Friday, June 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Less than 24 hours after officially securing Las Vegas’ first major professional sports franchise, Bill Foley conducted interviews inside an exclusive sky villa stretching the top two floors of Aria.
The NHL’s newest owner lounged in a chair at the edge of the kitchen table, the seat closest to the floor-to-ceiling windows exposing a panoramic view of the southwest valley.
“Look out there,” Foley said. “There are a lot of people here, and they’re really excited about this.”
Foley sat unfazed by the suite’s ultramodern decor and technology. He remains most fixated by the city’s response to his new team.
He says it has “far exceeded” his expectations from when he first explored the market in December 2013, when the team’s home at T-Mobile Arena some 50 floors directly below was only an idea. Foley started to realize Las Vegas’ appetite for hockey with his season-ticket deposit drive in February 2015, which attracted more than 13,000 commitments in three months.
He hasn’t pushed sales in a year, but picked up 400 more season-ticket pledges in the week before the Board of Governors awarded the team on Wednesday. More than 500 additional deposits came after the announcement.
“Las Vegas is embracing this,” he said. “To me, I didn’t understand how important having a major league sports team here is. It’s gigantic for the community. It’s going to give Las Vegas a different identity.”
Ever since discussions of the team began, there’s been debate on whether it would have a home-ice advantage or disadvantage. On the one hand, some argued opponents might succumb to Las Vegas’ easily accessible temptations and not play at their best.
But just as many people predicted opposing fans flocking to Las Vegas to cut into a partisan feel for the home team on game nights. Foley thinks that’s a misconception, especially considering hockey capacity is set at 17,500 at T-Mobile Arena.
He’s now secured nearly 15,000 ticket commitments.
“We won’t sell out every game with season-ticket holders, but I believe it’s going to be 85 percent, or a 90 percent-type deal,” Foley said. “And the other 10 percent, we welcome the opposing teams and their fans ... but there will be a small minority in that building.”
Foley knows the novel excitement won’t last forever, so he’s mostly focused on building a long-term fan base. He reiterated plans to make the team’s two-rink practice facility in Summerlin open to the public for all but an hour or two per day when they’re practicing.
Foley is committed to implementing a “really serious” youth program at the site, before eventually trying to do the same with another venue in Henderson.
“Getting ice down is important so we can really start getting this youth hockey program down and get them embedded,” Foley said. “Because when someone starts playing hockey when they’re 6, they’re going to make their parents take them to hockey games. There’s no doubt about it.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman used one such example to address skeptics of bringing a team to Las Vegas. The expected top pick in today’s NHL Entry Draft, 18-year-old Auston Matthews, grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and started playing hockey after attending a Phoenix Coyotes game.
Bettman said he envisioned a day when a similar story originates from Las Vegas, which he reported had already seen a 37 percent spike in youth hockey over recent years.
Bettman also brought up strong seasons from the San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers this year as precedents for Las Vegas succeeding.
“Each of those franchises I mentioned has worked hard to create hockey traditions in their markets,” Bettman said. “It takes time. It takes effort. It takes commitment. Bill Foley has what it takes to do that.”
Bettman supported Foley from the beginning, but wasn’t sure on what he would find in Las Vegas. He was surprised by how quickly Foley discovered demand.
“I cannot overstate the importance that the season-ticket drive had,” Bettman said. “The success that it had really got everyone’s attention, because being a unique market, no matter how you broke down the statistics and the demographics and everything else you generally look at, it demonstrated there was a community here of people looking for things that you find in other communities.”
Foley has grand ambitions, envisioning a day where the NHL is associated with the city on par with the way the UNLV basketball team was in the early 1990s. He admits there’s a lot to be done to get to that level.
But he couldn’t ask for a better start.
“Our job right now is to put a good team on the ice, but also have a lot of community outreach,” Foley said.