Expansion to Vegas worth the gamble

LAS VEGAS -- It's a couple of hours before the University of Nevada Las Vegas Rebels hockey game against Cal State Long Beach.

The Sobe Arena is about a 15-minute drive from the Strip, out along North Rancho Drive, and is connected to the Fiesta Rancho Hotel and Casino.

In fact, at least one of the Long Beach players ends up wandering through the casino, past slot machines and cocktail waitresses decked out in short Santa outfits, with his gear, trying to find the rink.

On the far wall of the arena is a big banner advertising comfortable rooms for $24.99 a night at the casino that claims to be the "Royal Flush Capital of the World."

The Rebels are a club team, which means that, unlike for their higher-profile colleagues with the football and basketball teams, there are no scholarships. The players have to pay money out of their own pockets to help defray costs of ice time, etc., and the team relies on outside sponsors to help it compete against other club teams.

Earlier in the week, the team had an 11 p.m. practice to prepare for its weekend games. The coaches all have other jobs, including head coach J.J. Hartmann, who played Division I hockey with Denver University and later played in the ECHL.

Labor of love? Guess you could say that.

This is hockey these days in Las Vegas.

On this night, the Rebels blow a 5-2 third-period lead and end up with a tie. A postgame interview with Hartmann has to be conducted in the lobby of the casino because the rink was instantly taken over by public skating, complete with light show and booming music.

Among the 60 or so fans watching the game are John Bumphrey; wife, Susan; brother, Bill; and friend Jack Johnson.

Three of the four are sporting Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning or Carolina Hurricanes jerseys and in some ways reflect what is at the very heart of any discussion of whether the NHL should be in Las Vegas.

Yes, they would support a team if the NHL expanded here. No question, they say. But they also admit to some skepticism that the marketplace will have a broad enough fan base to make it work.

Still, the promise of being the first major league sports team in this town is something -- something to call their own, something to get behind and embrace, and they hope such a day is coming.

Certainly, amid the cacophony of sight and sound that is the Las Vegas Strip, among the endless neon and constant motion and commotion of this city that knows nothing of "Last call" or "Time to go home," you'd be hard-pressed to find one little sign saying: "Welcome, National Hockey League." Not yet, anyway.

But other signs indicate that such a welcome is being prepared. In a town not known for subtlety, some of those signs are big and bold, such as the massive construction project at one end of the famous Strip, across the street from the Monte Carlo casino and next door to New York-New York resort extending from Las Vegas Boulevard to Frank Sinatra Drive.

Workers and cranes and cement mixers swarm the location of the Las Vegas Arena as the $350 million state-of-the-art arena/event venue slowly takes shape, heading toward its expected opening in the spring of 2016. The arena is located near major freeway access, theoretically attractive to local residents who aren't interested in the Strip, while at the same time providing easy walking or public transit access for visitors.

The 20,000-seat facility will host boxing, UFC, other sporting events, top entertainers and awards shows. It's expected the arena will host 100 total events annually, even without an anchor tenant such as an NHL or NBA team, although the NHL is seen as the league most likely to make the move to Las Vegas, given the league's overall franchise health. Multiple locker room facilities, dressing rooms and modern broadcast facilities that would meet the specifications of NHL broadcasters will be part of the building plan. The arena is being built with an understanding of the local marketplace. Whereas Staples Center in Los Angeles, home to the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings, has 150 suites that have been sold out since the building opened, the Las Vegas venue will have about a quarter that number because the corporate presence is not as strong in the city.

Multiple sources familiar with the arena project and the NHL's expansion process said an ownership group led by deep-pocketed businessman William Foley and local business operators the Maloof family, former owners of both the NBA's Sacramento Kings and the Palms casino and resort in Las Vegas, are in a position to work out a lease agreement with the builders of the arena, AEG (owner of the Los Angeles Kings) and MGM Resorts International, to make an NHL team the anchor tenant in the new building.

Other sources say this ownership group is prepared to pay an expansion fee to the NHL should the NHL decide to make this move. It's believed the expansion fee would be between $400 million and $450 million.

"The deal is there if they [the NHL powers that be] want to make it," one source told ESPN.com.

And if you work down the checklist of things that need to happen for the NHL -- a league that has in recent years rebranded itself as a cutting-edge, outside-the-box operation -- to move here, it's hard not to believe it is on the precipice of making what would be one of the most daring moves in pro sports in recent memory:

World-class arena that does not rely on public funding to finance construction? Check.

Deep-pocketed owners including a strong local presence? Check.

A marketplace that does not levy state income tax, hence making it an attractive place for players and their families? Check.

Growing population? Check.

Add in the fact that expansion fees are not shared with the players and there is a compelling argument to be made that Las Vegas represents a strong fit for the NHL's owners.

"I think there are a good core of hockey fans in the valley," said Jeff Sharples, who played 105 NHL games and retired from the game to Las Vegas, where he is now based as a pilot. "Las Vegas has always been able to generate buzz, and there is a lot of money around town. I would love to see the NHL in Las Vegas."

