‘We did not expect to see this’: How the gleaming Golden Knights made Las Vegas a sports city

‘We did not expect to see this’: How the gleaming Golden Knights made Las Vegas a sports city
LAS VEGAS — Mary Kelly and her husband, Thomas Lindqvist, are the type of fans that sports executives in Las Vegas dream about.

When the NHL released its schedule last summer, Kelly and Lindqvist saw that their beloved Pittsburgh Penguins would visit Las Vegas to play the expansion Golden Knights on a Thursday in mid-December.

Eager to see their team play in the newest NHL city, Kelly, Lindqvist and a dozen friends planned a long weekend around the Penguins game. They booked rooms on the Strip, at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, and spent the weekend seeing the sights.

“We bought tickets as soon as they went on sale,” said Kelly, who has had Penguins season tickets with her husband for a decade. “We go to about one road game a year — to Chicago, Buffalo, New York, D.C.”

Before game time in Las Vegas, she looked across a plaza outside T-Mobile Arena, where many hundreds of Penguins fans were congregating, and said: “We did not expect to see this.”

It’s fair to say the owners of the Golden Knights, the NHL and the city of Las Vegas did not expect that, either. By most measures, the hockey team’s inaugural season has been a smashing success — one the Raiders hope to duplicate when they move to the city from Oakland for the 2020 NFL season.

Vegas Golden Knights fans Mike Forizs (left) and Derek Frank, both of Neavada, pose with a homemade version of the Stanely Cup before a game against the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 27. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

With 41 wins and 87 points, the Golden Knights have been extending the record for most wins by an NHL expansion team week after week. In first place in the Western Conference, they are the second-highest scoring team in the league and look poised for a playoff run.

A big reason for the Golden Knights’ success is their play at T-Mobile Arena, where they are 24-6-2. Through their first 31 home games, the team averaged 17,969 fans, or 103.5 percent of the arena’s capacity, when including standing room tickets. All 44 luxury suites have been rented. The team sold its entire allotment of 12,500 season tickets, and Kerry Bubolz, the team president, told this month that about 2,500 fans had paid deposits to be part of the season-ticket waiting list.

According to Fanatics, the largest online seller of licensed sports goods, the Golden Knights have ranked fourth in NHL merchandise sales this season — and first since the start of 2018.

The fast start by the Golden Knights has, for now, allayed fears that the NHL’s decision to put another team in a desert city would lead to financial trouble. (See: Coyotes, Arizona.) Commissioner Gary Bettman has for years pushed for new teams in the Sun Belt, with mixed success, and aiming for Las Vegas, in particular, seemed like an overreach.

It is the country’s 40th-largest television market, best known as a destination for tourists and gamblers, and has a population heavy on retirees and service industry workers, who are unlikely candidates to spend thousands of dollars on season tickets. The city had little hockey tradition; it has hosted minor league teams but has few ice rinks or youth leagues.

An influx of out-of-town fans has complemented the Golden Knights’ fast start on the ice and at the box office. This is good news for local hotels, restaurants and casinos, which host 43 million visitors a year, and for the team as it gets its bearings in the market.

Other NHL teams in areas that attract transplanted retirees — like the Arizona Coyotes and the Florida Panthers — also tend to have strong crowds supporting the opposition. The Golden Knights, though, appear to have specifically designed their game nights like most things in their city: as tourist attractions.

Vegas Golden Knights forwards Erik Haula (right) and Cody Eakin celebrate a win over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 21. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

While hockey is certainly the central focus of game nights, the Knights have added a medieval motif, sometimes comically. The Zambonis that drive on the ice have jousts mounted on their sides to simulate a duel. The arena includes a 24-foot knight’s helmet and three castle structures, including one for cheerleaders with pompoms. Catapults are used to launch T-shirts into the crowd.

“We wanted to focus on Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world,” Bubolz said.

The Golden Knights’ success is an encouraging sign for the NFL, which last year approved the Raiders’ plan to relocate to Nevada. (The San Antonio Stars of the WNBA moved to Las Vegas in the off-season, and will begin play as the Las Vegas Aces in May.)

But the definition of success will be far different. While the Knights play in a privately built arena, Nevada promised to use US$750 million in hotel taxes to help pay for a new, domed stadium for the Raiders. The bonanza of public money persuaded the league’s owners to let the team move, and melted the NFL’s long-running objections to playing in Las Vegas — based on the presence of legal sports gambling.

The Raiders hope to double down on the Knights’ success at drawing out-of-town visitors. In most NFL markets, roughly five per cent of fans at a typical game are from out of town. Yet according to the Raiders’ projections, about half the fans at the 10 Raiders home games will come from outside Las Vegas, including many from neighbouring California.

“As far back as a decade, we all believed teams would travel very well to Las Vegas,” said Bill Hornbuckle, the president of MGM Resorts International and a member of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, which has negotiated specifics of the stadium deal with the Raiders.

Sporting events in Las Vegas, he added, “make what is normally a three-hour experience into a three-day experience.”

Hornbuckle said that of the 48,000 fans who had paid a deposit for personal seat licenses, which will probably cost between US$4,000 and US$6,000, 48 per cent were from Southern Nevada. But nearly 30 per cent were from Southern California, and the remainder from elsewhere in the United States.

But while the Golden Knights moved into a pre-existing arena, the Raiders are responsible for construction of their stadium. The team, though, will have to cover only about one-third of the estimated US$1.8 billion price tag. The rest will come from the hotel tax, an NFL contribution of $200 million and an estimated $250 million from the fans’ seat license fees.

The Raiders will operate the stadium and keep all revenue from every event there, not only football games. An existing monorail, which was privately financed, may be extended to reach the stadium and ease concerns about traffic and a lack of parking.

Jim Nagourney, a former sports executive in New York who now lives in Las Vegas, has repeatedly criticized the arrangement with the Raiders, which could require taxpayers to cover any shortfall in the hotel tax revenue. He said the number of available parking spaces was too small, and he questioned whether half the stadium’s 65,000 seats could be filled with out-of-town fans. Attendance for pre-season games is notoriously spotty, and if the Raiders play poorly, their fans from outside Las Vegas may be less likely to travel long distances to see them, he said.

Nagourney also said the assumption that fans would stay for nearly three days was based on visitors for conventions, not sports events. He does not believe it was necessary to bring the Golden Knights and the Raiders to Las Vegas to validate the city’s status.

“It was a prestige thing,” Nagourney said. “But find me a map that doesn’t already have Las Vegas on it.”

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