Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 | 2 a.m.
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Billionaire Bill Foley is determined to do more than bring a National Hockey League team to Las Vegas. Within eight years of launching the franchise — possibly the first professional team to set up shop here after a decade of near-misses — he envisions hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“I don’t care what it takes,” Foley told ESPN.com.
That’s good, because making hockey work in the desert of Southern Nevada just might take 70-year-old Foley pouring his net worth into building the franchise. More times than not, franchises in nontraditional hockey markets fail to attract a significant fan base.
Take Atlanta, for example.
In 1980, the Atlanta Flames left for Calgary, Alberta, after averaging fewer than 10,000 fans per game in their final season. Nearly 20 years later, hockey returned to Atlanta with the expansion Thrashers, whose owners say they lost $130 million in the team’s last six years before it was sold to Winnipeg in 2011.
Foley, who owns a Florida insurance and mortgage company, believes Las Vegas could be different. And the NHL is listening.
He was given the green light two weeks ago by the league’s Board of Governors to conduct a season ticket drive in the valley in early 2015 to gauge locals’ interest in supporting a team. The Las Vegas franchise would play in the $375 million, 20,000-seat arena being built behind New York-New York by MGM Resorts International and AEG, scheduled to open in April 2016.
Foley would have to pay an estimated $450 million expansion fee, which is significant, even for someone of his resources.
The league gave Foley and his group the OK to investigate whether hockey would work in Las Vegas. No franchise has been approved.
The Maloof family of Las Vegas, former owners of the Sacramento Kings and the Palms, are Foley’s partners. They’ve reportedly been coordinating for more than a year. Foley also has hockey legend Wayne Gretzky as an adviser.
“Nevada and Las Vegas in particular are no longer what they were 50 years ago or 40 years ago: a gambling city, kind of a way station in the desert,” Foley told the Canadian Press. “A number of software companies, development companies have located in Las Vegas. ... Those companies and those people who work for those companies, that’s our target. Those are the people that we want to have come to these games.”
Why Las Vegas is a good fit for the NHL
When a Floyd Mayweather Jr. prize fight or a UFC card fills the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the excitement on the Strip rivals that of other professional sports cities on game night.
Vendors sell shirts on bridges connecting casinos, bars and restaurants fill with patrons, and table game limits increase. Las Vegas buzzes for sports.
Imagine that happening multiple times a month during hockey season.
A consistent sports presence is the one entertainment option noticeably missing from the Strip. But the city has mastered hosting sporting events about once a quarter, giving it the experience to graduate to hosting 40-plus NHL games annually.
It may finally be Las Vegas’ time. Southern Nevada has a taxpayer-free venue in MGM/AEG’s new arena and a population of more than 2 million, which rivals other cities with professional sports franchises. And, of course, there’s the Strip. Residents and tourists both can fill the arena.
Local companies also can do their share, by comping tickets to high rollers and giving them away as corporate relations.
Once a home team starts winning, locals would do the rest. History shows Las Vegans love winning teams and would flock to see one in contention.
What about the Wranglers?
Las Vegas already has a professional hockey team — at least on paper.
The Wranglers voluntarily suspended operations in May after the team’s lease with the Orleans Arena expired, but officials are optimistic the team will return in a new venue next season.
“There are continuing discussions with someone,” Wranglers’ President Billy Johnson said. “We have to make sure whatever the deal, our tickets remain reasonable.”
The team was going to play this season in a makeshift rink at the Plaza downtown, but that deal fell through and put the franchise on life support. The ECHL gave the Wranglers one year to secure a new home. Johnson would not say whom he is in talks with. This season would have started in mid-October.
It’s easy to assume the Wranglers and an NHL team couldn’t co-exist. Why would a desert city, or any city, need two hockey teams?
First, NHL is a different brand of hockey with a different price point. Wranglers season tickets cost about $550 for 36 games; a single NHL game averages $70.
Plus, an NHL team would need developmental clubs. One up the road on Tropicana Avenue would be a perfect fit.
“McDonald’s doesn’t suffer because there is one on every corner,” Johnson said.
Johnson is rooting for a potential NHL team. He said he’d be among the first to buy season tickets.
“Everyone is asking hockey fans if it will work,” Johnson said. “That is like asking Springsteen fans if they liked his last album. My advice would be: Go to supermarkets, drug stores, and ask those people what they think.”