Top Shelf: Should the NHL roll the dice in Vegas?

Published 08/28 2014 11:52AM

Updated 08/28 2014 11:52AM

Philadelphia, PA ( - Sooner or later a major professional sports league is going to take a chance on Las Vegas.

If recent rumors are to be believed the NHL is ready to become that league.

A report Tuesday in the Vancouver Province claims an NHL expansion club in Vegas is a "done deal." According to The Province writer Tony Gallagher and his sources the only decision left to make is deciding "which owner will be entitled to proclaim that he brought the first major league sports franchise to Sin City."

Whether or not the gambling Mecca is a good place for a professional sports team has been a heavily debated topic for decades. First and foremost, there is the thorny issue of basing a team in a city where sports betting is legal but the problems don't stop there.

Drawing fans to the arena shouldn't be a problem at first for an NHL club based in Vegas, but it could be difficult sell in the long term. One major roadblock in keeping attendance up would be the stiff competition for things to do in a city known as "The Entertainment Capital of the World." Also, while casino owners know they can count on tourists to lay down money to catch Wayne Newton or Britney Spears, it seems unlikely those same visitors will care about seeing an NHL game in a city other than their own.

There is also the problem of putting another team in a non-traditional hockey market. Then again, Gary Bettman has proven immune to criticisms about his strategy of pushing the NHL landscape further south and there is no reason to believe the commissioner has changed his tune. Just think of everything the league has done to keep from moving the Coyotes out of Arizona (or to keep the Predators in Nashville) and it should be obvious Bettman won't be talked out of placing a team in Vegas just because it's in the middle of the desert.

Putting aside the specific problems that make a Las Vegas club a risky proposition for the NHL, generally speaking it's a bad idea for the league to expand at all. That is, it's a bad idea if one's primary interest was the overall health of the league and not simply looking for additional ways to monetize the sport of hockey. It shouldn't be difficult to guess the latter path is of greater value to Bettman and the owners of the NHL's 30 current franchises.

Considering the relentless pursuit of money is firmly installed as the main objective for the power brokers of the NHL another piece of news reported on Tuesday shouldn't seem so far-fetched. Howard Bloom of tweeted that the league is planning on adding four expansion teams by 2017, with Quebec City, Seattle and a second Toronto franchise joining the proposed Vegas club.

Bloom noted the NHL's reported plan would bring $1.4 billion in expansion fees to the NHL's coffers. That's a huge sum of cash to be spread out amongst the league's 30 teams, but an expansion of that size would wreak untold damage to the NHL's on-ice product. Finding worthy players to fill 30 rosters is bad enough and adding four more teams to the mix would dilute the talent pool to an alarming degree.

Of course, the real losers in the expansion game are fans. But if three lockouts over the last two decades doesn't make it clear the league and its owners take fan support for granted, nothing will.

Unfortunately, it's not in the interest of the players to take a stand against expansion either. Not only would the NHLPA love having more NHL jobs to fill, but the players also earn a hefty share of the total revenue generated by the league.

Do you think those players would say no to more money to protect the sanctity of the game? Didn't think so.

Bloom's claim that the league will add four teams over the next few years does seem on the high side, but that's immaterial to the central issue. Whether there's only one expansion team added or four, the real problem is the NHL seems intent on cashing in on its recent upsurge in popularity even if that means seriously damaging its product.

Of course, hockey fans who don't want to believe the onslaught of expansion is inevitable could try dismissing these recent reports as nothing more than rumors and go on their merry way. Maybe that's not such a bad idea considering there is little fans (either in small groups or as a collective whole) could do to stop the NHL if it's indeed hell-bent on expanding the league.

But just like in "All The President's Men" the key to figuring out this mystery is to simply follow the money. In the case of NHL expansion the trail leads right to the pockets of the most powerful people in hockey. They would be the first to tell you they didn't get to where they are by listening to people like me.

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