Las Vegas may finally be closer than ever to getting its own professional sports team.
A recent report by Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province suggested that the NHL strongly considers bringing an expansion team to Sin City. Sources told Gallagher that the NHL has made a drastic about-face on its stance on expansion, saying that a Vegas expansion team was a done deal.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly denied the report, saying that a planned expansion to Las Vegas is not in the league’s plans, now or in the future. But even with this denial of sorts, it’s not far-fetched to think that the NHL thinks of expansion and Las Vegas is being considered.
One look at the recent conference realignment shows that the Western Conference is short of two teams compared to the Eastern Conference. Adding two teams to the West brings some competitive balance into the league, especially if the league decides to expand to cities like Seattle and yes, Las Vegas.
It’s admittedly easier to justify a move to the Northwest compared to the desert. For one, Seattle is one of the most dynamic sports towns in America and there’s been some ground swell of support from local business leaders in building a new arena for a basketball or hockey franchise. Having a hockey franchise in that region also gives its residents a local team to root for and not force their allegiance on a team like the Vancouver Canucks or a little down south, the San Jose Sharks.
Las Vegas, though, makes its own case and it’s a pretty compelling one to say the least. Unlike Seattle, MGM and AEG which are teaming up to build a new state-of-the-art arena in Las Vegas that can accommodate an NHL team. AEG also owns the Los Angeles Kings and it has some history dealing with hockey-related business. It wasn’t an accident that former Kings great Luc Robitaille was present during the arena’s ground-breaking.
There’s also the allure of money involved in this picture. The NHL hasn’t disclosed the going-rate for expansion fees these days but it’s conceivable that it could be somewhere in the vicinity of $200 to $300 million per team.
Back in 2011, the Winnipeg Jets shelled out a combined $230 million in relocation and purchase fees to move the franchise from Atlanta. A franchise fee in that range isn’t inconceivable, especially if an ownership group is determined enough to bring a pro sports franchise in Las Vegas.
There are other cities in North America that could pose a threat to Vegas getting an NHL team. Apart from Seattle, Quebec has been eyeing a return to the NHL for the first since the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. If you’re looking at it at face value, Quebec is the most logical city to get an expansion team. It’s got a rabid hockey fan base. It’s got a new arena that’s expected to be completed in a year’s time. Most importantly, it has a potential ownership group in Quebecor Media that has its feet firmly planted in the city.
But from a competitive balance point-of-view, a Quebec team won’t make sense because it would be another team in the Eastern Conference. Unless the NHL does another realignment and sends the Detroit Red Wings back to the West, it’s unlikely that the NHL would allow one conference to have 17 teams and the other having just 14 teams.
A report by Sports Business News’ Howard Bloom suggested that the NHL plans to expand by four teams with Vegas, Seattle and Quebec on that list. The other one is a second Toronto franchise. I can understand one or two teams, but a four-team expansion is stretching it a little too far. It also doesn’t solve the issue of conference balance if two of the four teams are sent to the Eastern Conference. That’s not even diving into the talent issue, which could be diluted to the point that we see more mediocre teams than before.
There are many issues and roadblocks that stand in the way before Las Vegas gets an NHL team. But the league makes money hand-over-fist these days and if it wants to make a real splash in the North American sports landscape, becoming the first professional sports league to have a team in Las Vegas is a huge step in that direction.