Saturday, June 09, 2007

Viva, Las Vegas, gets a cold shower

While Gary Bettman and his 30 fellow croupiers may be counting the possible take from running the NHL table in Vegas, not everyone is suggesting that it's a particularly smart bet for the league.

Rick Westhead of The Toronto Star has done some quick math and surveyed the landscape of the city that never really shuts down and he thinks that a move to Vegas would be yet another mis-step by a league that has been on a roll of late in the mistake making business.

With a city of lower wage workers, who toil on a variety of shifts none of which are particularly hockey friendly, Westhead doesn't quite see the stable group of season ticket holders that an NHL team needs to make a go of it any market, let alone one with so many distractions.

It's a theme that has been recounted numerous times by Bob McCown on Prime Time Sports, McCown who once lived in Vegas, has said much of the same over the last few years every time that the Vegas theory has come up.

Yet, with a Hollywood roller like Jerry Bruckheimer as the potential whale, the NHL is sure to try and find a way to make hockey work in yet another desert, this one with glittering lights, spinning slots and high stakes poker games that would make NHL salary caps look like chump change.

The problem for the NHL will be that the underpaid locals may be the truest fans, but have the least amount of time to attend any games, while the high rollers most likely won't leave the card table let alone seek out a hockey rink.

Add into the mix a bubbling gambling scandal revolving around a former assistant coach and one for a time that tainted a famous name, and you have to wonder if perhaps the NHL might be best to give a city built on gambling as wide a berth as possible.

Putting a team in Las Vegas would be disastrous for NHL
June 08, 2007 Rick Westhead

Some blunders, you can predict long before they happen.

When the NHL abandoned cable TV channel ESPN for the Outdoor Life Network, it wasn't going out on a limb to suggest the deal would backfire. Same thing when the Philadelphia Flyers took to wearing long-legged Cooperall pants or when the defunct Oakland Seals ordered players to wear skates painted white.

Or how about when the Fox network experimented with a glowing puck on its telecasts?

These days, the NHL seems to be on the verge of making another doozy by putting an expansion team in Las Vegas, widely lauded as "one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed this week that TV and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer is among a group of prospective investors who have discussed with the league their interest in owning a team in Las Vegas.

And James Balsillie, who has signed a non-binding letter of intent to buy the Nashville Predators, is similarly interested in the city even though moving the Predators out of Tennessee will be chockablock with obstacles, according to hockey sources.

But drill down a bit and Las Vegas doesn't seem like such a safe bet.

To start with, the NHL's biggest problem these days is its flagging TV ratings, which may ultimately underscore why Bettman is considering expansion.

TV ratings for hockey in the U.S. have never been lower. Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday night on NBC was watched by a mere 1.6 million U.S. viewers, making it the lowest-rated night in the network's history.

There's no reason to think Bettman will be in a position to tell the league's 30 team owners to expect cheques in coming seasons from its TV-related revenue. That's a problem. NHL owners, like any in pro sports, demand returns on their investment.

Without TV money coming in, charging for one or two new expansion teams would be one way to line the pockets of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and hockey's other owners.
But putting a team in Las Vegas could be disastrous five years on.

Put simply, the city is not the burgeoning market some say it is. Las Vegas is merely the 51st largest media market in the U.S., smaller than some cities such as Albuquerque, N.M., Harrisburg, Pa., and Greensboro, N.C. And as a Wells Fargo analyst put it in a March report, "The Las Vegas economy continues to cool (and) the unemployment rate continues to trend higher."

Fact is, many Las Vegans are low-income employees, card dealers, waiters and hostesses who would probably find it impossible to attend many NHL games even if they were so inclined.
As one sports banking source put it, Vegas is an "upside down" market. While much of North America works 9 to 5, the standard shift in Las Vegas is 5 p.m. to midnight.

"I don't know, maybe they're thinking afternoon games all the time would work," the source said. It's similarly doubtful visitors would be interested in hockey – or that casinos would help promote the sport. Every three hours at a game would mean less time for the tourist to play slots, roulette or baccarat.

"It's always struck me as a city where people are coming and going, not necessarily a good hockey market," said former New York Rangers president Bob Gutkowski. "Maybe it would take the focus off the NHL's TV problem and it'd provide some cachet, glitz and glamour, but that doesn't mean it's a market that would sustain an NHL team."

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