Las Vegas’ hockey expansion team is a test of the sport’s appeal – CNBC

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.”

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