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Keith Strudler: Winning In Vegas

I spent my early years in the 1970’s in Clearwater, Florida, a suburb or Tampa. At that point, the Bay Area was emerging as major metropolitan, going beyond its reputation as a nice place for mid-westerners to avoid the extravagance of the Florida Gold Coast. Which is how in 1976, Tampa was awarded its first major professional sports franchise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an NFL expansion team that came to the League the same year as the Seattle Seahawks. As an emerging sports fanatic, I fell hard for the Bucs. Which was a shame because, to be clear, they were awful. As in 0-14 the first season and perhaps the worst professional sports franchise of all time awful. They went 0-12 their second season before winning the final two games of the year, including a season ending first ever home win against the then St. Louis Cardinals. I know because I was actually at that game as a seven-year-old, and I still consider it one of the most exciting moments of my life.

The Buccaneers eventually got better – first briefly in 1980, when they played in the NFC Championship Game – and after years of futility, winning the Super Bowl in 2003. It took the team just shy of 30 years to win its first and only title, which, considering where they started and the number of teams in the league, seems about right. The fact is, expansion sports teams pretty much always stink, for a long and obvious list of reasons. They’re usually built through what’s called an “expansion draft,” where a new club gets to pick from the least valuable players on other teams. It’s kind of like the all-star game in reverse. Beyond a weak roster, expansion teams typically lack chemistry, leadership, and a whole host of intangibles that make a collective more valuable than the sum of its parts. Pretty much every major professional expansion sports team in history has started off poorly. And throughout history, many have languished in the cellar until either free agency or a fortuitous player draft allows them a pathway to success – like say the Orlando Magic of the mid-90’s, who advanced to the NBA finals six years in after drafting mega-star Shaquille O’Neal. But generally speaking, fans of expansion teams need to temper their excitement with a healthy dose of patience.

Unless, of course, you live in Las Vegas, where instant gratification is something of a town creed. Vegas sports fans last year welcomed their first ever professional sports franchise, the NHL Vegas Golden Knights. And in this, their first ever season of professional hockey, the Knights are doing the unimaginable. They aren’t just salvageable, or decent, or winning more than they lose, which in itself would be a gold standard. They didn’t just make the playoffs or even win a playoff series. The Las Vegas Golden Knights are literally three wins away from winning the vaunted Stanley Cup, after taking Game One of their best of seven finals series against the Washington Capitals. So a team that didn’t have a roster until last June in a city that’s never had a pro sports team before where ice is typically only found in cocktails now might become the best pro hockey team in the world.

Now, if you want to actually be logical, there are some explanations for why Vegas might have exceeded standard expectations. For starters, the expansion draft rules were more generous than past incarnations, meaning existing teams could only protect a smaller number of players which left more quality exposed. And in a salary cap driven sports world, talent is inherently distributed more readily. And of course, of all the major professional sports, hockey is the one that’s least dependent on a small number of super stars, like the NBA, where you can only win by acquiring a core group of future hall-of-famers.

But logic aside, the Golden Knights’ dramatic ascent is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and I’m being generous, since it’s never actually happened before. It’s like joining the Rolling Stones after your first guitar lesson. Or winning homecoming queen the day after you transferred into the school. Or being named CEO after you finished the onboarding process. These things just don’t happen, just like expansion sports teams don’t win championships.

So whether you’re a Vegas fan or even a hockey fan, appreciate this moment for what it is. Perhaps the only down side, for Vegas fans, is that it’s come just way too easy. That they won’t appreciate the price of victory. Or as sports fans might say, they didn’t earn it through years of angst and suffering. Just ask Red Sox and Cubs fans about that. Or ask me. Remember, I was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan back when being an expansion team still meant something.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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