WHITEFISH, Montana — A thousand miles north of Las Vegas, the NHL’s newest owner, Bill Foley, sits in a conference room overlooking powder blue mountains. While many associate the Vegas Golden Knights with a flashy arena, glittery attractions and all the other temptations Vegas has to offer, this laid-back resort town — just one hour from the Canadian border — is Golden Knight territory, too. So, it turns out, is the rest of Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming — and even slivers of Arizona and California. That area comprises the authorized distribution area for Golden Knights television broadcasts.
“There’s no professional sports team that attacks that marketplace, that’s involved in that marketplace,” Foley says. “So we can be the team of the Rockies, the professional sports team of the Rockies.”
The Knights sent off a caravan this week to explore the fresh terrain and engage with newly-converted fans. During a pit stop, Foley spoke with ESPN in a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from ticket sales, to sharing the stage with the NFL’s Raiders to further NHL expansion.
ESPN.com: How do you plan to embrace the fun in Vegas?
Foley: Our game-day presentations are going to be really awesome. We’re going to start an hour and a half before the game because we want to make sure people can get there conveniently. Parking is always a problem in Las Vegas and we’re going to be bringing 17,000 people into one location. So we have all kinds of events planned pregame, during the game and postgame. A lot of it is going to be related to the Knight culture and the Golden Knights — who we are and what we’re all about. You’ll see Knights skating on the ice and doing all kinds of interesting things.
ESPN.com: How much are you willing to market to fans of the visiting teams that are coming in?
Foley: We’re focusing on our core fan base. The Detroit Red Wings fans, the Chicago Blackhawks fans — we welcome them to Las Vegas. If those fans want to buy tickets, they’re going to pay for them. Because we’ve already sold so many tickets, we’re going to be selling those tickets at premium values. They can come to Vegas and have a good time and enjoy themselves, then hopefully see their team lose.
ESPN.com: You recently told Forbes you were in the “top five, six or seven” in the league in terms of ticket revenue. That surprised a lot of people. Can you expand on that?
Foley: We had a budget of what we were trying to accomplish in terms of game-day revenue, and we believe we are in the top third of the league. We’ve basically sold out; we’re now selling single-game tickets at premium values. Every suite is sold. We’re maxed-out on season tickets. We can’t sell anymore. We’ve done well, really well. That probably does surprise people because when they think of Las Vegas, they think of the Strip. But what Vegas has been looking for the last 15, 20 years is an identity — an identity other than the Strip. We give the local residents an identity. We are the local team of Las Vegas: the Vegas Golden Knights.
ESPN.com: Speaking of Vegas sports teams … you had some interesting comments after the Raiders announced they were relocating from Oakland to Las Vegas. You were critical of the amount of taxpayer money spent [a record $750 million public subsidy will help finance the Raiders’ new $1.9 billion stadium, while Foley shelled out $500 million of his own money for a league expansion fee and then financed the Knights’ new arena without a public subsidy], but it also sounded like you wanted to be the only pro team in town. Has your attitude changed at all?
Foley: Hopefully I’m mature enough to understand that if I can’t control something or change it, get out of the way. I think it’s great that the Raiders are coming. I wouldn’t spend taxpayers’ money in the way it was spent, but the people in charge decided to spend it in that way. I hope the Raiders are successful. I don’t view them as competition for us. I felt like when they said they were coming that maybe it would affect our season ticket sales a bit or our sponsors, but it really hasn’t. We have a different base we’re marketing to.
ESPN.com: Do you have much contact with [Raiders owner] Mark Davis?
Foley: None. I have no contact with him. No.
ESPN.com: There’s a lot of talk about Seattle getting an NHL team. You’ve spent a lot of time in Seattle. Do you think that city would make a good market, and does it make sense for the league?
Foley: I think Seattle would be a terrific market. I am sure [NHL] commissioner [Gary] Bettman will be very careful about the next team to come in. He will want it to be just as successful as we are. Seattle needs an arena. If Seattle gets an arena, I am sure it will get a team.
That has always been the gating question for us with the league. They wanted to make sure they had strong ownership that could stand behind the team. They wanted an arena, a world-class arena, which we have. And they wanted demonstration that there was going to be a local fan base supporting the team. Because we’re nontraditional. But Seattle is really a more traditional hockey market.
ESPN.com: This isn’t specific to Seattle but, what advice would you give to a prospective bidder?
Foley: Patience [laughs]. Have a lot of patience. Understand that it’s a process, and it’s a long process, but if you can get through it, it’s a great experience.
ESPN.com: The relationship between gambling and pro sports is a hot topic. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been pretty progressive, calling legalized sports betting “inevitable” and saying the NBA will “ultimately participate.” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says he’s reviewing his league’s stance. As the owner of the first pro team in Vegas, I’d love to hear where you fall in the argument.
Foley: I think gambling is irrelevant to what we’re all about. You can’t gamble in the arena. When we have a game day, we go down on the sports books so you won’t be able to bet on the Golden Knights at some of the local casinos. It just isn’t a factor any longer. Honestly, there’s gambling all across the country — in Indian casinos, in Atlantic City, Detroit. So it’s really not relevant in our view. We’re just here to play hockey and win hockey games.
ESPN.com: As a rookie owner, how vocal do you expect to be at board of governors meetings when they’re discussing things like labor negotiations and league happenings?
Foley: I don’t expect to say anything. I went to my first board of governors meeting in June and I just voted yes.
ESPN.com: When do you think you’ll feel comfortable joining the conversation?
Foley: Give me a year or so. And still, it’s a very congenial group of individuals trying to do the same thing and work together. The league is really run by commissioner Bettman. He really is the guy. He drives the bus. I’m in the back of the bus.
ESPN.com: What is a win for you this year?
Foley: We don’t have high expectations for this year. We’re going to be competitive. If we’re going to lose a game, we’d like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six. We don’t want to be a walkover team. We want to be competitive, we want to be entertaining on the ice, we want to score some goals.
We have some really good players, but we’re not deep like a lot of teams are in terms of four lines of forwards and two or three lines of defensemen. But we got some really good players in the expansion draft. So we just need do well for a couple years, then make the playoffs in three years as we start transitioning in some of these younger guys — like Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch and Jake Bischoff. We’ll be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.
ESPN.com: What is the best investment you’ve ever made?
Foley: I think doing the leverage buyout of Fidelity National Financial back in 1985 or 1984, which has gone up 2,500 percent since we bought it. That’s probably the best. That’s how I could afford this team.