As Golden Knights Soar, Las Vegas Stakes Its Claim as a Sports Town
LAS VEGAS — Mary Kelly and her husband, Thomas Lindqvist, are the type of fans that sports executives in Las Vegas dream about.
When the N.H.L. released its schedule last summer, Kelly and Lindqvist saw that their beloved Pittsburgh Penguins would visit Las Vegas to play the expansion Golden Knights on a Thursday in mid-December.
Eager to see their team play in the newest N.H.L. city, Kelly, Lindqvist and a dozen friends planned a long weekend around the Penguins game. They booked rooms on the Strip, at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, and spent the weekend seeing the sights.
“We bought tickets as soon as they went on sale,” said Kelly, who has had Penguins season tickets with her husband for a decade. “We go to about one road game a year, to Chicago, Buffalo, New York, D.C.”
Before game time in Las Vegas, she looked across a plaza outside T-Mobile Arena, where many hundreds of Penguins fans were congregating, and said: “We did not expect to see this.”
It’s fair to say the owners of the Golden Knights, the N.H.L. and the city of Las Vegas did not expect that, either. By most measures, the hockey team’s inaugural season has been a smashing success — one the Raiders hope to duplicate when they move to the city from Oakland for the 2020 N.F.L. season.
With 41 wins and 87 points through Monday, the Golden Knights have been extending the record for most wins by an N.H.L. expansion team week after week. In first place in the Western Conference, they are the second-highest scoring team in the league and look poised for a playoff run.
A big reason for the Golden Knights’ success is their play at T-Mobile Arena, where they are 24-5-2. Through the first 31 home games, the team averaged17,969 fans, or 103.5 percent of the arena’s capacity, when including standing room tickets. All 44 luxury suites have been rented. The team sold its entire allotment of 12,500 season tickets, and Kerry Bubolz, the team president, told LVSportsBiz.com this month that about 2,500 fans had paid deposits to be part of the season-ticket waiting list.
Oscar Lindberg and the Golden Knights have the best record in the Western Conference and set a record for most wins by an N.H.L. expansion team. CreditL.E. Baskow/Associated Press
According to Fanatics, the largest online seller of licensed sports goods, the Golden Knights have ranked fourth in N.H.L. merchandise sales this season — and first since the start of 2018.
The fast start by the Golden Knights has, for now, allayed fears that the N.H.L.’s decision to put another team in a desert city would lead to financial trouble. (See: Coyotes, Arizona.) Commissioner Gary Bettman has for years pushed for new teams in the Sun Belt, with mixed success, and aiming for Las Vegas, in particular, seemed like an overreach.
It is the country’s 40th largest television market, best known as a destination for tourists and gamblers, and has a population heavy on retirees and service industry workers, who are unlikely candidates to spend thousands of dollars on season tickets. The city had little hockey tradition; it has hosted minor league teams but has few ice rinks or youth leagues.
But an influx of out-of-town fans has complemented the Golden Knights’ fast start on the ice and at the box office. This is good news for local hotels, restaurants and casinos, which host 43 million visitors a year, and for the team as it gets its bearings in the market.
Other N.H.L. teams in areas that attract transplanted retirees — like the Arizona Coyotes and the Florida Panthers — also tend to have strong crowds supporting the opposition. The Golden Knights, though, appear to have specifically designed their game nights like most things in their city: as tourist attractions.