According to a recent report by Sports Illustrated, a National Hockey League team in Las Vegas is “a done deal,” simply hinging on which owner gets credit for bringing the team to the city. Vegas will join three other teams, reported to be Seattle, Quebec, and a second team in Toronto, in a league expansion in 2017. Though no official word has come from league commissioner Gary Bettman, the smoke surrounding the rumors of expansion has reached critical mass levels, bringing many to believe it is only a matter of time.
A team in Las Vegas would bring the first major league sports franchise to the city. Vegas has had other professional sports teams, including a popular hockey team, the Wranglers. However, the proximity to legalized gambling has scared major league organizations away from the city. While there is no guarantee that a team located in Last Vegas will causing an increase in gambling among players, the possibility seems to have been enough to drive away interested parties. In addition, any sports team located in Vegas may have challenges unique to the city. While teams in other cities may have to deal with occasional competing concerts or shows, it will be an almost constant struggle in Vegas. Any prospective owner will have to weigh the likelihood that tourists will come to the city to watch a hockey game versus a show by Penn and Teller, Cirque du Soleil, or any of the other dozens of nightly attractions that the city provides.
Seattle appears to be the closest to receiving a new team. Early in the year, deputy commissioner Bill Daley stated that the possibility of expanding to Seattle is there, and, once the city constructs their proposed downtown arena, “the objective factors around the marketplace suggest Seattle would be a good hockey market.” While it will not bring the same excitement to the city as a team in Las Vegas would, a team in Seattle makes sense. The Seattle Seahawks will likely remain the big draw in the city, but plenty of NHL franchises have carved a solid fanbase, despite the presence of an NFL team in the city. Seattle would also likely draw some fans down from Canada, those who want to catch a hockey game, but not pay Vancouver Canuck-prices.
A team in Quebec, and a second team in Toronto have long been requested (or demanded) by many fans, a request that only gained steam when Atlanta was forced to relocate to Winnipeg. Teams in these cities would have the opposite issue that a team in Las Vegas would. The demand will always be there in those cities, as no amount of losing seasons appears to heavily dent the attendance numbers of Canadian franchise, but they will need to compete with already established markets in the country. Quebec is just a short skip from the Montreal Canadiens, and any newly formed franchise in Toronto will have to compete with the well-established Toronto Maple Leafs. If one team in close proximity is successful for a long period of time, while the other is not, it could see wildly fluctuating attendance numbers for the four teams.
Perhaps what lends the most credibility to the rumors of expansion is the frequent trips that Bettman and Daly have taken to the rumored expansion cities. “There’s a lot of interest. We’re hearing from multiple groups in Seattle and in Vegas and Kansas City and Quebec City,” said Bettman. “We have not decided to engage in a formal expansion process but we listen to expressions of interest. It’s not something we’ve seriously considered yet.” Yet, despite the claims otherwise, astute hockey fans noticed a particular question of interest in a recent survey sent out by the league. The survey asks hockey fans how likely they are to travel to certain cities over the next year, followed by a list that includes Seattle, Hartford and Las Vegas. That question is immediately followed by another: “If you were in those cities, and if they had an NBA or NHL team, would you go and see a game there?”
Expansion seems inevitable at this point. The current conference set up of 14 teams in the West and 16 teams in the East is not a sustainable model for the league. It seems obvious that the league will need to add two teams to the Western Conference to bring that balance, sooner rather than later. If there is fire in the smoke surrounding the expansion rumors, the NHL may use teams in Las Vegas and Seattle to bring that balance.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner