The NHL is expanding to Las Vegas. Does it have a shot at success?

Gary Bettman has finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in hockey: a new franchise in Las Vegas. We run through the pros and cons of Sin City expansion

The NHL has descended on Las Vegas for its annual awards show. But this year, the winners will be overshadowed by far bigger news, as the league finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in hockey: the NHL is putting an expansion team in Las Vegas. Commissioner Gary Bettman made it official on Wednesday.

But will it work? Thats the question, and its one that has more than a few observers feeling skeptical. So lets try to figure it out by working our way through the pros and cons of NHL hockey in Las Vegas.

Pro: Las Vegas is a big city, and seems ready for a big league team

Until today, Las Vegas was one of the largest cities in the United States without a team in any of the Big Four professional sports leagues. (For the purpose of making that point, well just agree to ignore the fact that there isnt really a Big Four anymore, and probably hasnt been for years.) Depending on how you measure the population, Las Vegas is already a bigger market than several cities that already have NHL teams, including Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St Louis. And its growing.

And thats just the basic population; its not counting the massive number of tourists who are there at pretty much all times. Those tourists flock to buy tickets for all sorts of entertainment options, including magicians, ventriloquists and trapeze acts. Surely pro sports couldnt be that hard of a sell.

If anything, the numbers say that the city should already have a team, if not several. Part of the reason theyve been shut out is gambling, and the reluctance of major pro sports to be perceived as getting anywhere near it. But that taboo has been fading for years, and as it did, a Vegas big league debut started to feel inevitable. Vegas has been a rumored home for a major franchise for years now, including current reports that they could be a potential home for the NFL and the NBA.

Con: Hockey still feels like a weird choice to be first

Picture an ideal hockey market. Did you picture a desert? Probably not.

Yes, some league was going to be head to Vegas eventually, but its still a little odd to see the NHL taking the lead. The city has had minor league hockey teams before, but theres not exactly a ton of history with the sport to draw on. And the occasional anecdote aside, theres little evidence that sports fans in Las Vegas are really all that interested in hockey.

That doesnt mean that the NHL cant succeed in a southern market the three California teams have proven that you can, at least to some degree. But it adds a degree of difficulty, and given the spotty history of NHL expansion attempts, thats not necessarily what you want to be facing.

Pro: The NHL deserves some credit for leading the way

If it was inevitable that pro sports would make its way to Las Vegas, the NHL may be smart to be the first to move in. That should buy them some good will among locals, and allow them to get a foothold on building a fan base before some of the bigger leagues move in and suck up all the oxygen.

If anything, its at least nice to see a notoriously conservative league known for its reluctance to embrace change actually try something different.

Con: The NHL doesnt have a great history when they get creative

Again its the desert. The NHL already tried this 20 years ago, when they moved into Arizona. And while the team is still there, its been a rough road. And in recent years, other southern markets have either failed (Atlanta) or at least been reported to be in trouble (Nashville, Raleigh). Fans who are tired of hearing about struggling NHL markets probably arent thrilled to see the league investing in another dicey market.

Again, that doesnt mean that geography guarantees success. More traditional markets have seen teams go bankrupt (Pittsburgh and Ottawa) or lose teams altogether (Winnipeg and Minnesota). Outside of a few major markets with long histories, NHL hockey is a tough sell pretty much anywhere. But some markets are tougher than others, and Las Vegas sure looks like it could be one of the toughest of all.

Pro: Las Vegas already has an arena

The state-of-the-art T-Mobile Arena opened in April, a multi-purpose arena located just off the famed Strip and capable of seating 17,500 fans for hockey. So the new team will have a home from day one.

You may be tempted to wonder What kind of league would expand to a city that didnt have an arena ready to go? Well the NHL would do that. Theyve done it before. Kind of a lot, actually.

Remember, this is the same league that used to grant teams to markets who didnt have arenas, or even any firm plans to build one. Its why NHL teams have debuted in half-arenas, baseball stadiums and Cow Palaces. And those are the teams that actually survived. Compared to them, the Las Vegas team will be surrounded by luxury from day one.

Con: There are questions about the fanbase

Lets get back to those population numbers. Impressive as they may be, remember that Las Vegas isnt exactly your typical city. Most of the permanent population lives outside of The Strip area that will be home to the team, and many of them work in the tourism industry, meaning they keep odd hours. If you lived in Vegas, surrounded by all the most over-the-top entertainment options you could imagine, would you really be lining up to see an expansion team exchange neutral zone turnovers with the Edmonton Oilers in November?

As for all those tourists, theyll certainly buy a few tickets (not to mention get plenty for free from casinos and other local businesses). You can fill an arena that way. But can you build a fan base the kind of loyal, long-term diehards that an NHL team needs when youre playing in front of different fans every night? Maybe. We dont know, because its never really been tried before.

Pro: The teams ticket drive was impressive

Over a year ago, the league granted potential owner Bill Foley permission to launch a ticket drive in an effort to demonstrate the viability of the market. The drive targeted fans, small businesses and corporations, with a goal of selling 10,000 season tickets. Theyd passed that goal within three months, topping 11,000 as of April, 2015. That was enough for the NHL, which cited the drive as proof that Las Vegas fans were ready to support a team.

Con: But it wasnt that impressive

Selling 11,000 tickets in three months is good. But back in 2011, the Winnipeg Jets sold 13,000 tickets in just 17 minutes.

Granted, thats not exactly a fair comparison. Winnipeg is an established market that had already has an NHL team in the past, and the fans were buying tickets for a team that was already committed to starting play within months, not just a long-term maybe. But still, there are rabid hockey markets and then there are ones that are merely interested, and its not hard to see which category Vegas falls into.

Pro: Las Vegas is going to be a lot of fun for visiting fans

Nothings quite as much fun as travelling into enemy territory to watch your favorite team play a road game. Now imagine doing that in Las Vegas. Admit it, youve already had preliminary talks with your hockey fan friends.

Con: Las Vegas is going to be a lot of fun for visiting players

Whos going to be the first player to get caught doing something terrible at 5am? And will it happen tonight? If only there were someplace where we could bet on this

The bottom line

So can all this work? Sure it can. Las Vegas is big enough to support a big league team, if not more, and the NHL is getting in the door first. The novelty factor alone should drive attendance for at least a few years, and as long as the franchise can put a successful team on the ice sooner than later, theyve got a shot at success.

So it can work. But will it work? Even that best case scenario we just laid out had a lot of ifs, including the team being good NHL expansion teams usually arent, and while the league is apparently going to loosen up the rules to make sure Vegas can ice a competent team in year one, competent is probably about the best they can hope for.

If it turns out that Las Vegas is just too unique of a city to support pro sports, then the NHL is screwed. And if they turn out to be a great market, then other leagues will move in quickly and the NHL might still be screwed. With little in the way of hockey history or fan base to fall back on, the margin for error here is tiny.

But hey, at least the NHL is trying here. And even in the worst-case scenario, the league and its owners still get their $500m expansion fee. Maybe that windfall comes with a failing franchise thats going to be a headache for years to come. But hey, NHL executives should be used to dealing with those by now. And if the whole thing does somehow work, its going to be great fun.

So sure, you may not love their odds. But as theyd tell you in Vegas, sometimes youve got to just roll the dice and hope for the best.

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