Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Vegas, Baby... Maybe?

It's amazing how things can change in a matter of months. The NHL is starting to become a more stable entity in terms of franchise health - the Florida Panthers are still on shaky ground - and league revenues have never been better or higher based on all the NHL's numbers. More fans are pushing through the turnstiles, more people are buying merchandise, and the NHL has a fat contract north of the border that will help every team on its map. Things are great, right?

Tony Gallagher, a highly-respected journalist from the Vancouver Province, published a piece yesterday that stated that expansion is going to happen sooner than later, and that Las Vegas is a "done deal". He also wrote that Gary Bettman has been talking about the interest shown in expansion teams from various sources, and that the rhetoric has gone from something Bettman wouldn't even hear to Bettman bringing up the chatter. This about-face from the Commissioner seems to point to the obvious, especially if Gallagher's sources are saying Las Vegas is all but done in terms of receiving an expansion franchise.

However, I want to put the brakes on for a minute. The excitement over NHL expansion into two western cities - presumably Las Vegas and Seattle - should be stifled a little. Just a wee bit. There are significant risks that the NHL is taking in even bringing this topic up, and I want to toss out a few scenarios that should be discussed before expansion is even brought into question.

First, there is this little matter about the Florida Panthers. The Panthers' owner, Doug Cifu, stated just two weeks ago that staying in south Florida "is not sustainable" as the team records losses up to $30 million per year. If the Panthers were actual panthers in Florida, they would already be labeled as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. Of course, the next step on the Red List is extinction, and the NHL's Panthers are facing that grim reality right now.

"The arena and the team have lost a significant amount of money year over year for the last 10-plus years and the current business model is not sustainable," Cifu told Fox Sports in early August. As per The Hockey News, the club has amassed approximately $250 million in debt and are stuck in their lease in Sunrise, Florida until 2028. Needless to say, the clock is ticking on the Panthers' existence in Florida as you read this.

If the NHL is looking to balance the conferences by adding teams, they could do it easily by relocating the Florida Panthers to a more hockey-inclined market. Say, for example, the Panthers moved to Seattle, the NHL would kill two birds with one stone as move into a state-of-the-art facility where there are already hockey fans and solve their unbalanced conferences problem. I'm not sure why this isn't being considered when you'd want to have all thirty teams financially viable and thriving before deciding to bring on a wave of expansion that guarantees nothing more than a pocket full of greenbacks for the current owners. Sure, there would be some money spent in getting out of their lease with the Broward County, but the county has already "hired a consultant who is looking into the possibility of allowing the Panthers out of their arena lease and the opportunity to relocate" as Dhiran Mahiban wrote on August 17, 2014 on NBC's Pro Hockey Talk.

However, we're faced with the comments from Gary Bettman who, on August 12, 2014, stated,
"There's a lot of interest. We're hearing from multiple groups in Seattle and in Vegas and Kansas City and Quebec City," Bettman said to the Tribune while scoping out Target Field in Minny for yet another trip to the well of outdoor games.

"We have not decided to engage in a formal expansion process but we listen to expressions of interest. It's not something we've seriously considered yet."
So how did we get to this point where Las Vegas is now a "done deal" if no one is seriously considering expansion? Seattle is an obvious choice with the new arena going up, the proximity to Vancouver, and the addition of another western team. Make no mistake that Seattle is on the NHL's radar for the near future. Quebec City, whose arena is currently being built, has the money and media resources to pour into an NHL franchise, and they have a little history with the game. Like Seattle, a state-of-the-art arena goes a long, long way in helping Quebec City's cause, so there are your two most favorable destinations for expansion if this topic is going to be in play. But should it be?

The closest team in terms of proximity to Las Vegas would be the Arizona Coyotes, and the last decade has seen money poured into saving them, cities nearly bankrupted because of them, and owners fleeing from Glendale as a wave of red ink chases them. Hockey in the desert has been nothing short of a soap opera when it comes to all the twists and turns in the Coyotes' story, and the view from Las Vegas probably won't be much better. In fact, you probably won't see much of Sin City at all.

