How The Outsiders Brought Las Vegas’ First Major League Team To Life

By ALAN SNEL

 

They say Las Vegas with its 2 million people is still a small town.

 

Indeed, it feels small because there’s only a few people who run the place.

 

You have bigger-than-life billionaire casino moguls Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.

 

You have Rossi Ralenkotter and his public tourism agency, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which is poised to spend $448 million of your public dollars promoting the place in fiscal 2018.

 

And you have Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts International, the biggest hotel owner on the Strip employing the most people in town.

 

But when Las Vegas’ first major league pro team played its maiden home game Tuesday night before a packed house, nobody at T-Mobile Arena was chanting Adelson, Wynn, Murren or Fertitta.

 

Near the end of the Vegas Golden Knights’ historic inaugural game on regular-season home ice, the chant was heard, “Thank you Foley.”

 

Yes, they chanted the name of William P. Foley II just before the Golden Knights completed their 5-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes, the team’s third consecutive win to start the 2017-18 NHL season.

 

@LVSportsBiz.com took this exclusive photo of Bill Foley when the Golden Knights jersey and other NHL jerseys were unveiled four months ago.

 

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Las Vegas knows him as Bill Foley, the 72-year-old casual billionaire who, on Feb. 10, 2015, officially kick-started a ticket deposit drive in Las Vegas with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s blessing to show the National Hockey League that Las Vegas was worthy of its first major league team.

 

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman chat in February 2015 before the ticket deposit campaign officially started.

 

Foley is an interesting dude, a fourth-generation Texan from Austin and a 1967 West Point graduate who told me once that he was a “goof-off” in high school with good grades who liked sports.

 

Despite his U.S. Military Academy at West Point pedigree, there’s nothing overtly militaristic about the white-haired Foley. He loves his wineries in California and his summer weather in Montana. He looks more comfortable in blue jeans than a blue suit. The truth is Foley’s general manager at the Golden Knights, square-jawed, even-keeled George McPhee, looks more West Point than Foley, the USMA graduate.

 

Yet, the man who made his millions in the property title insurance business with his Fidelity National Financial (the country’s largest title insurance company) and who now lives in Summerlin insisted  the name of his NHL team have a West Point connection. He couldn’t get Black Knights, the name of West Point’s sports teams, so Foley figured Golden Knights would be close enough.

 

Foley’s team stores — the Armory at T-Mobile Arena and the Arsenal at City National Arena (the team’s Summerlin-based training center and headquarters) — also have Army-like names.

 

The Armory, the Golden Knights team store at T-Mobile Arena, has an Army-sounding name to it.

 

Foley owns the vast majority of Golden Knights, with the happy-go-lucky Maloof brothers owning 15 percent of the team. The fun-loving Joe, Gavin, George and Phil Maloof might seem like an Odd Couple along Foley the West Pointer. But the Maloofs’ early marketing efforts helped recruit hundreds of ticket deposits two years ago.

 

The combo worked. In the end, it was neither Adelson nor Fertitta who delivered the town’s first big league team. (Though Adelson’s political clout  delivered a $750 million stadium subsidy to attract the Raiders to Las Vegas for a 2020 NFL arrival and Fertitta’s UFC was the big leagues of MMA). It was the Foley-Maloof team that brought Las Vegas its first major league franchise.

 

He had no choice to go outside Las Vegas for his first general manager. No surprise there. Foley hired a NHL veteran as GM — the 59-year-old McPhee worked as GM for the Washington Capitals from 1997-2014. And Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant is the former Florida Panthers coach.

 

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What’s fascinating about the franchise’s business structure is that the team’s execs — like Foley — are also not local. They, too, are relative newcomers to Las Vegas.

 

Foley hired Kerry Bubolz as team president after Bubolz served as president of business operations for the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers. The 51-year-old Bubolz left Cleveland for Las Vegas after the Cavs won the NBA title in 2016.

 

Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz hired many outsiders to the team’s front office.

 

Bubolz hired sports entertainment veteran Jonny Greco as the Golden Knights’ vice president of events and entertainment in April. Bubolz knew Greco from Cleveland where Greco worked as the Cavaliers’ video production director from 2004-11. Greco also worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the MLB Marlins and the WWE.

