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Las Vegas' hockey expansion team is a test of the sport's appeal



Vegas Golden Knights is announced as the name for the Las Vegas NHL franchise
National Hockey League | Las Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights is announced as the name for the Las Vegas NHL franchise

Can a sport played on the ice do well in the scorching desert?

Since at least 1991, the National Hockey League has shown interest in Las Vegas through the hosting of exhibition games, player awards and even two minor league franchises. Yet after years of talk and negotiations, Sin City will have its own professional hockey franchise at last — the Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL's 31st team.

Clad in steel gray, gold and red, the team is expected to embark on a whirlwind of acquiring players and hiring a coach before finally taking to the ice at the T-Mobile Arena when the 2017 season begins in the fall.

Still, questions abound about how viable the franchise can be, even in a sports-crazy market like the U.S. The Vegas squad arrives at a critical juncture for hockey, which has seen some high-profile stumbles.

In 2016, ratings for the Stanley Cup Final — hockey's championship series — were one of the lowest ever. In another potentially embarrassing development, the New York Islanders may be forced from their home at Brooklyn's Barclays Center after next season, according to a report from the New York Post, a few short years after relocating from Long Island.

So will the Golden Knights take off, or crash and burn? Initial signs are encouraging at least, as Las Vegas possesses all of the ingredients for a successful sports franchise. Among other attributes, it has a booming population and a city that absorbed nearly 43 million tourists last year, according to Las Vegas data, most of them hungry for entertainment.

The centerpiece of the NHL expansion team will have a pricey new arena on the Las Vegas Strip. The $375 million facility comes outfitted with 44 luxury suites, seats more than 17,000 and a two-acre outdoor plaza set up for interactive experiences.

Yet fans will be the linchpin of the Golden Knight's success, according to the team's president, Kerry Bubolz. He recently told CNBC he was "blown away by how many people are hard-core, dedicated hockey fans" who until recently were forced to root for other teams.

"We want [transplanted fans] to feel embraced when they come to our games" Bubolz said. "We won't turn them away just because they grew up in a different market, but we will be upfront that we want to convert them to loving the Knights."

The new T-Mobile Arena at Toshiba Plaza (expected to be the home of an NHL team) is viewed on June 7, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
George Rose | Getty Images
The new T-Mobile Arena at Toshiba Plaza (expected to be the home of an NHL team) is viewed on June 7, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sin City is home to 2 million people, many of them anxious to root for a home team. The Golden Knights have already hit their mark of selling more than 13,000 season tickets, and the team estimates that at least 85 percent of attendance at its games will be locals.

"Everyone is looking forward to having the NHL in Las Vegas," said Cara Clarke, an associate vice president of communications at the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. The city is "looking forward to many years of success," it added.

For its part, the Golden Knights have a strategy to ensure that success, and it involves catering to Vegas' distinctive bright lights-big city style of show business.

"We realize that entertainment is incredibly important to the culture here and we aim to have the best game presentation and the best home ice advantage," Bubolz told CNBC.

The Golden Knights are looking to meet the expectations of their fans by appropriating some of the best features exhibited by teams in other markets that excel in specific areas. These include the social media prowess of the San Jose Sharks; the musical fluidity of the Nashville Predators and the hardcore fan devotion demonstrated by the Chicago Blackhawks.

With opening night less than a year away, the Golden Knights certainly have their work cut out for them. However, with an expectant built-in fan base and seasoned leadership in the executive suite, the Golden Knights appear poised to become the NHL's team to watch.