<
>

NHL kicks off Las Vegas ticket drive

Las Vegas hockey fans finally got the opportunity on Tuesday to put their money where their hockey team might be with the launch of a trial season ticket drive that supporters hope will lead to the expansion of the National Hockey League into the city.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended a news conference at the MGM Grand Casino to kick off the drive, insisted that the NHL hasn't made any commitment to anyone regarding becoming the first major professional sports league to venture into the gambling and tourist mecca.

"We're not in the expansion process and I need to keep making that clear,'' Bettman said.

Still, the optics of Bettman's presence for many observers were more powerful than words and seemed to indicate the NHL was in fact ready to make the expansion plunge provided the ticket drive is as successful, as a number of sources expect it to be.

Even before potential owners Bill Foley and the Las Vegas-based Maloof family started taking deposits on season tickets from interested fans on Tuesday afternoon, sources told ESPN.com that more than 9,000 individuals had reached out to organizers to express interest in paying to watch NHL hockey in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday afternoon, fans were being asked to commit between $150 and $900 for season tickets depending on the location of the seats in the arena being built on the The Strip by AEG and MGM Resorts International.

"We have the arena and we have strong ownership,'' Foley said. "Now it's our job to convince the NHL that Las Vegas is ready for hockey."

The $350 million arena is being built without an anchor tenant and is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2016, though it is being built to the specifics required by professional sports leagues like the NBA and the NHL.

Foley's goal is to collect between 10,000 and 12,500 deposits on season tickets, which he hopes will prompt interest by the NHL in expanding to the city for the 2016-17 season.

"I have no promises to make today," Bettman said. "I do wish Bill and the people of Las Vegas good luck in this venture and we will be interested in seeing the results."

Such a move would be the league's first expansion since 2000 and multiple sources have told ESPN.com that Foley and his ownership group have worked out tentative details on a lease agreement with the arena's builders and have had discussion with the league about a potential expansion fee believed to be between $450 million and $500 million.

Along with the individual season ticket deposits the ownership group has already had local businesses agree to buy suites and luxury boxes in the new arena. A strategy to find 50 local business leaders who would commit to finding 60 other residents to buy tickets grew almost immediately to more than 80.

"We launched. Commissioner was out and spoke so now we'll see," Foley told ESPN.com Tuesday night.

The thinking is that if the support for the team is there it is a no-brainer that the NHL will move toward expansion, especially given the expansion fees that do not have to be shared with players and the fact the league has 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference.

Bettman told ESPN.com that Foley and his group have committed a lot of time and money (close to $2 million, a source told ESPN.com) and that Foley had invited him to attend the media event to see the level of enthusiasm and support for hockey in the city.

"I figured why not go out and see what he's got?" Bettman said shortly before boarding a flight back to New York.

"The event was well done," he added. "There was a big turnout and a high level of enthusiasm."

But Bettman reiterated the league has not committed to expanding and that if Foley is successful in his ticket drive the league has not committed to him -- or to anyone -- that the league will begin expansion discussions based on that success.

As for learning about Las Vegas, the ticket drive will help first Foley determine if it's worth pursuing from an ownership perspective and also provide the NHL with important information about the marketplace, though they have also done their own independent analysis of the market.

"This is a unique market and he knows and understands that," Bettman said of Foley.

"From our standpoint, if we ever get to a point where we're considering (expansion) we'll have a data point that tells us that this is a market that albeit unique that has indicated a desire to do it," the commissioner said.

"The league will have to decide whether it's something we're prepared to do," he added.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.