The United States does sport differently to how we do here in the U.K, or even Europe. It manifests as an entertainment product in its purest form, it thrives on not only the sport itself but rather those that play it and how they live. Driven by commercialism the ‘big 4’ sports in North America as they’ve come to be known have been regularly criticized over the years for varying reasons.
Baseball was attacked for managing a continuous performance enhancing drug scandal poorly. The NFL still struggles to come to terms with the real dangers of its sport through chronic traumatic encephalopathy. During David Stern’s tenure as NBA Commissioner he was consistently attacked for rigging drafts and playoff games. Lastly ice hockey has battled a host of problems from player safety to attempts at expanding the sport into areas where it isn’t popular.
However that isn’t stopping the NHL from shifting the paradigm and going where no North American sport has gone before, Las Vegas. I’m aware that the Oakland Raiders will be moving to Las Vegas but before them, the Las Vegas Golden Knights will take up residence in Sin City and it’s a risk to say the least.
There are a few reasons Las Vegas has never really seen a major professional sports team. Firstly are the issues with gambling because unlike European sport, the four major sports have historically shunned betting. The NFL went as far to turn down Super Bowl advertisements from the Las Vegas tourism board and threated to sue any hotel there using the term ‘Super Bowl party’ (hotels have navigated this issue by referring to it as the ‘big game’ instead) making it even more unbelievable that the Raiders will soon be relocating there. It will become impossible to avoid relationships with gambling companies, if you want the best players to play for your team, you’ll have to let them accept lucrative personal sponsorships with the casino across the road or they won’t bother coming. Another concern for owners of teams is their players being sucked into the culture of Vegas, the immediate argument against this is the presence of successful franchises in New York, Los Angeles etc. all of which have prominent lifestyles. However Vegas is a 24/7 party that will expose athletes making millions of dollars a year to yet another vice in gambling, on top of the sex and booze and drugs. Mike Richards was famously dogged by rumours of failing to curb his substance problems in Philadelphia, how would he have managed to survive in an environment like Las Vegas?
Lastly is the issue of Vegas not really being able to attract enough support, which brings us back to the Golden Knights. The area is heavily reliant on tourism and with so many other events constantly on, potential revenue from that is lost. Locals are also working through the night as well as in the day to supplement the 24/7 party so building a fan base is going to be difficult. Plus the NHL has already come under immense criticism for trying to expand its game into the Sun Belt with Phoenix, Dallas etc. Which although can be seen as perhaps unfair (Likely Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews grew up around the Phoenix area), is justified. Once the Raiders are added to the mix, the presence of Ice Hockey will probably be unsustainable.
The Expansion draft is next month on the 21st and while there will be original buzz surrounding the new team it will be interesting to see how it will survive moving forwards. Although to be fair, if any of the Big 4 were going to experiment in Sin City, Ice Hockey is probably the safe bet, with far less issues surrounding its athletes in recent years.