After the most successful season in NHL history from a revenue standpoint, as the league brought in $3.7 billion during 2013-14, the concept of expanding the league and adding new markets to expand on ever-growing revenues is an intriguing idea. But, with the NHL Awards scheduled for Las Vegas this week, and a new 20,000-seat arena under construction, rumors have begun to swirl of a potential hockey team being awarded to the Sin City in the near future. If so, the NHL would be making a grave mistake.
NBC Sports is reporting that Las Vegas is the NHL’s top choice for an expansion team. The four major sports leagues have largely stayed away from Las Vegas due to the worry of gambling and any potential issues that could arise from sports betting. But, if the NHL wanted to become the first league to make its way into Nevada, it would be wasting time and effort on a market not suitable for the game.
The last NHL expansion during the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the addition of the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. Two of those locations, Minnesota and Atlanta, had previous professional hockey experience with the Minnesota North Stars and Atlanta Flames. Columbus and Nashville were untapped markets that took years to develop fan bases that followed below average teams. Now that both put out quality products on the ice, the fans have arrived in large numbers. Minnesota has always succeeded since the rebirth of professional hockey, but the lone outlier in the group was Atlanta.
The Thrashers’ relocation to Winnipeg and rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets was a brilliant move for the NHL. But it was one that came after a grave mistake. Atlanta was never capable of maintaining a professional hockey team; it became the first American city ever to lose two professional sports teams because of lackluster attendance. With the NHL still struggling to maintain a consistent fan base in two other non-traditional hockey markets — Sunrise, Fla. for the Florida Panthers and Phoenix, Ariz. for the now renamed Arizona Coyotes – adding another team in a warm climate has disaster written all over it.
Las Vegas will get a professional franchise at some point, but the NHL should definitely not be the guinea pig for the four American leagues. If the league were to consider expansion, Las Vegas should be no higher than fifth on the list of potential new cities. Ahead of it would be Quebec City, Seattle, Hamilton (Ontario) and Kansas City. Quebec City has begun construction on a new arena, Kansas City already has an NHL-ready venue and Seattle and Hamilton would need to build new arenas to be in the running for an expansion franchise, or relocation.
The league has a good thing going with record revenues and an increased salary cap coming in 2014-15 as a result of the Canadian TV deal. If the league wants to dabble in new markets, the relocation of the Panthers and Coyotes would take struggling teams and place them in hockey hungry markets.
Realignment of the Eastern and Western Conferences would be tricky, but the current format could still work for the time being. Moving one East team to the West would also balance out the two conferences while increasing revenues in different areas that would recognize a team. Las Vegas offers a level of intrigue, but an NHL franchise in the desert would be a disaster like that of the Atlanta Thrashers. This gamble is one the NHL should not take in the Sin City in the foreseeable future.