When the Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL in 2017, they had the tall task of being the first expansion team for any “Big Four” league in the social media era.
The last NHL expansion prior to Vegas was in 2000 when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the league, and the last “Big Four” expansion team before Vegas was the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA.
In just over a year, the Golden Knights set all sorts of precedents for modern-era expansion teams, both on and off the ice. Their success has set the bar astronomically high for future expansion teams across all sports.
Aside from the team’s storybook run to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season, the organization set a high standard for marketing and promotion. The Golden Knights quickly became a recognizable brand and also quickly became Vegas’ hometown team. A sports-savvy town that had never had a major professional sports team quickly became a rabid hockey city in the Mojave Desert.
With a potential Seattle expansion team on the horizon, the potential 32nd NHL franchise will perhaps have an even tougher task: following and improving upon what Vegas did.
That’s not to say Seattle should try to have Carrot Top, the Blue Man Group and Lil Jon at its games, but there are a number of things Seattle can learn from Vegas, as well as other modern-era expansion teams, in terms of how to build a hometown team.
Here are just a few things Seattle can do in the post-Vegas expansion era, ranging from the general to the specific:
Invest in Youth Hockey
The best way to start building a long-term fanbase is through investing in youth hockey at all levels. When kids learn the game and play the game, they’ll become fans for life. Even if kids don’t lace up skates three times per week or play on travel teams, getting them involved somehow, whether it’s through street hockey or roller hockey, is extremely important.
Despite not having many ice sheets, Vegas built a young hockey fanbase with a series of youth street hockey clinics called “Sticks for Kids.” Kids across Las Vegas could come out and try their hand at street hockey and get a free stick and ball to take home. Over two weekends, a total of 3,000 local kids came out to try hockey. That had to have helped drive youth ice hockey participation, especially when the team’s ice facility opened later in the year.
One advantage Seattle has in this regard is a well-established and sizeable youth hockey base that’s already in place. The state of Washington already has nearly 10,000 registered USA Hockey members, and that’s without an NHL team. That should provide the franchise a solid base to build upon.
Even with that, the new team could find a way to leave its footprint on the youth hockey scene. Whether it’s through sponsoring a youth hockey league/high school hockey, or running sticks clinics for kids to try the game, there’s a way to get involved. Street hockey, inline hockey and ice hockey are all still hockey. No matter what type of hockey it is, if kids are playing, they’re becoming fans.
The best example of long-term success is how the Nashville Predators have invested in high school hockey in Nashville. The city’s high school hockey league has been sponsored by the Predators and called G.N.A.S.H. That’s a simple way to get the franchise’s name out there and encourage even more kids to go out and play hockey
Investing in youth hockey is the most effective way to create new generations of fans and encourage the growth of hockey in general.
Build a Practice Facility/Community Ice Center
One of the most important ways to grow the game is to create a hub for the team and for the community, and there’s no better place to do that than a practice facility. Seattle already has the benefit of a considerable amount of ice sheets, but adding a new facility that is branded by the team and can double as a team facility and community space will do wonders.
Since its opening in the fall of 2017, Vegas’ City National Arena has served as a hub for ice hockey in the city. Fans come out to the facility in droves for Golden Knights practices, and the two ice sheets have helped youth hockey grow as well. The facility also serves as the home of UNLV’s robust club hockey program. The Golden Knights’ offices are located there, and there’s also a restaurant and team store. It’s a place to call home, and Seattle can create that with a new practice facility of its own.
Creating a hub for fans to enjoy the sport and the team is essential to making sure that Seattle’s team really is Seattle’s team.
Early on, the Golden Knights made it a goal to be the “Team of the Rockies.” They backed that up with a caravan tour throughout the region ahead of training camp.
Seattle has a golden opportunity to become the Team of the Pacific Northwest. The closest American NHL team geographically is the San Jose Sharks, so markets like Portland, Boise, Anchorage and Spokane can have a team to cheer for. The good news for the franchise is that all of those cities have hockey in some form, whether it’s WHL or ECHL. Some sort of outreach to areas like that early on could make a huge difference once the team hits the ice.
It’s vital for the new Seattle franchise to establish itself as Seattle’s hometown team, but it can also fill an NHL void in the entire region.
The more the club can get its players in front of fans, the better. That’s what made Vegas’ community events so successful. The team held a Fan Fest in Downtown Las Vegas during the season and a thank-you rally at the end of the season. Thousands of fans packed in to see their team and experience the event.
Fans will get invested in the franchise, but they can also get invested in its players. Those kinds of events can only benefit the franchise and make the team accessible to the fanbase.
Use a Ferry Horn as the Goal Horn and Nirvana as the Goal Song (Among other Local Amenities)
Okay, this one is pretty small in the grand scheme of things, but how cool would that be? A booming ferry horn goes off for every Seattle goal, followed by Kurt Cobain singing the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Objectively, that’s a great goal celebration. Goal horns and songs are perhaps the most crucial parts of game entertainment, so getting it right early on will be key. The ferry horn and Nirvana are both uniquely Seattle, and a goal celebration combining the two could be a simple way to engrain the franchise in the city.
It’s also a travesty that other NHL teams haven’t used Nirvana for a goal song.
Beyond just the goal song, the Seattle team has a great chance to make itself a hometown team. Other teams like Vegas and Nashville make their atmospheres unique with local flare. Vegas has had the Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil perform at intermission. Nashville has live music during intermission. Seattle can make Key Arena home with things like local coffee in-house, local brews like American Brewery’s Breakaway Ale and local food. Aside from the goal song, Pearl Jam and other famous Seattle bands should be blaring nonstop. There are plenty of ways to make home games feel exactly like home.
Bring the 12s to the Rink
Seattle has loud fans. Seahawks fans caused an actual earthquake during Marshawn Lynch’s famous Beast Quake playoff game. Sounders fans create a fantastic home field advantage. So, there’s no shortage of sports passion in the city.
Why should the redeveloped Key Arena be any different? The intimate space should be ripe for loud games and passionate fans. Tapping into some of the rowdiest and loudest fans in sports should make for an incredible home-ice advantage that should give the franchise a huge head start in creating a lasting fanbase and a successful team on the ice.