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Be ready to pay to see NHL play in Vegas

The green light has been given. The ice is about to be tested.

At their annual meeting this week, National Hockey League officials gave Florida billionaire William Foley approval to gauge the appetite for major league sports in Las Vegas. Come February, Foley says he’s going to ask the 2 million-plus people who live in Southern Nevada to make the financial commitment by putting down a deposit for season tickets.

Depending on the response, the NHL could end up adding a franchise that would play its home games at the MGM-AEG arena, which is currently being built behind the Monte Carlo and New York-New York.

The NHL wants to see if enough locals are willing to pack the $375 million arena, which will open April 16, 2016 and seat 18,000 for hockey, on enough of a regular basis to justify putting a franchise here, probably for the 2017 season.

For those ready to take the plunge, be prepared to go deep into your piggy bank. Not only are we talking big league entertainment, we’re talking big league prices.

The average ticket price for an NHL game in 2013-14 was around $63, according to teammarketingreport.com. That doesn’t include the cost of parking, concessions and souvenirs nor the time it will take to travel to the arena on the Strip, all of which could be deterrents to potential fans attending a game.

Hockey fans in Las Vegas managed to escape sticker shock at the box office and the concession stands over the years when the Thunder played in the now-defunct International League in the 1990s or the Wranglers in the ECHL until this year (the team has suspended its operations for 2014-15), the NHL represents an entirely different challenge for one’s wallet.

“It’s deeper than just hockey,” said Billy Johnson, who has spent 11 years promoting hockey as president of the Las Vegas Wranglers. “It’s about connecting with the community. It’s about going to schools, going to hospitals, going to service clubs and selling 365 days a year. It can’t just be ‘We’re the NHL’ open the doors and everyone’s going to show up. Not in this town.”

From Johnson’s perspective, the NHL would be wise to take a page from his playbook and try to do something different in this market. Whether the NHL would allow the Las Vegas team to play a midnight game, something the Wranglers did successfully for years, is questionable. But given the uniqueness of this market, perhaps the NHL might be willing to try.

“I think in any business, sports or otherwise, you have to be willing to think outside the box,” Johnson said. “When I came to Vegas in 2003, people kept telling me why the Wranglers would fail. I myself made a list and at the top of the list was we gave too much credit to hockey being the sole draw. This isn’t Montreal or Toronto or Boston or Minnesota where hockey is part of the culture. You need to create your own fan base.”

Johnson said the attraction of major league sports has a short shelf life. To sustain long-term interest in the franchise means cultivating an audience, and, of course, ultimately putting a winning product on the ice.

“That’s the obvious easy answer,” he said of winning to breed success at the turnstiles. “But what do you do to maintain interest until you win?”

To Johnson, it means the community having a vested interest in its team. It means growing youth hockey through the NHL team. The Anaheim Ducks have built several rinks in Orange County and the Ducks brand is part of each facility. The 8-year-old boys and girls who skate in those facilities are likely to adopt the Ducks as their team.

It means educating people who don’t know much, if anything, about hockey. The sport has never had greater TV exposure than it currently enjoys. Hockey has also intelligently used social media to introduce the game to the uninitiated. Las Vegas, being an international city, has a unique opportunity to embrace the game because of the many different nationalities that live in and visit the city and already have been exposed to the game in their native land.

“The team has to be committed to embedding themselves in the community,” Johnson said.

But no matter how hard the NHL tries in Las Vegas, it will have competition from the casinos for the discretionary dollar of local residents. The money that could go toward a hockey ticket on a Tuesday night will be vying with a video poker machine at a bar or a slot machine in a casino.

“The thing we couldn’t overcome with the Wranglers was the competitiveness of the casino,” Johnson said. “People thought we were part of the casino. And it will be a challenge for the NHL team to overcome that as well.”

Still, Johnson said the NHL’s credibility works to its advantage. If hockey is indeed the first major sports league to plant its flag permanently in Las Vegas, it will endear itself to the sports fans of the city, even if they’re not followers of the sport.

“To be the first one is important,” Johnson said. “People will always remember who was the first to try.”

Bill Foley will be counting on that when his people come calling in February to see who wants to watch his prospective team play and if there are 10,000 or 12,000 willing to put down money in good faith to prove it.

SELLING HOCKEY 101

Most residents of Las Vegas are familiar with hockey, either through the NHL, the minor leagues or perhaps the Olympics. But how do you get folks to invest, both financially and emotionally, in the sport? Here are five ways to get people of Southern Nevada to buy into the NHL:

1. HIT THE ICE — By partnering with local businesses to develop ice rinks around town and getting kids on their skates and playing, the team will develop a new generation of hockey fans. Currently, there are just two rinks with three sheets of ice available for hockey players in Las Vegas. That needs to quadruple at the very least.

2. SE HABLA ESPAÑOL — Roughly 30 percent of the population of Southern Nevada is Latino. It would be foolhardy to exclude them from becoming fans of the team. When the NHL franchise sets up its media platforms, it better have a Spanish-language radio broadcast signal strong enough to reach the entire valley with the color analyst able to explain the game in an easy yet entertaining way.

3. REGIONAL TV — Virtually every NHL team has its games shown as part of a regional television network. The Las Vegas team will want to create its own regional outlet which would include Southern Utah and Northern Arizona as well as the entire state of Nevada. Perhaps ROOT Sports would be interested. And a regular diet of televised games in Spanish would be advisable.

4. GO STUDENTS — Back in the 1960s, the New York Rangers offered tickets for $1 to grade school, high school and college students through something called a G.O. card. It wasn’t a great seat, but at least you were in the building. Currently, several NHL teams currently employ a similar marketing ploy for college and high school students. The Las Vegas team should offer a certain amount of tickets in the upper bowl of the new arena at a nominal price, say $5, and make it available to every UNLV, CSN and Clark County School District student for every game. You show your ID at the box office, pay your five bucks and you’re in, no questions asked or strings attached.

5. BE VEGAS — The NHL isn’t going to allow topless “Ice Girls” to shovel the snow off the ice during commercial breaks so we’re not talking a 21st Century version of Nudes On Ice. But there’s nothing wrong with attractive young ladies and guys serving as team ambassadors and being visible in the community. And with the state-of-the-art amenities the new arena will have, the NHL team should have a pregame light show that is the best in the league. Even the national anthem, which has created rock stars out of the regular anthem singers at virtually every NHL arena, should be a top-line attraction on game night in Vegas, the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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