LAS VEGAS — The NHL’s Board of Governors approved Sin City as the league’s next expansion franchise in a vote on Wednesday. The metropolis that has provided visitors with entertainment options ranging from Celine Dion to casino gambling to Carrot Top will, starting in 2017, provide the most elusive choice of all—a franchise in one of the four major professional sports.
Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts International, sees the NHL’s bet on Vegas as a litmus test for the NFL and the NBA. He believes both leagues will be watching the Vegas-hockey experiment closely, and he can envision a future with three teams in Nevada at the highest levels of professional sports.
Hornbuckle said this last week, during a round with SI.com at Shadow Creek Golf Course. There, the names on the lockers in the clubhouse read “Jordan” and “Obama” and “Bush.” Jordan, as in, Michael, apparently even has his own Carolina blue golf cart on the premises.
For the 37 years Hornbuckle has operated in the gaming industry as a high-level executive at various casinos, he worked at and hoped for a moment in time like this one. Namely: Las Vegas on the precipice of becoming not only a gambling town but a sports one, and beyond boxing and mixed martial arts and the action in the sports books. “We’ve never been this close,” he said.
There were decades when landing a major sports franchise seemed improbable, particularly with league concerns over gambling and UNLV basketball scandals. Then, Hornbuckle said, “about seven years ago things got serious.”
“We are ready,” Hornbuckle said. They even have a party planned to celebrate the vote this week.
The expansion effort was led by William Foley II, the West Point graduate and chairman of Fidelity National Financial who is expected to call the team the Black Knights in a nod to his alma mater. Hornbuckle said the group acquired more than 13,000 deposits for season tickets, collecting the first 7,000 of them in the first three days after they became available.
The bid was made possible by the new T-Mobile Arena, a 20,000-seat, multi-purpose facility that opened on the Strip. The arena, which has already showcased a Wayne Newton and the Killers concert and title fights, has a nightclub, a park, a jacuzzi and a resident mixologist. It’s a joint venture between the MGM and Anschutz Entertainment Group. It will host a college basketball game between Duke and UNLV in December.
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But Hornbuckle hopes that hockey is only the first step for Las Vegas into major professional sports. He has met with Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, about potentially landing an NFL team. He said Jones seemed enthusiastic about that project.
Hornbuckle also met several times with Mark Davis, the Raiders owner, about Oakland's team moving to town. That would require a commitment in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion, a stadium and approval from 24 of the NFL’s 32 owners. Hornbuckle declined to gauge how realistic that move might be but said, “(Davis is) real, and we think the NFL is real, too.” The casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is on board. So is the retired soccer star David Beckham. The public funding, Hornbuckle said, would come mostly from an increase on taxes for hotel rooms.
“They want about half of it to be public funding,” he said. “So it’s a huge ask. But it’s a realistic idea.”
If the NFL follows the NHL, then perhaps the NBA would follow both of them. The NBA already holds its summer league in Las Vegas, and next fall, teams will play exhibition games at T-Mobile Arena. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently said on The Dan Patrick Show that “I’m keeping a close eye on it.”
Issues remain, like the size of the television market, which is close in proximity to larger markets in Phoenix and Los Angeles. There’s also the matter of how to fill seats for three major pro sports teams, but Hornbuckle believes that tourists (a full 43 million visitors a year) would add sporting events to their itineraries.
Regardless, Las Vegas remains the most potentially lucrative untapped market for major pro sports. On Wednesday, the NHL expansion vote marked the first step in what’s possible in the years to come.