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October 16, 2018

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COMMENTARY:

NHL may face uphill climb in Las Vegas, but let’s hope it can stick

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Steve Marcus

New NHL franchise owner Bill Foley and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stand for photos after the announcement of Las Vegas’ first professional sports franchise during a news conference Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at Encore. The NHL expansion team is expected to begin play in the 2017-18 season at T-Mobile Arena.

Eli Segall

Eli Segall

When Las Vegas’ NHL team hits the ice next year, fans will get a close-up view of perhaps the most exciting team sport around.

They’ll buy shirts and jerseys, scarf down food, guzzle booze and cheer the action — assuming, that is, the arena is packed with fans for years to come.

As a lifelong fan of the game, I’m excited to be able to watch live pro hockey, which is far better in person than on TV. (Anyone remember the “glowing puck” of the 1990s?) Locals who have never been to a National Hockey League game will be wowed by the players’ skating speed, puck movement, shot-blocking, goaltending and overall athleticism.

As a business reporter, though, I look at a Las Vegas NHL team through another lens, and two main questions linger for me: As other people wonder, will locals buy tickets in droves? And how many tourists will want to spend a night watching hockey here?

Hockey is far less popular than other sports nationally, and according to federal data, 30 percent of the valley’s workforce is in leisure and hospitality. Many of them work nights, when NHL games are played.

Moreover, the Strip already is packed with entertainment options, and visitors flock to Sin City to do things they can’t do at home.

At least initially, the sport’s novelty in Las Vegas would draw fans, and people would turn out simply to watch the first major-league sports team ever to be based in America’s gambling mecca. But overall, 5 percent of U.S. adults say hockey is their favorite sport.

That’s tied for fifth with men’s pro basketball, below auto racing (6 percent), men’s college football (10 percent), baseball (15 percent) and the long-reigning champ, pro football (33 percent), according to the Harris Poll.

Tourists would almost surely go to hockey games here, helping make up for a possible shortfall in ticket sales to locals. There would even be people who plan their trips around NHL games, and it doesn’t hurt that Canadians are the biggest group of foreign tourists here.

About 1.9 million people visited Las Vegas from Canada in 2014, comprising 30.7 percent of all foreign visitors, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Still, there’s a reason people visit Las Vegas: it's an adult Disneyland, with nightclubs, restaurants, strip clubs, Cirque du Soleil shows, comedy acts, concerts and, of course, gambling.

How many of them would want to spend three hours one night, during one of the few nights they’re here, watching a hockey game?

That being said, as a fan, I can only hope hockey takes off in Las Vegas.

My family, for one, is obsessed with the sport. My grandfathers played hockey, my dad and uncles grew up in Detroit playing hockey, and my brothers and I played the sport while growing up in the Bay Area. My older brother and I still skate in beer leagues, our younger brother works in Division I college hockey, and our brother-in-law plays goalie in pickup games occasionally (whether he stops any shots is another issue).

Growing up near San Jose, I also got to see how the NHL fared in a nontraditional market, with the San Jose Sharks.

NHL Announces Las Vegas Team

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak arrives with customized road signs at a NHL news conference at the Encore Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Sisiolak gave a sign to new franchise owner Bill Foley, left, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, he said. Launch slideshow »

On the ice, the team was atrocious at first — the Sharks set an NHL record for losses, 71, in their second season. But they made the playoffs their third season and eventually became a regular contender (and playoff flameout). This year, for the first time in their 25-year history, the Sharks made it to the Stanley Cup finals.

Financially, Forbes magazine says the Sharks are worth $445 million, 14th in the 30-team league. That’s ahead of teams in such traditional markets as Calgary, Minnesota and Ottawa.

Does hockey fit better in San Jose than in Las Vegas? Perhaps. But if the sport catches on here, at the very least, more kids would play hockey, more rinks would get built, and locals would have a big-league team to rally around, something they've never had before.

It’s also a good, albeit expensive, experiment of sorts: Can NHL hockey survive in a tourism-dependent, desert city?

We’ll get the answer soon enough.

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