NHL to explore expansion, and Las Vegas group is front and center

There might be a simpler way to describe the NHL's decision to explore expanding beyond 30 teams.

The Half-Billionaire Boys Club.

That's what it will probably cost — about $500 million — for the NHL to become a 31- or 32-team league, one that could include a Las Vegas franchise led by mogul Bill Foley. The league's Board of Governors on Wednesday authorized a formal process to evaluate interest, with the application period running from July 6 to Aug. 10.

The possible Las Vegas bid was front and center at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's news conference at the MGM Grand. If approved, it would be the first major professional sports team in Las Vegas. Foley has commitments for 13,200 season tickets for a potential franchise, according to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. Daly added that the earliest possible expansion could be for the 2016-17 season.

Other groups that have expressed interest in the NHL include Quebec City, Seattle, the suburban Toronto area and Kansas City, which already has an arena.

Bettman said it would take at least $500 million to join the club.

"We haven't set a fee, but based on the discussions I've had with ownership, I don't think there would be any appetite to expand if the number didn't start with a five," he said.

For the sake of comparison, the expansion fee for Ottawa and Tampa Bay in late 1990 was $50 million for each franchise. The teams started play in the 1992-93 season, giving the NHL 24 teams. The expansion fee climbed to $80 million for Minnesota and Columbus by 2000. The Senators and the Lightning were granted expansion franchises before Bettman became commissioner.

Until recently, Bettman has stayed on message about possible expansion. But the Las Vegas bid moved the needle, and now Bettman said the league is going to take a "deep dive" in starting the application process.

"The fact we are going through this process doesn't mean we are going to expand," Bettman said. "All it means is we're going to stop just listening to expressions of interest and take a good, hard look at what they actually mean and represent."

Valuations have skyrocketed in professional sports. Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, said that it appears to be the right time for Las Vegas and the NHL.

"I actually think it's even beyond time," he said. "Even ignoring the visitors that come in [to Las Vegas], the market itself is strong enough to support a professional sports team.

"It has very high cable penetration, a meaningful population with significant disposable income. It has quite a number of companies that could use sports as an entertainment vehicle."

The Las Vegas season-ticket drive has impressed the NHL's owners and AEG/MGM is building a $375-million arena on the Strip — due to be completed in the spring of 2016. The new arena, near the New York-New York and Monte Carlo casinos, will have state-of-the-art features, including the usual luxury loge boxes. And the view from the top row was impressive on a walk-through Wednesday morning.

The arena will give Foley and his group a significant advantage over rival groups with murky building plans.

"There seems to be a number of people who are expressing interest," Bettman said. "I would say in Seattle's case, the arena situation still seems to have some uncertainty. But perhaps the process will bring some certainty to the arena situation. Nobody has the arena act together yet in Seattle."

Said Ganis: "For the NHL, it is absolutely worth taking the chance [with Las Vegas]. Less so, perhaps, with the other leagues."

Would the NHL's presence in Las Vegas pave the way for other sports leagues? That seems doubtful. The NBA has consistently said it has no plans for expansion or franchise relocation.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl: "I certainly can't speak even to the NFL because I haven't had any dialogue with officials in Las Vegas about how that could happen successfully for Las Vegas and for the NFL. A stadium would be a big component to that. I'm not sure that exists right now."

Glen Gulutzan, Vancouver Canucks assistant coach and former Dallas Stars coach, was the head coach and general manager of the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL from 2003 to 2009.

He recalls the Wranglers' creative promotions, like those seen in the minor leagues but built for Las Vegas. Some experiments worked better than others. There was a game starting at midnight. Then there was a fan giveaway night making reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

"We did the hunting vest night. We did a lot of things there," Gulutzan said.

Gulutzan thought it might be helpful for the prospective team if the NHL was the only professional league in Las Vegas. Two of his children were born in Las Vegas and he praised the enthusiastic hockey community in the area.

"It could be a tie that binds, if the ownership group get their feet entrenched in the community," he said by telephone from Vancouver. "The one thing that Las Vegas didn't have was an identity that someone — whether you lived in Henderson or North Vegas — could identify that was truly Las Vegas.

"I think they have a chance to do so. Maybe hockey can come here and be the one thing that defines them."

Follow Lisa Dillman on Twitter @reallisa

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
51°