What makes the entire discussion about Las Vegas as a potential home for an NHL franchise so compelling, so difficult to quantify, is the very nature of the city itself. For a community that will attract 40 million visitors this year, it's easy to forget that the visitors do not necessarily define the community, even if they represent billions of dollars of revenue to said community.

As one source familiar with the Foley/Maloof ownership group told ESPN.com, people from outside Las Vegas think everyone in Las Vegas is either a dealer in the casino, a cocktail waitress or a hooker. A city's character and identity is something more complex, and the place a pro sports team is or at least has the potential to be is tied to that identity, even in a place as unique as Las Vegas.

Pat Christenson is the head of Las Vegas Events, an organization that secures and in some cases puts on events across the entertainment spectrum for the area. A Wisconsin native who has been in Las Vegas since 1980, Christenson brushed up against the local hockey community when he was with the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus, when it was home to the Las Vegas Thunder of the old IHL. Why do cities pursue pro sports teams, Christenson asks? Economics? Sure.

"To me, it's more of an identity," he told ESPN.com. If pro sports, and specifically the NHL, came to town, "It would broaden the identity we already have."

He believes that local residents will rally around a pro team, and he figures he's like a lot of residents when it comes to the NHL.

"I'm not a hockey fan right now," he said. "But with the NHL as exciting as it is, I could become one."

Having the Maloofs involved is key, as far as Christenson is concerned. Their connections to the local business community and their experience in pro sports should prove invaluable.

"They understand the dynamics of the city," he said. "They'd be an exceptional owner for us."

Not surprisingly, the NHL has been circumspect about discussing the state of expansion. But the league has already engaged in a preliminary study of the Vegas marketplace as well as other potential expansion markets, and more work is expected to be done in assessing the viability of Vegas.

"It's an intriguing market," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com. "While a lot more needs to be done to satisfy ourselves that it could support a National Hockey League franchise for the long term, certainly there are attributes about the market that on their face suggests that they can and would."

The fact that there are no other pro sports teams in the area is also a "positive attribute," Daly added.

"Certainly, there's a perceived hunger for professional sports in that market," he said. "There's something to be said for being the first team in there."

The NHL has expressed concern about gambling on games -- and the perception of gambling on games -- if there were an NHL franchise in Las Vegas. A.G. Burnett, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, told ESPN.com there is a mechanism in place that allows governing bodies to petition to keep Vegas sportsbooks from offering specific games to bettors. There is precedent: At one point, bets were not taken on UNLV basketball and football games, although both are now again offered.

It's not believed having Las Vegas games available at the sportsbooks would be a deal-breaker for the NHL, and local sportsbook officials told ESPN.com they believe it would send the wrong message if the NHL tried to have the local team's games taken off the board. In fact, oddsmakers at casinos are the first line of defense in sniffing out betting irregularities. In addition, most major sports leagues (including the NHL) have someone in Las Vegas to monitor betting on games, watching for impropriety.

Although having a local ownership component is not a requirement for the NHL, it is likewise perceived as a positive, the deputy commissioner said. If you look closely in this city, one with a population that has grown to 2.1 million in recent years and with a TV market that is the 42nd largest in the nation, there is a hunger on many levels and in many quarters for a long-awaited major league sports team.

"It would be a huge bite of the apple to bring everybody together," Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman told ESPN.com.

Her husband, Oscar, preceded her as mayor, and both have been lobbying long and hard to bring the first major league franchise to the city. People here are looking for what other cities have, she explained.

"There's a big appetite for sports here," she said. "Certainly, an appetite for major league hockey would have to be developed."

Some of that appetite will be satisfied by some of those 40 million visitors. A natural rivalry could develop between drivable franchises in Arizona, Los Angeles and Anaheim, and Denver isn't that far, either. And fans will travel from afar to see their teams while on vacation in Las Vegas, as well.

But, the bottom line is, "you can't live on the tourists," said one source familiar with the Foley/Maloof ownership group business plan. "You've got to do it on your season-ticket holders," the source added.

That means a season-ticket base of at least 10,000 and likely closer to 12,000 would be needed from the local community. Another source familiar with the project said the group's market research and business plan call for a close partnership with local business, within and outside the gaming industry, and local youth hockey. This source said part of the plan would call for the building of new ice pads in the city to help grow youth hockey and build a future clientele of season-ticket holders.

That is music to the ears of guys such as Greg Yochum, who is the president of the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association and who envisions an NHL team in Las Vegas would be the impetus for a steady rise in participation at the youth hockey level, a pattern that has been established in recent years in Anaheim, Los Angeles and Arizona.

In the Las Vegas Ice Center just off West Flamingo Road, there are two ice surfaces, one of which was a roller rink until John Brooks and his two brothers took over the facility.

Today, the rinks are home to a travel program with coaches who include Gabe Gauthier, a California native who played in eight NHL games, and Evan Zucker, whose younger brother Jason is enjoying a breakout season with the Minnesota Wild after having played his youth hockey in Las Vegas.

