple reports indicate is likely to lead to an NHL franchise in Vegas.
In August, Postmedia’s Tony Gallagher reported that sources told him an NHL team in the city was a “done deal,” and in October, Larry Brooks and Josh Kosman of the New York Post revealed that Foley was “in advanced talks” to either bring in an expansion team or potentially to buy and move an existing club.
The fact is that all the ingredients appear to be in place here. There’s an attractive market which as yet has been untapped by major league sports, one which comes with a shiny new arena which could presumably use an anchor tenant. There is a rich potential owner with enough interest to hold a ticket drive. The only real questions worth asking at this point are whether there is enough interest in the market to support a team and whether the NHL has an interest in expansion.
The first question is the big one, and it’s one that should be answered by Foley’s ticket drive. Bettman called Las Vegas “a unique market,” and he’s right about that—there’s a reason the city has yet to be served by a major league team. This drive is a logical, even necessary, step in the path to bringing a team to the city.
As for the second question, the next time a group of billionaires says “no” to a huge pile of free money will be the first time. If the evidence shows that Las Vegas can support an NHL team, it’s hard to believe the league owners would turn their noses up at what would certainly be a massive expansion fee (or, in the case of relocation, a massive relocation fee plus the subtraction of an irrelevant market).
It would be a big surprise if this process didn't ultimately result in the NHL going to Sin City.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.