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October 16, 2018

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Edmonton influx shows how visiting fans can influence pro sports in Las Vegas

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L.E. Baskow

Edmonton Oilers fans celebrate their overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights during their game at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018.

Shirley, you can’t be serious — how cold did you say it was when you took off from Edmonton to watch some hockey in Las Vegas?

“It was minus-30 when we left,” Shirley Hall said. “We had plane trouble because the steering on the front nose cone was frozen, so they had to thaw us out before we could leave town.”

Hall and her husband, Winston, joined thousands of fellow Canadians in trekking south to T-Mobile Arena for Saturday’s game against the Golden Knights. Belting out “O Canada” and booing every Edmonton penalty in full throat, Oilers fans created the largest opposing fan presence in Vegas’ short NHL history with close to 5,000 seats occupied.

In doing so, they supported the idea that no matter which team enjoys home-ice or home-field advantage, the seats will be filled for pro sports in Las Vegas because of the draw of the destination.

“I think there’s been a lot more positive than negative (to opposing fans),” Golden Knights President Kerry Bubolz said. “Our community is built on entertainment and inclusiveness, so we will welcome guests from other cities. That’s what this town is built on. We’re going to treat that customer that is coming to games from Winnipeg or Edmonton the same way we treat a Golden Knights customer.”

Vegas ranks fourth in the NHL at 103 percent of fan capacity in T-Mobile Arena through 22 home games, which includes selling out all seats and issuing a few hundred standing-room tickets as well. That equates to 17,894 fans per game.

The Golden Knights sold more than 14,000 season tickets, but Bubolz said the franchise anticipated many season-seat holders would sell off some on Stubhub to fans from out of town. Before the season started, the team ranked 11th in the league with an average resale price of $162 per ticket.

While not all will back the Oilers or Jets or Blackhawks — the three teams that have brought to Las Vegas the most fans so far, according to Bubolz — many will make a trip of it.

It’s not just the darlings of hockey either. Out-of-town fans are baked into the Raiders’ model for success in Las Vegas — up to half of their new stadium’s 65,000 seats will be filled with visitors for their eight home games, according to Raiders projections.

Many will be Raiders fans swooping in for the day from Los Angeles and Oakland, but plenty will spend a weekend of escaping Kansas City or Denver in the winter to cheer their teams as well.

The Golden Knights receive data from Stubhub on how many tickets were resold and who bought them for every game. For an expansion team like the Golden Knights, weathering a phalanx of Oilers fans comes with youth, as much as it irks team owner Bill Foley.

“We did know that that would happen. We were prepared for it,” Bubolz said. “We even talked about it internally that, over time, if we build this brand the right way — and you see it in Nashville and Tampa Bay — that (opposing presence) will slowly erode as we build the depth of our fan base.”

Take the Halls: Shirley bought the trip as a birthday present for Winston, first visiting Phoenix before spending the weekend in Las Vegas.

“We’re diehard Oilers fans, but the ambience and the energy in this building is amazing,” Shirley Hall said. “I’d come back again. We might have to come back in February when the Oilers are back.”

Neil Korotash wasted little time in planning his trip away from Edmonton’s brutal winter when he found out about Vegas’ new franchise. He brought 22 friends as well, each carrying a “big head” picture of an Oilers player that T-Mobile security would not allow inside.

“As soon as Vegas got a team, we knew we were coming down and then we booked the seats through group sales in August,” Korotash said. “Who doesn’t like to come to Vegas? We have good flights from Edmonton, it’s warm, it’s an expansion market, so it’s just exciting to be a part of what Vegas is going through right now.”

As part of another group of 16 fans from Canada occupying Section 103, Ryan Yamniuk and Nathan Carter looked the full Edmonton-to-Vegas part with visors honoring “The Hangover” and jerseys honoring their deity Connor McDavid on his 21st birthday.

“And it was minus-32 when we left Thursday,” Yamniuk said.

Yamniuk didn’t leave all of Edmonton behind, though.

“It feels like home,” Yamniuk said. “It feels like we’re in Edmonton.”

Bubolz said the team cannot do much to prevent opposing fans from swarming their castle, though the Golden Knights do not allow resale of the roughly 1,000 tickets sold on game days. While they cheer for the enemy, those Oilers fans still buy plenty of beer and merchandise — lines to check out at the arena’s team store ran close to 50 people deep before the game Saturday night, including a man in a McDavid jersey waiting to purchase a Shea Theodore home sweater.

The Golden Knights lead the NHL in per-capita retail spending at their games, outpacing the next closest team by $4, according to Bubolz. While he declined to share the actual figure for the season, Bubolz said fans at the team’s inaugural game spent close to $20 per person on merchandise alone.

“This is good for Las Vegas business as a whole because that word is spreading by word of mouth and it’s spreading (on social media),” Bubolz said.

Of course, it is difficult not to notice the Golden Knights as they sit atop the Western Conference with 61 points in January. They are on pace to secure the most successful first season for an expansion team in the history of North America’s four major professional sports.

That achievement isn’t lost on Korotash.

“We did think we were going to be watching a No. 1-place team against a last-place team when we booked the tickets in August, and we are,” Korotash said.

“It’s just the other way around.”

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