Vegas has always lived on the fringe of pro sports. It’s home to an oft-forgotten minor league baseball franchise, UNLV, and of course, the American capital of sports betting in The Strip. It is at once a major part of the sports world, and also a satellite in terms of direct participation.
That dichotomy will officially end in October 2017, when an expansion NHL franchise will lace up skates in Las Vegas’s shiny new multipurpose venue, T-Mobile Arena. The arena opened in April with a slate almost entirely comprised of big name concerts. Hockey will start play this coming October, with a four-game set of exhibition games to test the arena’s ice making capability (didn’t the season end, Sharks? *sigh*).
And with that, the test of Vegas as a sports market will finally begin. The as-yet unnamed hockey team will benefit from a honeymoon period fueled by a 13,000-season ticket pledge drive. They’ll also have a first-mover advantage for at least a few years if the Raiders come to town, even longer if the Raiders don’t. The team may even be sneaky competitive, thanks to being the only team recipient in a friendly expansion draft. And whatever casual locals don’t buy in as attending casual fans could be replaced to a degree by visiting fans. Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NHL formatted future schedules to have games hosting Buffalo or the Great White North all on weekends.
Economically, the Vegas market remains largely a one-trick pony, begging to get startups and non-service sector industries to grow in Southern Nevada. Non-gaming corporate strength will be a major factor in the team’s long-term economic health, and while there should be no shortage of smaller local sponsors and a major car manufacturer sponsor just to cover both CES and SEMA, other patronage could be a tossup. The looming threat of competition in the form of a 65,000-seat domed stadium hosting the Raiders is also a real possibility. At least that should be decided later this year. Plus the team will be competing with its own landlords, AEG and MGM, for preferred days and dates on the calendar. The PBR World Finals is moving from the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus to T-Mobile Arena and is usually held in November, mere weeks into the NHL regular season.
Long term, there’s no telling how this team will hold up. Unless Sin City turns into Winnipeg South, it’ll need a lot of casual fans to fill the 17,500-seat venue. If that doesn’t happen the place will look like a lot of Sun Belt expansion era arenas, looking half-full and disinterested. For at least a few years things should be okay since the team will be a sort of super-novelty. The arena doesn’t need the team’s rent to pay the bills, and even if it does at a later date at least it’s privately financed. Whether or not Vegas becomes the next great hockey town is almost beside the point. The NHL was the first to stake a claim on the last great domestic frontier. That’s a big deal.
And finally, yesterday MLB commissioner Rob Manfred validated Vegas as a potential site for a future team.
“I think the whole, ‘you can’t go to Vegas because there’s casinos there,’ we passed that by a long time ago, right? There’s casinos all over the place. I see Las Vegas as a viable alternative. I would not disqualify it just because of the gambling issue.”
So there you have it. With other sports coming to Vegas, the gambling issue is no longer an issue. There isn’t much to consider this a shot across Oakland’s bow, considering the barriers to getting a domed ballpark in place, especially if a football stadium already exists. Still, Las Vegas has already had its day as a relocation threat candidate for the A’s and now the Raiders, so there’s plenty of history there. The time for Vegas to be yet again a baseball stalking horse is a long ways off.