The last time the NHL expanded was the year 2000. It’s conceivable that the youngest NHL rookies of the upcoming season wouldn’t have even been born yet when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the league. Put another way, the addition of the Las Vegas Golden Knights this season is the only post social media (or, indeed, post 9/11, post Obama, post flip-phone… A lot has changed since 2000) NHL expansion. The team’s location is unorthodox, possibly even more so than the maligned relocation of the Winnipeg Jets to sunny Arizona in 1996. So how did Vegas become home to the world’s newest pro hockey team? What does launching such a major brand look like in 2017?
An Unlikely Location
When you think hockey, you probably think Canada (or Russia, Sweden, or Finland) more than you think ‘Southwestern United States’. Teams like Arizona, Florida, and Carolina have struggled with attendance for years. The NHL has tried to make hockey work in Atlanta twice: both times, the team was relocated to a Canadian city (the Flames to Calgary, and the Thrashers to Winnipeg, where they became the second coming of the Jets). There are also success stories, like the Nashville Predators, who are fresh off a deep playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have grown their fan base steadily through shrewd marketing and increased playoffs success. Still, the South seems like a risky proposition compared to reliably sold-out Canadian and traditional US markets. Why not Seattle, or Kansas City? Either seems a more likely destination for a pro hockey team.
The answer lies (at least partially) in a high-risk high-reward marketing strategy. The NHL knows it can succeed in Northern or traditional markets, but in order for it to achieve the kind of growth and legitimacy the league needs, it has to risk entering non-traditional markets. If they’re able to successfully make the jump to Vegas, they’ve built the NHL brand in a place where it has never existed, and added an entire region of fans or potential fans to the league. Seattle hockey fans can root for nearby teams such as the Canucks or any of the California teams, but the American midwest lacks many options. Currently, 5 of the 8 nearest states to Nevada have no hockey team. It’s one of the least hockey-saturated regions in the US, so there is high potential for growth. That growth may not come easy – hockey remains the most ‘fringe’ of the North American major league sports – but at least the numbers are there.
Growing a Fanbase
Growing a fanbase in a non-traditional market is difficult. As mentioned above, the Lightning are the most successful Southern hockey market in the NHL, largely through community outreach and team success. They’ve invested millions in growing the game, handing out free sticks and hockey balls to elementary school students, and growing the number of youth and varsity teams and coaches in the region.
When teams are ‘rebuilding’, or replenishing an aging or unsuccessful team with a fresh batch of young, talented players, fans often talk about the ‘pipeline’. The pipeline refers to the system through which young prospects progress on their way to the NHL, from junior teams in leagues such as the WHL, OHL, and NCAA college leagues, to lesser professional leagues like the AHL and ECHL, and finally up to the NHL. What successful nontraditional teams like the Lightning do is excel at building their ‘fan pipeline’, starting by developing interest in the sport with children and youth, which in turn spurs interest from parents and older fans, who purchase tickets and make the team profitable. The dream for any non-traditional team is to develop home-grown talent. Arizona has made similar moves as Tampa, albeit with less overall success, and ended up producing Calder trophy winner Auston Matthews, a half-Mexican, Arizona raised hockey prodigy. That’s a big step for Southern hockey.
Can Vegas Pull it Off?
The question is whether the Golden Knights can replicate this success, or if they even need to. Las Vegas is a different sort of city from Tampa or Phoenix, or pretty much any other city on Earth. Its economy is dependent on tourism dollars generated from the strip, which is basically a resort town nestled within a city. Many fans and commentators expect that Vegas’ attendance success could be driven by tourism – that is, the Golden Knights will be just another thing to do in Vegas for visitors, one of many evening attractions in the city. Could Vegas be the first successful franchise without a reliable base of home-team fans?
Maybe. While Vegas’ management claims that the team is already beating expectations in ticket sales, it’s hard to know whether that’s local interest or corporate purchasers buying up seats as an incentive for clients and workers. Another issue is the product being delivered. Everything points to Vegas not being a great team. They probably aren’t even good.
Banking on a Losing Team
Vegas entered the league through a process known as the ‘expansion draft’. A team doesn’t just form out of nothing — they need players. The Golden Knights were able to select one player from each of the NHL’s other 30 teams, with some restrictions (each team was allowed to protect a number of their key players, so the Knights couldn’t take all the franchise-level players and dominate the league). This led to massive speculation over the last NHL season. Who would get protected? What was the best team that Vegas could hope to assemble? It was possible a brand new team could make the playoffs, given the players assumed to be left on the table for the draft.
Instead, Vegas is icing an absolute stinker of a team. Their best goal-scorer is projected to be either James Neal, a veteran who averages 25 goals a season, or Vladimir Shipachyov, an unproven KHL player with above average point totals. It’s a team devoid of stars, except for multiple cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whose play is notoriously inconsistent. The Knights are likely to end up at or around the bottom of the league this season, and don’t look like they’ll recover quickly. It’s a long-term strategy for Vegas, but a risky one. A bad team generally means good draft picks, meaning the Knights can rebuild over the next few years and possibly become a contender, not just a middling playoff team like they might otherwise be. The downside is that any sports team deals in entertainment. Their product isn’t expected to be good for years, so they may not succeed in building a fan following in entertainment-rich Vegas. That said, the NHL isn’t going to move a brand new franchise after a few years of sucking, so this will probably end up being a win for the Golden Knights.
All in the Execution?
While hockey in Las Vegas seems like a long-odds bet at first glance, it actually makes a lot of sense. The biggest problem with the Golden Knights so far has been in their execution. For myself, and many hockey fans, they’ve disappointed with their name, logo, and overall brand. In a city centered around gambling and excitement, the team was forbidden from referencing gambling in any way by the league. No Vegas Aces. No Vegas Blackjacks. None of the names you’d associate most closely with Las Vegas. Combined with an absolute bumbling mess of an official launch, and an underwhelming name (Las Vegas is officially known as the ‘Silver State’, yet they’re the Golden Knights? It doesn’t sound like a first choice name for a sports team), the team’s brand is a bit weak right now. We’ll see if that has any impact on their success. The overall sense from many hockey fans so far is that the Knights don’t know what they’re doing yet. Some of hockey’s biggest teams have suffered under incompetent management, even in fanatical markets like Toronto and Edmonton. The biggest threat to the Golden Knights’ success may be their execution and management.