SPORTS

Las Vegas season-ticket drive raises more questions about NHL expansion

12/09/2014 02:38 EST | Updated 02/08/2015 05:59 EST
BOCA RATON, Fla. - By giving millionaire businessman Bill Foley the go-ahead to gauge interest in expanding to Las Vegas with a season-ticket drive, the NHL has opened the door to plenty of other questions in that market and others.

In Las Vegas, there's the value of the impending season-ticket drive and its potential role in paving the way for a team in what would be the most unique market in hockey. In other places, like Quebec City and Seattle, it raises concerns about just how long they might have to wait.

Foley isn't expected to begin the ticket drive until after the New Year, and at that point the NHL will have some input because there's no shortage of curiosity about Las Vegas.

"Mr. Foley, who is investing a considerable amount of time and effort in expressing his interest, wants to have a good idea as to whether or not it's a good idea," commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday after the board of governors meeting wrapped up. "We're interested to know the results, as well ... if he just wants people to sign a piece of paper and say I'm interested, I'm not sure that's the same as somebody taking a deposit."

A mythical ticket drive — with no fans actually committing to buying — is unprecedented in the NHL. The Winnipeg Jets needed to show they could support a team before the board of governors approved the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers, but this is something different.

And it's also different from what former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie did when he listed season tickets for sale for the Nashville Predators, except in Hamilton, Ont. The league didn't take too kindly to that.

"The only other precedent, which was a bad precedent, was somebody went off without permission and did it in the context of moving an existing club that wasn't going to move," Bettman said.

What this ticket drive will look like is not crystal clear. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league was expecting to meet with Foley's people next week in New York.

On Monday the board of governors raised no objections to Foley's request for the ticket drive, and the consensus seemed to be that there's no harm, no foul in watching the proceedings unfold in Las Vegas.

"When I heard it, it was like, 'Why not?'" Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. "Better to be safe than sorry, so to speak. I'd never heard of that before. It's just a unique idea."

So unique to Las Vegas, with its casinos, service industry and limited history of hosting pro sports teams, that there's no point in undergoing a similar exercise in Quebec City or Seattle.

Quebec already has an arena on the way, a fan base that previously supported an NHL franchise and a potential owner in Quebecor. Seattle does not have an arena, nor a guaranteed owner, but it has become a burgeoning sports town with the NFL's Seahawks, MLB's Mariners and Sounders FC of MLS.

With Las Vegas now at least given the opportunity to be the front-runner on NHL expansion, Quebec City and Seattle may ultimately have to wait until the league is willing to go to 32 teams. Or either city could be a landing spot for relocation.

Small crowds at Florida Panthers games and the continued volatile Arizona Coyotes situation have opened up those franchises for talk about moving. But with Nordiques fans hoping the Panthers can head north from Sunrise, Bettman steadfastly maintained that the team was staying put.

"Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate. Period," Bettman said. "It's inconsistent with everything we know and believe, it's inconsistent with everything (owner) Vinnie Viola would be telling me and inconsistent meaning he has no intention of moving the club. He is committed to South Florida."

The Panthers are averaging 8,849 fans a game, lowest in the NHL. That's partially a product of the organization cutting back on giving out free tickets.

Because of that, Bettman said he's not concerned about the crowd pictures at Panthers games showing so many empty seats because he's convinced this is the beginning of a business process for the team.

"If we're having this conversation in two or three years, it might be a different issue," Bettman said. "But I don't believe we will. I believe that this market will support the Panthers and that they will reform the way they've done business over the last few years and I think the community with respond positively."

The Coyotes have the rest of this campaign and three more seasons on their lease deal with Gila River Arena in Glendale. What's under the microscope there is the sale of 51 per cent of the team to Andrew Barroway, which — according to reports — is falling apart.

Bettman reiterated Tuesday that the sale was on track.

"All of the parties are interested in moving it along as quickly as they can, as are we," he said. "But we have a process that we go through, and we have to check all the boxes."

In order to expand, the NHL has to check a bunch of boxes, beginning with healthy business and 30 stable franchises. Daly said the Panthers and Coyotes were "100 per cent" stable.

Of course if that changes in the coming years, it wouldn't hurt to have one or two places thirsting for a team, like Montreal is right now in baseball. That could include Toronto getting a second team, something Daly said the Maple Leafs could not block.

"There's no single veto right by any club in the league," Daly said. "It's just a voting requirement."

Beyond Las Vegas, Florida and Arizona, Bettman on Tuesday discussed the upcoming World Cup of Hockey and what next season's outdoor games schedule could look like.

Bettman also gave the board of governors an update on World Cup negotiations, which he called a work in progress. With the tournament likely to take place in Toronto in September 2016, he hopes to have an announcement within a couple of months.

A more robust schedule of outdoor games could return next season, with Bettman estimating that there will be three or four. There are only two games this season — the Winter Classic in Washington and Stadium Series game in Santa Clara, Calif. — after six last year.

Bettman said the interest in hosting an outdoor game has been "overwhelming. Everybody wants one." The Winnipeg Free Press reported last year that the Jets were in line to have one, while the Avalanche, Wild and Bruins are considered possibilities.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version indicated Jim Balsillie listed season tickets for sale for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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