How Vegas is building on the team's massive first-year success

The 2017-18 season couldn't have gone much better for the Golden Knights. But there are new initiatives for fans already in place this season, with more to come. Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Belles are impossible to miss.

They stand by the glass near the end boards as the Vegas Golden Knights' opponents warm up on their half of T-Mobile Arena ice. They're scantily clad in gold costumes and are adorned with large feathered headpieces. Their presence is new this season, the second in the history of the franchise, but very much in keeping with the gaudy, outlandish and frequently unpredictable experience of watching a home game in Las Vegas.

They also have their tactical benefits, apparently.

"Vegas is known for its showgirls. So we wanted to have our own Golden Knights showgirls. They're a part of our home-ice advantage: providing a nice, gentle distraction for the visiting players as they're warming up," said team president Kerry Bubolz.

In battle, this would be termed an escalation, and that's the unspoken theme of everything the Golden Knights are doing in their sophomore season.

On the ice, the Knights tried to improve the present while solidifying the future. Many of their players are back from the expansion team that finished with 109 points and won both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference before falling in the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals in five games. But they added significant veterans in former Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty (via trade) and free-agent center Paul Stastny, who is currently injured. Meanwhile, they handed out long-term extensions to players like goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Nate Schmidt, who not coincidentally are also fan favorites.

In the arena, there are showgirls and more lights and louder sounds and a giant Knights' helmet that descends from the rafters.

Out in the community, the Golden Knights face this question: How does one capitalize on the massive popularity of their first season?

The answer: by creating new hockey fans, not just new Golden Knights fans, while also making sure the ones they already have are happy.

"Obviously, when you see what's happening on the team side, you can see what we're doing to be successful to that end. But there's a mindset on the business side that this isn't a honeymoon for the organization," said Bubolz. "I really believe that great organizations find ways to build every year. They build their revenues. They build their core areas."

Here's a look at a few key areas of growth for Vegas in Year 2.

A new approach to visiting fans

If Bubolz has a regret from the team's first season, it's how the Golden Knights catered to fans outside of Las Vegas.

"We looked at our market knowing that Las Vegas was a destination market in a lot of ways. But we were probably engaging too much in visiting fans from a group sales perspective," he said.

The Knights were offering blocks of tickets to fans traveling from other cities, so that meant sections of their arena were filled with opposing fans, akin to the student section for a college football team.

"We misjudged it. If there are a couple thousand visiting fans, and they're spread throughout, it has one feel. If there's 5,000 fans and they're all grouped together, that's a different feel. So for us, it's a matter of inventory management. Maybe we're still selling those seats, but we're not selling them together," he said, saying that the team will only sell blocks of tickets to local fans and organizations.

Part of this education came in the postseason. "When we got to the playoffs, on a strategic basis, we wanted to create a home-ice advantage and mitigate the number of opposing fans. I would say through the first three rounds, it was almost nonexistent. That game against Washington ... well, they hadn't won a Stanley Cup in 43 years, so a lot of fans bought tickets on the secondary market," he said.

The Knights know that as a team playing in a tourist magnet of a city -- and one that has captivated NHL fans for its home-game experience -- they're always going to have enemy fans in the stands. And they don't mind it.

"I think the visiting fans were good for the environment. It made our fans more passionate, to be louder than them," said Bubolz.

Grow local hockey

Vegas owner Bill Foley has spent tens of millions of dollars on the roots of his franchise, from the fan experience in games to community outreach. "We try to be part of Las Vegas in every way we can. We are engaged with the fans in a big way," he told ESPN this summer.

In building their practice facility in Summerlin, the Knights added two additional sheets of ice to the three preexisting ones around Vegas, which meant more opportunities for residents to learn to skate, and eventually learn to play.

Bubolz said 3,000 young fans have been through Knights-sponsored "learn to skate" programs. More than 1,250 skaters have joined the Lil' Knights Program, which prepares them for travel teams. There are 243 young players in house leagues, and 85 adult teams in the market.

This kind of participation boom was expected with the NHL arriving in Vegas, and with it a couple of new sheets of available ice. In nontraditional markets, there's always been an "if you build it, they will come" mindset for the growth of the game.

What was unexpected, however: "Now we're at a point where there aren't enough referees. So we had to start a program," said Bubolz.

"I don't want to say anybody can be a baseball umpire. There's obviously a skill involved in officiating a game. But the one skill you need if you're going to referee a hockey game is that you have to be able to skate, and at a high level. So that eliminates a lot of people that might know the game, but not be able to skate," he said.

He's sat and watched potential referees as old as 55 and as young as 12 learn the ropes at the Vegas practice rink. The number of new players has necessitated the number of new referees. And these numbers are expected to continue their surge as the Golden Knights reach out to previously untapped markets.

Hispanic outreach

In February, the Knights announced that in partnership with sponsors, the NHL and the NHLPA, they were donating full floor-hockey equipment packs to middle schools in Clark County. For each school, that included 60 sticks, multiple nets, border controls to create a rink in a gymnasium and, of course, "pinnies" to wear so everyone knows who's on their team. That also included training for school staff to better understand the rules of the game.

The way Bubolz sees it, you just have to get a stick in the hands of a young athlete early enough, and they can discover a love of the game no matter where they live. The example he gives is Auston Matthews, a product of Arizona who is now leading the NHL in scoring for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Matthews could be a touchstone for the Knights for another reason: His mother is from Mexico. Bubolz said that the middle school program could be a key to reaching the Hispanic community around Vegas, as "half the school district is Hispanic."

The Knights see this as a key emerging demographic. "They're growing in size and economically in this market," said Bubolz. "I'm seeing more and more people of a Hispanic heritage following the team. I see them at the games. We're seeing it in our metrics digitally and socially. So what are other ways that we're reaching out in an authentic way?"

One way is by ensuring that coverage of the Knights breaks through language barriers. Their games are presented in Spanish on ESPN Deportes 1460 AM in Las Vegas, one of a handful of NHL teams to have that option. (The Los Angeles Kings recently announced they were joining that group.)

David Proper, executive vice president of media and international strategy for the NHL, said that the league is exploring the possibility of a larger Spanish broadcasting operation. "But our clubs long ago took the lead in this area. Florida, Dallas, Arizona, all three California clubs, and now Vegas each have made significant outreach -- including, in some cases, entering into separate Spanish-language media deals -- to work within their respective communities to better serve their fans," he said.

AT&T Sportsnet, which carries the Golden Knights, is offering that radio commentary as a SAP option for fans who want to hear it while watching the game. "It's the old-fashioned way of turning down the TV and turning up the radio," said Bubolz.

Finally, it's 'Knight Time'

All of this hockey culture infrastructure work is in service of a Golden Knights fan base that helped fuel the team's unprecedented first-year success.

The Belles and whistles of the in-game experience are important, but Bubolz notes that the feeling of community that bonded the Knights with their fans is even more vital. So taking a page out of the marketing book belonging to the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, Vegas has started what it calls "Knight Time."

The puck drops at 7 p.m. local time, but "Knight Time" is at 6:30 p.m., when the players first skate out. The hope is to have 60 percent of the seats filled by then, with fans cheering on the home team when they hit the ice.

"I think warmups are a time to really get our team jacked up. Our players love it. They love coming out at warmup time and seeing the fans there," said Bubolz.

There are a lot of Golden Knights fans after Year 1. The seeds are being planted to ensure there will be even more in the future.