LAS VEGAS (AP) — The NHL is ready to roll the dice on Las Vegas.
A person with direct knowledge of the NHL’s decision says the league has settled on Las Vegas as its choice for expansion, provided organizers can come up with a $500 million fee.
The person spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity because details have not been released by the league ahead of its Board of Governors meeting on June 22 in Las Vegas. Quebec City was also considered for expansion.
A second person who had been briefed on the decision said Las Vegas was a “done deal” following the recommendation of the NHL’s executive committee.
The 2017-18 season would be the earliest the league would expand.
The franchise would be the NHL’s 31st team and the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas, the rapidly growing gambling center of the American West.
The NHL hasn’t expanded since 2000, when Minnesota and Columbus paid $80 million each to join the league. Prospective Vegas owner Bill Foley is a wealthy businessman who isn’t likely to blink at the elevated price tag previously proposed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as an expansion fee.
The Las Vegas bid says it has secured more than 13,200 season-ticket deposits for the new team, which will play in T-Mobile Arena, the sparkling new multipurpose building on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. The arena, which seats 17,500 for hockey, was built entirely with private money by MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owners of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Las Vegas area had nearly 2.2 million people in the 2010 census, making it the largest population center in the U.S. without a major pro sports franchise. Public support for Foley’s bid has been robust, and the NHL has noticed the appeal of being the only big sports show in a town that loves a big event.
The days when sports leagues were wary of the potential corruption in Vegas’ massive sports betting scene are apparently finished, making the city an attractive candidate for sports looking to get in on a growing market.
The Oakland Raiders have held serious discussions with Vegas leaders in recent months about a move to Nevada, with owner Mark Davis suggesting that he and his partners, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, could build a $1.4 billion domed stadium near the Strip with substantial public money. David Beckham met with the group in April, and the English soccer superstar suggested Vegas would be a candidate for an MLS team with that new field.
But Foley and the NHL have been working on a deal for much longer to bring hockey to the city — with the enormous advantage of an NHL-ready building freshly opened in town. T-Mobile Arena had its grand opening April 6 with a concert featuring Wayne Newton and the Killers, and Canelo Alvarez knocked out Amir Khan in a middleweight title bout on May 7 in its first competitive sporting event.
The NHL has debated expansion for a few years, with Seattle and the Toronto suburbs also generating interest for another team. Bettman has said he doesn’t worry about the league’s product suffering from dilution.
Quebec City still has a strong bid for expansion, but owners have expressed concerns about the strength of the Canadian dollar and a geographical imbalance if they add another team to the Eastern Conference, which currently has 16 teams to the West’s 14.
Even with the serious financial woes of the Arizona Coyotes, who were owned by the league for four years while losing money and struggling to find permanent ownership, the NHL apparently remains confident in its belief that hockey can thrive in a non-traditional Southwest market.
Vegas is in the middle of the Mojave Desert, but it has grown as a hockey town over the past 20 years since local youngsters like Jason Zucker, now with the Minnesota Wild, had to practice on one of the three rinks in town.
The IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder attracted large crowds in the 1990s when they played at the Thomas and Mack Center, and the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers took the Thunder’s place until 2014 while playing at the Orleans Arena.
Foley hasn’t said what he will call his new team, but the bid is run by a company named Black Knight Sports and Entertainment, the same name as his financial services company. Foley graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds and AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.