Tuesday, June 23, 2015 | 10:39 a.m.
It feels like a safe bet that the NHL will become the first major professional sports league to plant a franchise in Las Vegas.
The outer walls of a new arena are going up behind the New York-New York casino, and the interior is perfectly configured for hockey, from the dressing rooms to the press box.
Wealthy businessman Bill Foley is leading the way for an expansion team, bolstering his bid group with the Maloofs, a family of former NBA team owners with long ties to Las Vegas.
A goal of securing deposits on 10,000 season tickets was met faster than anyone had expected this spring, with the number sitting at 11,500, according to Foley, plus 1,000 unpaid commitments from casinos and other businesses.
Now, NHL owners are here for meetings and the league’s annual awards gala Wednesday at the MGM Grand, part of the same resort company that owns New York-New York and is building the arena.
The NHL in Las Vegas feels like a case of when, not if, with only the name of the team left to decide. Foley’s hope is to have a team ready to play in 2017.
The NHL, of course, presents a more measured approach. Despite speculation that the league wants to expand to 32 teams from 30, perhaps placing two teams in the West to balance its two conferences, the league has made no announcement of such plans.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said only that he would update the NHL’s Board of Governors — its owners — on interest from potential expansion markets, reportedly to include Seattle and Quebec City, and certainly to include Las Vegas.
“If the board has any interest in pursuing it, my recommendation would be, then, to open a formal expansion process,” Bettman told reporters at the Stanley Cup finals this month. “And even if they greenlight a formal expansion process, it doesn’t mean we’re going to expand. It means we’ll go through the steps of looking through things, and the conclusion at the end of the process could very well be no expansion.”
That greenlight is expected this week.
Frank Brown, a spokesman for the league, said Friday that there would be no meetings with Foley, or tours of the arena by the board.
Still, a formal vote to expand to Las Vegas or anywhere else could come as early as September, when the NHL owners are scheduled to meet again, in New York — the city, not the casino.
“Las Vegas has done its job,” Foley told a group of fans and reporters in late May. “Now we’ve presented the information to the league. I’m very confident, but we have to wait for the league to respond.”
For decades, Las Vegas has been an alluring destination for sports, but the stigma of gambling had scared major professional leagues. There have been tempered dalliances: the Oakland Athletics opening their season here in 1996 while awaiting renovation of their stadium; the 2007 NBA All-Star Game; and a growing string of exhibition games and preseason camps.
Sports gambling is so widespread and mainstream that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote in The New York Times in November that it should be federally legalized and regulated. In Las Vegas, gambling on local events, as varied as boxing matches, college basketball games and NASCAR events, has long been legal.
Putting a major league team here permanently felt like a matter of time. MGM Resorts International and the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center in Los Angeles, broke ground in 2014 on a privately financed arena, scheduled to open next spring. With a capacity of 20,000 for concerts, 19,000 for basketball games and 17,500 for hockey games, the arena would be the city’s primary facility for large-scale events.
While it does not need a professional team to serve as an anchor to be economically viable, the arena is being built with the idea of someday serving as home to an NHL or NBA franchise, or both.
The NHL is closest to moving in, mostly because of Foley, the chairman of Fidelity National Financial, a Fortune 500 company that provides title insurance and mortgage services. He also owns several restaurants, a Montana cattle ranch and Foley Family Wines. Among the wine company’s roughly 50 brands is Wayne Gretzky Estates, a mark of Foley’s hockey connections.
Late last year, Foley asked Bettman if he could test the market’s worth with a season-ticket campaign. Bettman agreed.
There have always been questions over whether Las Vegas, with its transient population and vast entertainment options, would support a hometown team with enough vigor and regularity to make it profitable.
“The sole purpose would be to give, in this unique circumstance, Mr. Foley and his colleagues an opportunity to measure the level of interest in the market by conducting a season-ticket drive,” Bettman said at the time.
The commissioner had tried to distance himself from the effort, suggesting there were no promises attached and no goals required by the league. But Bettman attended a well-publicized campaign kickoff in mid-February, toured the arena and posed with showgirls.
By the end of March, deposits of $150 to $900 (refundable if no team materialized) had been paid on more than 10,000 seats. A spokeswoman for Foley, who declined to be interviewed, said the number of deposits had reached 11,500 seats, plus 735 suite seats and 1,000 unpaid commitments from businesses.
“It looks like his drive has had some degree of success, to say the least,” Bettman said this month.
Recent unrest with the Arizona Coyotes, in a dispute with officials in Glendale, Ariz., has left some to wonder whether the easiest fix would be to relocate the Coyotes to Las Vegas.
But Bettman insists the Coyotes will stay in Arizona, and he has made no suggestion that they merely will move north to Las Vegas. Among the unstated reasons is that an expansion team comes with a $500 million price tag, paid to the league.
Foley seems to want a new franchise, not one with historical baggage filled with turmoil and losing. An expansion team provides a chance to sculpture every detail. Given two years, Foley and his team, including the Maloofs, former owners of basketball’s Sacramento Kings (and, a generation before, the Houston Rockets), would build a practice complex, name the team and build it toward launch. (Foley already has chosen the team colors: black, gray and gold.)
Now he just needs the NHL to ponder a future in Las Vegas. Owners can get a glimpse by walking out of their meetings in one casino, crossing the street to another, and exploring the arena being built out back of the replica Big Apple skyline, between the roller coaster and Frank Sinatra Drive.