by Larry Bisagni
Pandora’s Box will officially open next fall.
With NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s bold announcement yesterday that they will put an expansion team in Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season, this is a move that will come to fruition under a microscope, as well as the lecherous eyes of the other Big Three. Teams from all four leagues have, at some point, had discussions around opening shop and dropping a franchise into Sin City, and Bettman (isn’t his last name ironic?) had the fortitude to be the first to make it happen.
With the new T-Mobile Center open for business, it was inevitable that either the Association or the NHL would kick the tires. After the NBA All-Star Nightmare of 2007 (just Google Pacman+Jones+Las+Vegas if your memory needs a jostle), perhaps the NHL is the, ahem, safest bet. There is a lot of money in hockey, but it pales in comparison to the NBA or Major League Baseball, especially as it relates to player salaries, TV revenue, and above all, sports books.
Make no mistake about it: Vegas is a happenin’ town. People call it Disneyland for Adults, and with good reason. It’s the entertainment capital of the world, and I have personally spent countess nights (and dollars) up and down The Strip. It’s a 24-hour party, especially when you know the real players.
That’s the good.
This could be a tough sell for two reasons: One, Vegas is a city that has an economy predicated on serving visitors, as opposed to catering to the locals. Can the T-Mobile Center be filled 40 nights a year by Vegas residents? The luxury boxes won’t be an issue; I’m quite confident that every high roller will stop in as a special guest of the Wynn, the Cosmopolitan, Bellagio, or Floyd Mayweather. Getting 16,000 servers, blackjack dealers, bellhops, and bartenders every night will present a different challenge.
Two, Vegas loves winning. When the late great Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were at the apex of the March Madness Mountain, there wasn’t a hotter ticket in town than the Thomas and Mack Center’s Gucci Row. No, not just the hottest ticket in college basketball. I mean the freaking Las Vegas Strip. From Sylvester Stallone to 50 Cent, it is still the place to see and be seen for celebrity sports fans visiting Vegas, but today, you can walk up and get a general admission ticket five minutes before tipoff.
But folks, let’s address the elephant in the room: this is a ticking time bomb.
Understand, I have nothing against the fine people of Las Vegas, but in case you’ve lived under a rock your entire life, the entire economy is built on – and largely driven by – gambling. Yes, there’s some sort of (insert your favorite profession or industry here) get-together there virtually every non-holiday week of the year, but the city’s main attraction is hardly the Las Vegas Convention Center. People go to Vegas to see shows, eat well, and party into the wee hours of the morning.
Oh, yeah… and gamble.
The NFL has already said they could not have a line on a team based there. What happens if and when the Las Vegas Raiders, Las Vegas Jaguars, or Las Vegas Chargers make it to the Super Bowl? Does anyone think for one second that the casinos are willing to pull the plug on having billions of dollars change hands in their establishments? Keep dreaming. I’d expect the same should the NBA or MLB open any discourse around setting up shop.
Every expansion franchise is awful at first, and it will only be a matter of weeks into the inaugural season before some goalie has to answer awkward questions after a lopsided blowout. If said goalie happens to spend an evening at XS with a high roller (which will happen; professional athletes are treated like trophies in Sin City), how will this be negated? Not a good look, for sure. Remember, we aren’t talking about minor leaguers playing against the Las Vegas 51s, making $40,000 a year traveling on buses and toting their own luggage into the Ramada Inn next to the airport. We’re talking about multi-millionaire athletes potentially rubbing elbows with bookies hours before a game. Forget about the clubs; how will the NHL keep the Alex Ovechkin and the like out of the casinos?
Does the name Pete Rose ring a bell? What about Shoeless Joe Jackson? Paul Hornung? Alex Karras?
I suppose the NHL in Las Vegas could pay dividends, but it is, quite literally, a gamble… And not one that I’d put money on.
Tick, tick, tick…