Let's be honest with ourselves: people don't go to Vegas to watch sports unless it's UFC or boxing. They go to Vegas for the entertainment, the shows, the gambling, and the history, but sports ranks low on the reasons to go to Las Vegas. There are dozens of shows that happen on a daily basis that tourists are there to see, and the vast majority of these shows would probably bring better entertainment in the first decade of an expansion franchise's existence. If you weren't a hockey fan during the rapid expansion in the 1990s, the hockey was criminally bad. The neutral zone trap, the left wing lock, and playing for tie were all phrases tossed around as the NHL grew from twenty-one teams to thirty teams. The NHL should consider how scoring fell off the map during those expansion years. The hockey was crap!

The bigger issue is that the arena proposed by Anschutz Entertainment Group and MGM seems to be a beacon for hatred in the Las Vegas area. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in November 2013 that the new arena was going to be built on the Las Vegas strip "without public money on 12 acres between New York-New York and Frank Sinatra Drive". The MGM-AEG Arena, as it's affectionately being called for now, broke ground on May 1, 2014, and should be ready by 2016. Commenters on that story have already said what a nightmare the intersections and roads are in that area on Friday and Saturday nights, so adding another 17,500 people to the area should help, right? Parking is also an issue in the area, so there will have to be major concessions made for hockey nights or fans will have to find other means of getting to the arena. One commenter cites the issues the city had with congestion and traffic when the NBA All-Star Game was played downtown in 2007. Can you imagine forty-one nights of that problem?

Speaking of the NBA All-Star Game, it should be noted that the reason the NBA played in downtown Las Vegas was because the NBA demanded and received a concession in that no sports wagering could be done on the All-Star Game. How does the NHL control gambling within its ranks? We already know the NHL does its best when it comes to controlling vices such as alcohol and drugs, but gambling is a little harder to control. It took a New Jersey State Police investigation, dubbed Operation Slapshot, for the NHL to recognize that gambling could be a problem in their society. And now they want to head into the hornet's nest?

I do want to say, in defence of everyone involved with the NHL, that not all NHL players gamble and that nothing may ever happen when it comes to players, coaches, staff, or any other NHL-employed person engaging in gambling on hockey. I believe that the vast majority of NHL employees are smart, responsible people who wouldn't endanger their employment, the league's reputation, or their own reputation with a "night on the town" where they drop a few bills on an NHL game.

In debating all this pro-Vegas/anti-Vegas chatter, reports broke today that the NHL actually hadn't come to any decision regarding any future expansion. Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email on Wednesday to the National Post,
"We are in no different position today with respect to expansion than we were the last time we answered the same questions. There has been interest expressed, we have and will listen to the interest, but we haven't defined a process and certainly no decisions have been made."
Some may say that the NHL is simply spin-doctoring this story into nothing for a later announcement, but I actually believe Bill Daly on this one. Why? There are better offers on the table than Las Vegas, and the NHL isn't out of the woods when it comes to that other team in the desert. There are places that have interested potential owners with brand-new state-of-the-art arenas awaiting a main tenant, and yet all of the talk is instead about Las Vegas?

"What I can tell you, 100 percent, as of this morning, for sure? This isn't on the agenda right now," MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke told The Fan this morning. Based on his recent track record, I'm not sure how much stock I'd put in his word, but I'm leaning towards truth on this one. The NHL still has some work to do with current franchises becoming stable, money-earning entities in the NHL community, and tossing another desert-based franchise into the mix when there's no guarantee the Arizona Coyotes be in Glendale in five years is simply ludicrous. The NHL is close to having all thirty franchises on stable ground, but there's still work to be done.

The talk of NHL expansion always gets people excited and a little nostalgic, but we need to be a little more realistic when dealing with that excitement. However, the factors that go into an expansion franchise are both large and many, and there should be a massive amount of due diligence done before the word "expansion" is even uttered.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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