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November 17, 2017

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Did Foley get the name right? Depends on a lot more than local appeal, experts say

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Owner Bill Foley speaks at the unveiling of the name of the newest NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, at Toshiba Plaza.

Vegas Golden Knights Unveiled

The logo for the Las Vegas NHL franchise is unveiled during a ceremony in the Toshiba Plaza at T-Mobile Arena Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. The team name is the Vegas Golden Knights. Launch slideshow »

It’s three little letters that we’re missing here.

The Vegas Golden Knights will play their first game in the National Hockey League next season without the full moniker of the city in which they reside. The bold decision of Golden Knights owner Bill Foley to drop “Las” from the team’s name generated both rebuke from locals hoping for connection to the franchise and praise from marketing experts enticed by branding opportunities.

“Everyone has an opinion, I can tell you that,” Foley said to The New York Times last week. “I was trying to do consensus-building for a while; then I stopped.”

Foley purchased a home in Summerlin last year and also resides part-time in Northern California, Montana and Florida, where his Fortune 500 company Fidelity National Financial is headquartered. His time living in Las Vegas convinced him that shedding the first word of the city in his team’s name would fit locals’ preference.

“The local people refer to Vegas, not Las Vegas,” Foley told the Sun last week at the name-unveiling ceremony outside T-Mobile Arena. “The people from out of town refer to, ‘Las Vegas.’ It’s, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Oh, I’m from Vegas.’”

Dating back to the Las Vegas Wranglers of baseball’s Sunset League in 1947, the previous 31 teams to play lower-level or minor-league professional sports in the valley each used ‘Las Vegas’ in their names. D.J. Allen saw many of the recent entries growing up in Southern Nevada and went on to build a marketing career here as founder of Imagine Communications and later as the executive in charge of marketing and communications for UNLV Athletics.

Allen praised the Vegas Golden Knights name and logo as “different” and “creative,” but understands as a native that referring to the team by a name more commonly associated with the Strip stirs the feelings of some locals.

“Obviously a lot of people are proud of Las Vegas and that being our community, but I think when you get into the world of marketing pro sports and you’re marketing internationally, there are two different sides you have to look at,” Allen said. “Ultimately the decision was made to try to capture the Vegas swag, for not just the national but the international.”

Foley’s desire for a nickname with two words partially necessitated the solo use of Vegas as well. Of the 123 teams in the four major North American professional sports leagues, only eight employ a two-word nickname, including the Golden Knights.

“I get why they did it,” Patrick Walsh, assistant professor of sport management at Syracuse University, said. “If you look at the name, if it would have been Las Vegas Golden Knights, that would have been an extremely long team name for a brand. From a branding perspective, you always want your name to be short and memorable, so I think that’s the strategy they’re looking for. The longer you get with that name, the more difficult it is to license that name.”

Foley also considered Black Knights and Silver Knights, but chose Golden Knights in part because of Nevada’s prodigious gold mining industry and the metal’s high value. Walsh expressed overall reservation at judging the Golden Knights brand just days after the announcement, but did admire the creativity of Foley’s call.

“It was an interesting choice, one I frankly didn’t think was coming,” Walsh said. “In my impression, people outside probably do say Vegas.”

The Las Vegas franchise received nearly 16,000 season-ticket deposits long before the announcement of the team’s name last week, demonstrating the city’s appetite for a professional team with any label. Walsh emphasized that the name presents just one piece that will form the Golden Knights brand along with advertising, merchandising, sponsorship and community involvement.

“This is not something we can look at a couple of days after the fact and determine if this was a smart decision or not,” Walsh said. “I think this is more of a long-term play. With an expansion franchise, you’re looking at at least the first year out.”

Sports radio host Kate Delaney lived right near the Las Vegas Country Club while the area’s first expansion hockey franchise — the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League — skated at the Thomas & Mack Center. Her roots in hockey stretch across the country to Philadelphia, where her uncle, Bernie Parent, became one of the finest goaltenders in NHL history, winning the Stanley Cup with the Flyers in 1974 and 1975.

As a hockey lifer taught to skate by Flyers great Bobby Clarke and a former Las Vegan, Delaney wanted the name of the club to tie back to those local season-ticket holders.

“To me, the name just falls flat,” Delaney said. “I also think you keep Las Vegas, not Vegas — I think Las Vegas rolls off the tongue. To me, when you say Las Vegas, it means more the city than it does the Strip. Vegas means the Strip.”

New York-based branding consultant Lisa Merriam also expressed concern about the choice of Golden Knights as a concept that does not naturally tie to Southern Nevada.

“I would start with something local and then I would say, what does the team want to be known for?” Merriam said. “It should be something that has meaning to the sport and what the team is going to stand for.”

Connection to the local community can be secondary when dealing with a brand on the order of a professional sports franchise in an internationally focused league like the NHL, and probably should be, said Matt Kovacs, a PR firm president from Santa Monica, Calif., who has worked with equipment manufacturer Easton Hockey for the past 10 years.

“The term ‘Vegas’ is synonymous with fun, adventure and excitement, all the things the NHL craves,” Kovacs said. “As we’ve seen from franchise movements, roster changes and even the price of beer, connecting to the local community is irrelevant.

“By being the first true professional franchise in the market, this gives the team the opportunity to draw from a larger base and create travel trips for NHL fans throughout North America. After the inaugural season, the locals will only come if the team is a winner, so by naming the team Vegas, the ownership group is creating a larger narrative for the franchise.”

While experts diverge, Allen — and Foley, who said it will be “on him” if the name doesn’t work out — see a need to move beyond the name.

“Once you make the decision, you don’t go out and validate the decision,” Allen said. ”You make it and you just move forward.”

That task will become much easier once the franchise takes its next steps, which will include adding players in a matter of months.

“Fans will drive a lot of what happens with the brand once they actually hit the ice,” Walsh said.

And once players in Golden Knights uniforms finally skate on the Strip, the discussion around them will move to what fans really care about — winning and entertainment.

“We have nothing else to talk about with this franchise right now,” Allen said.

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