Nate Silver calls Vegas a bad bet for NHL expansion team

Political and sports stat guru Nate Silver has dropped the hammer on Las Vegas as a National Hockey League market, saying his numbers-crunching shows hockey doesn’t belong in the desert.

The farther you get from Canada, he said, the less economically viable hockey is.

Silver trashes Las Vegas in his post titled, “Las Vegas Is A Terrible Place For An NHL Team,” on his fivethirtyeight.com blog on ESPN.

But the analysis relies on oft-cited Las Vegas “negatives” such as the local three-shift work cycle, weak public transportation and competing entertainment options. Silver also cites a “2013 analysis” claiming there are only 91,000 NHL fans among the Las Vegas area’s 2 million residents, which conflicts with prospective NHL team owner Bill Foley’s up-to-date data showing 130,000 “avid hockey fans” in the market.

Foley declined to comment to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Silver disses Las Vegas as a sports town in general, citing poor attendance for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s baseball team and the now-defunct minor league hockey Las Vegas Wranglers.

But Mark Warner, owner of the Vegas­HockeyPodcast, sent Silver to the penalty box for cherry-picking his stats and overlooking other relevant information. Warner notes that in the 1993-94 season, when the metro area population was about half what it is now, an average of 8,018 fans turned out for Las Vegas Thunder International Hockey League games. Meanwhile, the annual NHL preseason game in Las Vegas sells out, he notes.

Silver also acknowledges attendance could be better because Las Vegas “gets a lot of tourists,” but doesn’t note that “a lot” means more than 40 million visitors each year. That tidal wave of people is likely to include hockey fans to help fill some of the 17,500 seats in the new, privately financed arena scheduled to open on the Strip in spring 2016.

MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group are teaming to build the $375 million arena behind New York-New York and have expressed their support for a prospective team. The arena will open in spring 2016.

That the arena and any teams using it get no public subsidy is often cited as evidence that economics in Las Vegas are different than most other places.

Foley has drawn about 11,000 season ticket deposits in a nontraditional hockey market in two months without a team in place and with an arena still under construction. Silver belittles the 11,000 number by saying the “Winnipeg Jets sold out their entire allotment of 13,000 season tickets in 17 minutes after the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated there in 2011.”

But, Warner countered, “The difference between the Winnipeg ticket drive and ours is that they knew they had a team. We have sold out 11,000 tickets to a team that doesn’t exist.”

Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calif., also once were nontraditional hockey markets — and now have strong fan bases.

Silver’s blog post doesn’t address Las Vegas’ unique entertainment market that relishes major events such as NHL games and an arena that will be an attraction for nonhockey fans to attend games.

The NHL Board of Governors is expected to address the Foley bid for an NHL team at its meeting in Las Vegas on June 24.

Contact Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel

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