 

It’s interesting that in a city filled with entertainment managers and producers, Bubolz went outside for the hiring of Greco, who received high grades for Tuesday night’s emotional pre-game tribute to the survivors, victims and first responders from the devastating Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip.

 

Golden Knights entertainment chief Jonny Greco has major league basketball, baseball and football experience to go with his WWE past.

 

The team’s initial chief marketing officer was a Las Vegas guy with experience working for both Adelson and Wynn. But former CMO Nehme Abouzeid left the Golden Knights in July after nine months and was replaced by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Chief Marketing Officer Brian Killingsworth.

 

Former Chief Marketing Officer Nehme Abouzeid, who left in July, was the only front office exec hired from the Strip. He made a classy move this week when he used social media to congratulate the Golden Knights on their launch.

 

Killingsworth also had a decade of experience working at the Tampa Bay Rays, where he served as senior director of marketing and promotions. In between his stints with the Rays and Buccaneers, Killingsworth was vice president of marketing and brand strategy for the NFL Rams when the team played in St. Louis. The Killingsworth hire also was an intriguing addition when you consider the Las Vegas market has a long list of talented marketers — but not many with major league sports experience.

 

Chief Marketing Officer Brian Killingsworth, pictured here before Tuesday’s home-opener, brings a wealth of experience from the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 

When Killingsworth joined the Golden Knights in late July, he reunited with another key VGK front office man from Tampa — Jim Frevola, senior vice president and chief sales officer hired in March. Killingsworth and Frevola are colleagues who worked together at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Frevola was the Bucs’ former chief partnership officer.

 

The difference is that Frevola knew Las Vegas from working three years with UFC as its vice president for marketing partnerships from 2011-14. Frevola is charged with selling ads on the Golden Knights’ digital, TV and radio platforms.

 

The experience of working in major league sports in a high-growth sunbelt market such as Tampa Bay should serve Killingsworth and Frevola well. Both know that fans can be fickle in these types of markets, where many residents have emotional allegiances to other teams.

 

In a town dominated by PR consultants and agencies, the Golden Knights went far outside the Las Vegas market to name Eric Tosi as the team’s vice president of communications and content in December. Tosi had served as the Boston Bruins’ communications director.

 

Tosi was re-united with another Bostonian in August when former Bruins play-by-play voice Dave Goucher was named as the Golden Knights’ TV play-by-play broadcaster. And the Golden Knights also hired Dan D’Uva for radio play-by-play duty after D’Uva did play-by-play for the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch.

 

The Golden Knights also went outside for the Golden Knights “Insider” job when it hired Gary Lawless, a veteran Winnipeg sports journalist, as the team’s lead on-camera reporter in May.

 

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Back in early 2015 I wrote the first business stories for the local newspaper on Foley’s quest to launch a major league team in Las Vegas.

 

I saw Foley give talks to hockey fans in bars, imploring them to send checks for season ticket deposits. Meanwhile, Joe and Gavin Maloof hit the campaign trail, too, like visiting the Black Hawks bar on Blue Diamond Road to recruit locals to buy into Las Vegas’ first major league team.

 

These days, Foley doesn’t return my emails or texts like he used to when he was on the season ticket deposit trail two years ago.

 

Now I have to settle for a quip if I bump into Foley on the media elevator.

 

That’s OK.

 

I’ll let Foley chat with ESPN.

 

He’s in the big leagues now — and so is Las Vegas.

 

 

LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel can be reached at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com

Alan Snel

Alan Snel brings decades of sports-business reporting experience to LVSportsBiz.com.

Snel covered the business side of sports for the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal. As a city hall beat reporter, Snel also covered stadium deals in Denver and Seattle.

In 2000, Snel launched a sport-business website for FoxSports.com called FoxSportsBiz.com.

After reporting sports-business for the RJ, Snel wrote hard-hitting stories on the Raiders stadium for the Desert Companion magazine in Las Vegas and The Nevada Independent.

Snel is also one of the top bicycle advocates in the country.

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