NHL expansion to Las Vegas not slam dunk

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- As the NHL’s governors headed back home Tuesday after two days of meetings, the buzz item clearly was Las Vegas and the potential for expansion there.

What’s evident in talking to a number of governors is that they need to learn a lot more about the Vegas market through this season-ticket drive the league has authorized before they feel comfortable enough to move forward.

In other words, this is not a slam dunk.

"I guess I would characterize myself as watching with great interest," St. Louis Blues owner Tom Stillman told ESPN.com after the Board of Governors meeting wrapped up Tuesday.

"I don’t know much about the details of the demographics, so I think it’s certainly worth looking into," added Stillman. "But I’m just watching at this point."

Which is to say that the board -- made up of all 30 NHL owners -- would need a lot more information before it ever felt comfortable proceeding with Las Vegas as a potential expansion market.

"I mean, it’s an interesting proposition," said Stillman. "But there’s so much more learning and research to do at this point."

The governors are in information-seeking mode right now. Until they know what they’re dealing with, there’s no push on Vegas. The season-ticket drive concept has been well-received by the governors as a way to fill in the blanks on such an interesting market.

"I think it'll be something that will be interesting to see. It's a unique market," said Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson.

"I think there’s a lot of questions," Canucks president Trevor Linden said. "Vegas has been the one place where nobody really knows how real that is. This is a real litmus test of what that possibility looks like. You’ve got people on both sides of whether it is a sports market or not and whether it can support [a team]. I think it’s an interesting way to approach it and I think it makes sense."

The next step in the process is for the league to meet again with potential owner Bill Foley, or his people, to find out more about the parameters of this season-ticket drive.

"We’re going to try and sit down with [Foley’s people] next week and give them our thoughts and share thoughts and see what they have in mind," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "My own view is, this isn’t going to happen until mid- to late January at the earliest."

The parameters of the season-ticket drive are going to be important. To gauge real interest in a market, you need people to be willing to put down money deposits, and for some length of time. This isn’t a simple signature pledge.

"[Foley's] going to probably at least have some guidance from us on what we think makes sense and doesn’t make sense, and frankly he wants to make sure that he is not going to do anything that we are not uncomfortable with," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "But this is his ticket drive. If he just wants people to sign a piece of paper and say I am interested, I’m not sure that is the same as somebody taking a deposit."

Added Daly when asked about fans in Las Vegas also providing term to their pledges: "I think it’s a fair question that longevity is probably a factor that they’ll probably include."

And then what?

Before there’s ever an expansion vote, the league has to feel out the governors for the green light to actually begin the expansion discussion in an official manner.

Remember, that hasn’t happened yet despite the buzz from the Vegas season-ticket drive.

"Before there’s ever a vote, I think we have to get to a point where we have a process," said Daly.

"But I think we’re a couple board meetings ahead of any vote being taken on anything."

If and when the league gets to a formal vote, it takes three-quarters support from the 30 clubs for a yes.

But we’re not there yet.

For starters, owners have to figure out if this is something they want. Not just Las Vegas, but Seattle, Quebec City, a second team in Toronto; the governors have to start making hard decisions on where this is all headed.

The most popular notion that’s out there is that the league would like to expand to Las Vegas and Seattle and then keep Quebec City, and perhaps Toronto, for relocation locales.

The debate for current NHL owners is threefold.

On the one hand, they get their hands on some nice cash from the expansion fee the league would charge (anywhere from $450 million to $500 million), and you better believe there are struggling NHL owners who can use that money now.

On the flip side, you’ve got well-established owners who aren’t overly excited about sharing the revenue pie with one or two more teams.

Then again, if you charge $450 million or $500 million for an expansion team, doesn’t that automatically raise the value of your own franchise?

These are all things that owners have to contemplate before deciding how they eventually vote on expansion.

"I think each owner does that computation totally differently," Daly said when asked in a media scrum what owners would think about in deciding whether to support expansion. "I think overall ... you don’t do expansion just to add clubs. You do expansion because you think it’s going to make the league bigger and better, right? That has to be their mindset if they approve an expansion. It’s not necessarily just because I want my up-front expansion fee. It’s because I think long term this is good for the league, it’s good for the value of my franchise long term."

Here’s the thing with Las Vegas, and it’s why some owners will reserve judgment until they get more hard information: The last thing most owners would ever want is to add a market that is weak and is a have-not franchise with its hands out looking for money in revenue sharing.

Hence why it’s so important to be sure about Las Vegas. Which is also why the NHL will want tangible proof that there’s local, everyday folks living in Las Vegas who will want to buy tickets. The league isn’t interested in relying on casinos and tourists to fill the void.

"I think what the ownership group is looking for, and ultimately what I think what would be important to the board, is that local people in Las Vegas are going to support this franchise, not just the local businesses. Because I’m not sure it’s the same thing," said Daly.

"Look, I think there’s an acknowledgment that for any professional sports franchise to work in Vegas, is it going to be supported locally? Not necessarily by the casinos."

On the other hand, being the first pro team in Vegas is also an alluring proposition.

"Look, if the theory is that a market can support a professional sports franchise, by being first you’re -- you know when there’s only so many dollars in a market -- you’re getting those dollars committed to you as opposed to having to compete with somebody else for those dollars," said Daly.

But before expanding, you have to ensure that you’ve got 30 healthy markets. And while about a year ago at this time it felt like the NHL had finally achieved that, the attendance woes in Florida this season and the ongoing but not completed ownership transfer to Andrew Barroway in Arizona have raised questions.

"Arizona and Florida are not moving," Daly said with conviction.

Asked specifically about Panthers owner Vinnie Viola and the team’s future, Bettman was even stronger:

"I don't think anybody should be focused on the Panthers as a relocation candidate," said the commish. "So let me repeat that again so it doesn't get lost: Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate. Period. It's inconsistent with everything we know and believe, it's inconsistent with everything Vinnie Viola would be telling me and inconsistent meaning he has no intention of moving the club. He is committed to South Florida."

We’re not here to say Bettman isn’t being candid. There’s no question he’s going to do everything he can to keep the Panthers in Florida, just as he has with the Coyotes in Arizona over the past several years.

Having said that -- just to play devil’s advocate -- it’s not like the league ever announced publicly that the Thrashers were leaving Atlanta until the day it actually happened.

So who really knows, right?

Asked if the Coyotes and Panthers were stable franchises, Daly answered: "Yes, 100 percent."

And if that’s how the league truly feels, then expansion is on the horizon over the next two to three years.

First things first, though, the citizens of Las Vegas have to prove they want a team.