BOCA RATON, FLA. — The NBA was going to get there first, they figured, but things went wrong. Las Vegas had been agitating for a pro sports team since the early 2000s, but there was nothing much there: no adequate building, no front-line owner. There were just pretty lights and gamblers and hope.
“I don’t know that they were dealing with anything more real than we were at the time,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “It was just Vegas trying to suggest that this would be a good place for a professional sports franchise.”
Now the NHL is eyeing Vegas, carefully. The league is letting prospective owner Bill Foley conduct a season-ticket drive to gauge interest; for a league this cautious, this is a potentially giant step. But the league also insists it doesn’t know what awaits it in Vegas, if only because nobody does. Ask NHL commissioner Gary Bettman how he feels about gambling on hockey — former NBA commissioner David Stern made no NBA in the sports books a prerequisite of a team there — and he shrugs.
“This will tell you precisely how far along we are in this process, which isn’t a process: I don’t know,” said Bettman at the conclusion of the Board of Governors meeting at the Boca Raton Resort. “We haven’t focused on it. But what I will tell you is that when you’re looking at the gambling issue, and you look at the book in Vegas, we’re about one per cent of the take. We are a small factor. It’s the nature of the game, from a gambling standpoint, football and basketball, both at the college and professional level, is much more prevalent. If we get to that point, we’ll have to evaluate it, but it’s not something we’ve focused.
“Which again, for those of you who think this is a done deal in Vegas, it’s not.”
So the process is not a process, and in an era where current NBA commissioner Adam Silver is calling for the legalization of sports betting, Bettman has no thoughts on gambling, beyond knowing just how much is wagered on his league. Ah.
The door is open, though, and this is the closest any of the four major sports leagues have been to Las Vegas in a long time, if ever. In 2007, Joe Maloof told the New York Times, “Sooner, rather than later, there’s going to be an NBA team in Las Vegas. It’s one of the great last cities that doesn’t have a franchise, and it needs one.” Then-mayor Oscar Goodman said, “I’m ready to bet my reputation that we will have serious discussions about getting a major league franchise here in Las Vegas, and these discussions will begin before the spring of this year.” Goodman had first met with NHL representatives some years before, to sell his city. The NBA dipped its toe in the water, with an All-Star Game. Everyone was excited.
But then the weekend was a mess, and Tim Donaghy happened — the crooked referee who went to jail for influencing games, and who had heavy gambling debts to alleged mobsters — and the league went cold on Vegas. The SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, stolen by lying oilmen who pretended they didn’t want to kill basketball in Seattle. The New Jersey Nets moved to Brooklyn in 2012 as part of your basic real estate scam involving a Russian super-magnate so rich he once forgot where his $45 million yacht was. (It turned out to be docked in Marseilles.)
The NBA was out of teams to move, and wasn’t in expansion mode. Vegas stayed empty, relatively speaking. Now, the path is there for the NHL. It doesn’t mean it will get walked, though.
“I think each owner does that computation totally differently,” said Daly. “You don’t do expansion just to add clubs. You do expansion because you think it’s going to make the league bigger and better, right? That has to be their mindset if they approve an expansion. It’s not necessarily just because I want my up-front expansion fee. It’s because I think long-term this is good for the league, it’s good for the value of my franchise long term.
“There’s an expansion fee. There’s a diminution of your league share. Those are all factors that go into the mix.”
So there is more complexity than just the $450 million pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, give or take a few dozen million, sure. But that gold sits there, waiting. The rise in franchise values that would accompany expansion looms, too. Quebec, for some reason, is nowhere on the agenda. The question is Las Vegas. The board will probably have to be convinced.
“Look, I think there’s an acknowledgment that for any professional sports franchise to work in Vegas, is it going to be supported locally?” said Daly. “Not necessarily by the casinos.”
The NHL has problem spots in warmer climes, as always, and continues to defend them. Bettman said, with a straight face and apparent conviction, that “Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate, period.” Daly said, also with conviction, that Florida and Arizona are not moving, and are in fact both stable franchises. “100 per cent,” he said.
But maybe they’ve learned from experience. The table may be rigged, but it really doesn’t seem like it, yet. At the very least, before they put another team in the desert, the NHL is at least pretending to care how the story ends.