#360USA: Bill Foley building his Vegas dreams on solid ground

Steve Brenner 09:44 28/12/2015
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It’s not a mirage: Bill Foley.

Ice hockey in the middle of the scorched desert. No, it’s not the start of a joke but the chiselled pipedream of a billionaire wine enthusiast which is inching ever closer to realisation.

Las Vegas has long yearned for a professional sporting franchise.The NFL and MLS have been previous targets with nothing getting over the finishing line.

Yet businessman Bill Foley is steadfastly looking to change all that. A friend of the legendary Wayne Gretzky (below), Foley wants to bring the NHL to the searing heat of Las Vegas.

This however is no knee-jerk ignition of a wild dream.

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The plans have been in motion for over a year and continue apace – even though League bosses are yet to make a finite decision.

The NHL last saw its numbers increase in 2000 to 30. With Quebec also interested, there’s the potential of two more. A possibility neither will be chosen also looms.

Foley has already put down deposits of $10 million each, $2m of which is non-refundable. The total cost for a new franchise cost is a cool $500m.

With no team in the Pacific Northwest, a bid from Seattle, dependent on building a new arena, has also been rumoured though the NHL aren’t welcoming any further expansion plans.

The start of the 2017 season has been earmarked, while a decision is expected in the New Year.

But Foley can’t sit around waiting. A new $350m, multi-purpose 17,500 capacity arena on the strip will be completed in April and will be ready for ice hockey.

Naturally, there are reservations over the suitability of Las Vegas as the destination for top-level professional sport.

Doubts about the size of the population and any potential corruption sparked by the gambling culture continue to worry some involved in the discussions.

There are over two million people living in the area, yet many of the residents work all manner of hours and shifts in the casinos which poses the understandable question: When will these people have time to attend a match?

Furthermore, Las Vegas is one city where entertainment is never hard to find. David Copperfield will be making someone disappear right around the corner from where Barry Manilow is crooning his heart out.

There are options aplenty.

No matter, the popularity question was answered emphatically  – an impressive 13,500 fans have already placed deposits for season tickets while sales of plush suites have gone through the roof.

And with sports betting on the upsurge following the explosion of fantasy sports sites like Draft Kings, pairing an NHL team and Las Vegas appears like a match made in moneymaking heaven.

More plans are afoot.

A brand new training facility, which could cost upwards of $30m, is also in the works and will be funded privately to avoid any public outrages over funding , the likes of which have put numerous spanners in the works for David Beckham in Miami.

Also, a push for MLS was derailed last year because of plans to  use local money.

This move for NHL however is deep rooted and terrifically thought out. A vibrant youth development programme in the Las Vegas area has also been set-up.

It’s an extraordinary amount of planning for something which could never happen. Foley, however, will push on regardless.

“Nothing would start until a team is awarded, but we want to be ready,” he said. “There’s no hard timeline for this. I think we should know something definitive soon.

“We’ve had a few people ask for their money back but we’re still accepting deposits. The other day, we had four people cancel and eight people put down deposits, so that was a positive.”

Las Vegas ice hockey fans should be eternally thankful for the depth of Foley’s pockets.

The Texas native made his considerable fortune from mortgage insurance  – he is still chairman of his company, Fidelity National 
Financial – yet his thirst for life and sport has seen him take a back seat.

A keen golfer, Foley has immersed himself in the wine industry and hasn’t wasted a moment drinking in all the success which has followed.

Millions has been spent renovating 14 vineyards in California and New Zealand.

Gretzky’s own label is part of his portfolio. A friendship has ensued in the process.

“We’re grateful for the fans interest, but we’re going through a process,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said earlier this month.

“We have what we need from the applicants. It’s a business decision and it’s being treated in a business like fashion.”

Foley’s sterling efforts deserve as much.

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