LAS VEGAS >> Mary Kelly and her husband, Thomas Lindqvist, are the type of fans that sports executives in Las Vegas dream about.
When the NHL 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 NHL 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 NHL 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 NFL season.
At the end of February, the team had 41 wins and 87 points. The Golden Knights have been extending the record for most wins by an NHL 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. Through the first 31 home games, the team averaged 17,969 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.
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 NHL 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.
While hockey is certainly the central focus of game nights, the Knights have added a medieval motif, sometimes comically. The Zambonis that drive on the ice have jousts mounted on their sides to simulate a duel. The arena includes a 24-foot knight’s helmet and three castle structures, including one for cheerleaders with pompoms. Catapults are used to launch T-shirts into the crowd.
“We wanted to focus on Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world,” Bubolz said.
The Golden Knights’ success is an encouraging sign for the NFL, which last year approved the Raiders’ plan to relocate to Nevada. (The San Antonio Stars of the WNBA moved to Las Vegas in the offseason, and will begin play as the Las Vegas Aces in May.)
But the definition of success will be far different. While the Knights play in a privately built arena, Nevada promised to use $750 million in hotel taxes to help pay for a new, domed stadium for the Raiders. The bonanza of public money persuaded the league’s owners to let the team move, and melted the NFL’s long-running objections to playing in Las Vegas — based on the presence of sports gambling.
The Raiders hope to double down on the Knights’ success at drawing out-of-town visitors. In most NFL markets, roughly 5 percent of fans at a typical game are from out of town. Yet according to the Raiders’ projections, about half the fans at the 10 Raiders home games will come from outside Las Vegas, including many from neighboring California.
“As far back as a decade, we all believed teams would travel very well to Las Vegas,” said Bill Hornbuckle, the president of MGM Resorts International and a member of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, which has negotiated specifics of the stadium deal with the Raiders.
Sporting events in Las Vegas, he added, “make what is normally a three-hour experience into a three-day experience.”