After a recent practice, Evan Zucker said he thinks the impact of an NHL team would be felt immediately in terms of hockey's growth across the board.

"It would be amazing," he said. "Everyone who's wanted to play at a higher level here has had to leave."

The dilemma for youth hockey in Las Vegas now is that there are not enough ice surfaces to both meet the demands of adult tournaments that dominate the schedule at various times of the year -- and make money for the arena owners -- and accommodate youth hockey practice times. As a result, there is a lack of consistency on when youth teams skate that makes it more difficult for families to commit, which is part of the reason the youth hockey community is pretty constant at about 250 players.

Zucker said he and his colleagues in youth hockey admit to fairly drooling at the thought of the NHL coming to town and what it might mean for the growth of the local hockey community.

That excitement is shared by others across the spectrum in the city. Jay Kornegay is the vice president of race and sports operations for the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino. A Colorado native, he has already made plans to share season tickets with a few of his colleagues and friends.

"We've already had discussions on how to split them up," he said. "The idea of having a pro franchise in Vegas, I personally believe it's ready for one.

"Seeing what has been done, how the city supported second- and third-tier franchises for hockey, I certainly believe they would support a major franchise, as well."

But that excitement is also tempered by skepticism. Johnny Avello is in charge of the sportsbook at the Wynn/Encore casinos, having been with the top resort for a decade. He believes bettors have been turned off hockey by its repeated labor disputes, the last one scuttling half a season in 2012. As for supporting the real thing in Vegas, he's not sure.

"There's just so much going on in town," he said. "I don't know. I really don't.

"It doesn't seem to be an ice hockey type of town."

Bob Strumm is that rare bird in this community: a hockey lifer who has called Las Vegas home for the past 20 years. The first GM of the Las Vegas Thunder of the old International Hockey League and a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets for a dozen years, Strumm views a possible move to Las Vegas in this way: Hockey is entertainment.

"And Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world," Strumm told ESPN.com over a slice of pizza at the Palms Casino just off the Strip.

Is hockey a natural fit here?

"I wouldn't say it's a natural fit. But I do think the community is ready for a big league team. Is hockey that sport? I can't tell you that," Strumm said.

What he does know is the appeal of the game and the love of sports in this city.

"There's probably more sports fans in Vegas than in any other city in America," he said.

Sitting in a coffee shop across the street from the Las Vegas Arena project is a man who understands the challenges of marrying the game and the local residents: Billy Johnson, president and COO of the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.

A conflict over the lease at the Wranglers' former home means the team has gone dark for this season. Johnson's experience in Las Vegas and before that as a baseball man working in Tennessee and New Hampshire, among other locales, leads him to believe it's less about the game than the manner in which the selling of the game is approached.

That means making the product accessible.

Hockey has in some ways been historically a closed society, the rules foreign to the uninitiated, the nuances of the game hard to pick up, especially unless the game is viewed live. A team in Las Vegas has to be ultra-inclusive, Johnson said.

"This is one of the most unique markets in terms of what they need to embrace you," he said.

Neither the league nor a new ownership group can afford to assume that by being the first major league team in town, it is doing anyone any favors.

"This is not a sports town. This is an event town," Johnson said. "The NHL can't make that mistake, or the NBA, for that matter, that they are god's gift to the community."

And, he added, if the NHL does come to town, the owners and the people they hire to sell the product will get just one chance to get it right.

"Regardless of who the owners are, it has to be messaged properly," he said.

And in the end, maybe for all its differences, for all the things that set Las Vegas apart from any other sports market in North America -- perhaps even the world -- maybe the elements that will determine success versus failure aren't so different from those in Nashville, Tennessee, or Raleigh, North Carolina, or Arizona. You need ownership that is committed to connecting on a real level with the people who live in the community and will be the lifeblood of the team.

If that connection is made, what's to stop this from being a roaring success?

The safe play, of course, is to wait for an arena to get built in Seattle and expand there and/or wait until another league, maybe the NBA, tests the waters in Vegas. But what did John Tortorella always say about safe?

Paul Swangard is the head of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. He is fascinated by the options facing the NHL.

"I think everyone's waiting for someone to take the plunge [into Las Vegas]," Swangard said. "It's putting yourself right in the middle of a battle I think every team in every market wages every day: the battle for entertainment dollars."

And even the best sports marketer can't control what the product will look like on the ice, in contrast to the constancy consumers are accustomed to from Celine Dion and David Copperfield and miles of slots.

"There's a consistency with that entertainment spend, that sports on its best day and its worst day are two different value propositions to a consumer," Swangard explained.

So, in spite of the uncertainty, if he were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, would Swangard make the move?

"Yes, in the spirit of the question, I think the answer is, absolutely," Swangard said.

If you believe you have the best arena product in the world, you should want to be in Vegas, he said.

"Given the visibility, the fan exposure," he said, "if I'm confident enough in my business fundamentals, I should be rolling the dice on this one."