The Vegas Golden Knights 2018 Success Has Kick Started A New Era In Sports Business

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While technically not the first expansion team to reach the NHL playoffs, the Golden Knights are the first team to do so in the modern NHL expansion era, which began in 1991.  At 7/1 odds to win the oldest trophy in sports, their casino neighbors have also made them one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup–definitely a first. As a result, demand for Vegas Golden Knights playoff tickets are amongst the highest in the NHL. Having filled T-Mobile arena at 103% during the regular season, it’s been this way since October since #VegasBorn was born. Whether the Knights are still playing in the June desert heat, it’s a good bet that the gambling-friendly Knights uncovered a new model for driving demand to live sporting events.

Prior to the Knights, the NHL’s effort to bring hockey to the desert been hasn’t been the most successful. Now in their 21st year, the Arizona Coyotes moved from Winnipeg to Arizona in 1996, and have won a total of 11 playoff games in that time. That’s a pace of less than one playoff win each year of existence, well under the Knight’s current pace.  As a result, the ‘Yotes’ filled their Gila River Arena at a depressing 76% of capacity – one spot ahead of the league-worst Carolina Hurricanes.

While VGK’s 100%-plus attendance has been driven by several factors, it’s proximity to and acceptance of gambling may be the thing that other team owners notice most. Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards, may be most interested for reasons I detailed in a Techcrunch article last year.

In an excellent article from late last month, Darren Rovell frames Leonsis as purveyor of a future gambling-infused game-day experience, where betting is as much a part of the appeal as beer and dogs. Time will tell how much of his vision is imagination versus real.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s pending decision on ‘Christie Vs. NFL’ will have a lot to say about who can do what, when. While parties are typically at odds in a lawsuit, this case on the potential repeal the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992  (PASPA) has everyone aligned around the benefit of gambling to the bottom line, for both teams and state.

If PASPA is struck down, as is widely expected, Christie has said that New Jersey could go live with sports gambling ahead of the 2018 NFL season, at Monmouth race track. With at least four professional sports teams in the Garden state, and Leonsis just 200 miles down  I-95, the NJ-DC-PA corridor could become a hotbed of live sports gambling innovation. Depending on how it plays out, it could the first meaningful response to television that live sports have had in the 25-year battle against the couch.

The last time an expansion team qualified for the playoffs in 1979-1980, Wayne Gretzky was the NHL’s rising star. While the Oilers lost their first series that year to the Flyers, they would win enough of them to collect five Stanley Cups in the next decade. The Oilers also gave the NHL a bonafide mass-media star that would set the foundation for the league’s current $2 billion TV deal with NBC.

Amidst the current wave of inward-facing nationalism, the time for gambling-driven growth model appears nigh. Unlike the internationally-driven expansion efforts that have stretched out the NFL, NBA, and MLB to London, Mexico, and China, gambling-driven expansion will keep people close to home. More importantly, it will keep people close to their phones and the apps that will power a gambling-infused game day going at a piece of the $100 billion legal gambling marketplace.  

After a five-year rebuild, the Devils of New Jersey are back in the playoffs for the first time since Martin Brodeur retired with three Stanley Cups of his own. For their first-round games at the Prudential Center in 2018, the average price for a ticket is $242 which makes it the fifth cheapest first-round home series on the secondary ticket market, and $200 less than the Vegas Golden Knights.

If sports gambling is legal New Jersey next season, a Sportsbook at the Prudential center could take bets on games around the country and world, including the main live event, the Devils. For a marquee game like their first-round game, demand might be double current prices, drawing in demand from dollars that previously would have been lost to a Casino.  

For the Devils, the NHL and every other league, what’s most exciting – and as a long-time sports fan, slightly unsettling – is that they may not care who’s actually playing.