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What do the 2018 Las Vegas Golden Knights tell us about sports fandom?

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What can we learn from the most fascinating story for sports fans in years?

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Fans mass outside Game One of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena, May 28, 2018.
Fans mass outside Game One of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena, May 28, 2018.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last night, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, an NHL franchise that has existed for 454 days, won Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals in absolutely thrilling fashion topping the Washington Capitals 6-4 in a back-and-forth exhibition of everything that is entertaining about the sport and compelling about having a hockey team in Las Vegas.

A hockey team in Las Vegas.

A HOCKEY TEAM IN LAS VEGAS.

The concept is still ridiculous. Game 2 is scheduled for tomorrow. The high in Vegas is estimated to be 99°.

A hockey team in Las Vegas.

Reminder: the other site that was in play for an expansion team in the final two candidacies along with Las Vegas was Quebec City, the home of the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques from 1979-1995 before they relocated to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche who would be purchased by Los Angeles Rams Owner Stan Kroenke in July 2000. Time is a flat circle, man.

The idea, of course, was ridiculous. 538’s Nate Silver called it a horrible idea to put a hockey team in Vegas. The Las Vegas Sun’s Chris Kudialis wondered if hockey could survive in the desert. Last night provided the most obvious answer in the most sincere way with famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer providing the starting lineups and audiences treated to a pre-game spectacle that was one part Cirque du Soleil, one part Absinthe, all parts Vegas.

The experiment has worked. But how much of the success of the experiment is simply down to the wins, to the postseason run?

The story of the 2018 Las Vegas Golden Knights is perfect one. It’s a story of how a cemetery worker, a personal injury lawyer, and a retired couple fell in love with their team. It’s a story of how the Knights filled a hole in Las Vegans’ hearts by putting professional sports in the United States’ 28th-biggest city and 28th-biggest market. But it’s also a story of the the best expansion team in North American sports history. It’s the story of an expansion team that the NFL has never had.

So what does it mean for the NFL and for Rams fans as we look across a league with the Oakland Raiders set to move to, of all places, Vegas?

The Rams have a story of their own that obviously isn’t an expansion story. It’s a relocation story, one of moving from Cleveland to LA in 1946, planting roots before leaving to St. Louis in 1995 and then coming back in 2016. That return story doesn’t line up with the Knights, and it’s too complex to pin it on a single factor.

The Rams’ 4-12 season in 2016, their first in LA, sure as hell didn’t help. The sheer quantity of entertainment options in LA doesn’t either, though it’s not as if Las Vegas is [insert boring city of your choice here]. The LA Times’ Bill Plaschke watered down the return of NFL football to LA in the immediate aftermath of the vote to relocate the Rams. A legends game was cancelled in August due to low interest. And despite impressive turnout early on in 2016 training camp, Los Angeles watched the Rams on TV less after the move. And then the pictures of a half-filled (and I’m being nice) stadium...the pictures...(the data) and the pictures...

The Rams didn’t have a first season back in LA like the Knights have had in Vegas. Last year was obviously a refreshing turnaround. And maybe it is just about results. The atmosphere at the playoff game in January prior to the game and while it was going on was incredible. There’s no doubt about what’s possible. I guess for me, the Golden Knights’ season, and the popularity it has produced makes me wonder what the landscape looks like for fans across sports at this point.

The Rams have one of the smaller fan bases thanks to a quarter century in one of the league’s smaller markets, a 13-year run without any winning football from 2004-2016 and a relocation to a market that hadn’t had NFL football for more than two decades. The San Francisco 49ers, on the other hand, enjoy one of the biggest fan bases. And this was the setting for the second half of Week 1 last season:

There’s something growing about the avoidability of sports in modicum. As a whole, yes, NFL ratings are down while NBA ratings are up and we can (and should) have that discussion. Just not here. Here, I’m talking about the hyperlocal interests of fandom and the growth of disinterest. Week 15 was a stark piece of evidence of this. The Cleveland Browns played to a, um, less than full stadium against the Baltimore Ravens. The New York Giants weren’t filling seats either hosting the NFC-leading eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. There were available seats to see the Washington Redskins play the Arizona Cardinals. Even the Carolina Panthers in the midst of a playoff push against the Green Bay Packers had a noticeable quantity of empty seats.

That’s what makes the Golden Knights’ popularity so fascinating. In an era where ratings and attendance are being heavily affected by online streaming, underlying economics and the sheer wealth of options we have for entertainment in 2018, the Las Vegas Golden Knights showed up and delivered a storybook season that could end up as a miracle entrance with a Stanley Cup win.

And maybe that’s the price of admission for teams in modern American sports.