By ALAN SNEL
The Vegas Golden Knights left Sin City Monday on a four-game road trip for an excursion that will take the Western Conference leaders through four non-traditional sunbelt hockey markets. It’s an excursion that will give Golden Knights officials a chance to study how these southern fast-growth markets sold (and continually to sell) their teams to many fans who are transplants with emotional ties to other NHL clubs.
Tonight, it’s a match with the Nashville Predators, a fellow Western Conference team and the defending conference champs in a market that many people liken to the Las Vegas area, another entertainment-driven industry market.
Nashville is Music City with the Smashville hockey nickname and passionate crowds that Predators President Sean Henry said were like those at T-Mobile Arena when he visited Las Vegas for a Knights-Preds game two weeks ago.
Then, the first-year Golden Knights head to Florida and North Carolina for three games — re-matches with the Lightning in Tampa Thursday, the Panthers in South Florida (Sunrise, Fla.) Friday and the Hurricanes in Raleigh, NC Sunday.
All three teams have enjoyed some success in the South.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, while the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup two years later in 2006.
The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 when they lost in the Finals to the Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning is doing well with strong team ownership led by Jeff Vinik, who is also redeveloping the area around the Lightning’s home arena.
Steven Stamkos has been one of the Lightning leaders for years. Here’s a photo from December 2010 when I lived in Tampa.
The Lightning is sixth in the NHL in attendance, averaging 19,092 fans per game after 22 home games –good for filling its arena at 100 percent of capacity. (An interesting connection between the Lightning and Predators is Henry, the Preds’ president, who used to be the chief operating officer of the Lightning when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004. Check out an October 2008 story I wrote on Henry leaving the Lightning for the Predators job.) )
The Lightning is a fascinating sports brand in a southern market because its profile locally in the Tampa Bay area is arguably higher and more popular than the NFL Buccaneers in Tampa and MLB’s Rays in St. Petersburg.
The Lightning has the number one record in the NHL and is known for its civic presence and community donations. Owner Vinik is also one of the top owners in the NHL, infusing new life into the team after an unsuccessful previous ownership group struggled after Bill Davidson sold the team. Vinik bought the Lightning for $170 million from Hollywood producer Oren Koules (known for his horror movie franchise, Saw) and former NHL player Len Barrie in 2010 after the Koules-Barrie tandem struggled mightily in the front office.
When the Lightning visited the Golden Knights Dec. 19, resulting in a dramatic VGK 4-3 win with the tie-breaking goal happening with two seconds left, LVSportsBiz.com published an NHL owner story highlighting Vinik and Golden Knights owner Bill Foley.
But the Panthers and Hurricanes are struggling at the box office.
Florida and Carolina rank 28th and 30th respectively in home attendance out of 31 NHL teams, averaging 13,305 and 12,817 fans per game after 20 home games each. Carolina is also filling its arena at 68.6 percent of capacity, the lowest capacity percentage in the NHL. Florida’s attendance capacity has been 78.1 percent, fourth from the bottom in the NHL.
LVSportsBiz.com will have writers in Tampa and Raleigh to file stories on those games and markets. Look for that coverage later this week.
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