Las Vegas is back in the national pro sports headlines. This time, it’s about the National Hockey League expanding to the valley.
“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon used talk of the NHL move in a recent bit on pros and cons of major-league hockey in Las Vegas: “Pro: Buying a souvenir jersey. Con: Because you lost your shirt at the casino.”
Even veteran South Point bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said the NHL is the huge favorite as the first major sports league to launch a franchise in Las Vegas. He joked the over/under for timing is 2017.
Las Vegans have heard it all before. One time, it was the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz sniffing around Las Vegas for a potential move. Even Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics kicked Las Vegas’ tires. Former Mayor Oscar Goodman, during his 12-year tenure, lobbied for a subsidized sports venue as a way to attract the big leagues.
But this time, it’s more tangible, though not because a franchise is involved. Concrete is in the ground for a new $375 million arena behind New York-New York. The MGM Resorts International-Anschutz Entertainment Group partnership, which is building the 20,000-seat Strip venue, plans a spring 2016 opening.
The palatial arena, packed with luxury suites and many outdoor balconies, is privately financed, avoiding the political drama that comes with public subsidies typically needed to bait major-league teams to a market.
That’s because Las Vegas, with 40 million visitors, 2 million residents, myriad big-time sports events but zero big-league teams, is unique among American cities. Where the tried-and-true major-league playbook calls for teams to shake down local governments for an arena or stadium subsidy, Las Vegas and Clark County show little interest in doing so.
Anti-subsidy advocates argue that stadium/arena deals fleece taxpayers. They point to one of the most notorious deals — $490 million in public dollars borrowed to help pay for a $640 million Miami Marlins ballpark. It helped get former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez recalled in 2011.
WE LOVE SPORTS …
Some cities and counties help pay for stadiums and arenas because they deem major-league teams essential to community identity (Cleveland or Denver). In some, city leaders think the fastest way to become a big-league town is to have a big-league team (Tampa, Fla.).
Not Las Vegas, which has a strong identity as a world entertainment capital and is already a major sports market in its own way, with big-time sports such as the hometown Ultimate Fighting Championship and annual NASCAR, Professional Golfers’ Association, National Finals Rodeo and boxing events that don’t center on a specific franchise.
“The fact that we do not have a full-time professional team, but we are able to create and host some very high-profile sporting events, puts us in a unique category,” said Mike Newcomb, executive director of the Thomas Mack Center/Sam Boyd Stadium.
True, the city of Las Vegas is following the conventional stadium subsidy route to attract a big-league soccer team. But it has run into resistance, and it’s unclear whether the City Council will approve a subsidy deal.
When Mayor Carolyn Goodman led a Las Vegas contingent to pitch Las Vegas to Major League Soccer officials this month, she couldn’t offer an approved plan to pay for the arena she wants to build in Symphony Park.
The City Council, which has balked at previous subsidy proposals, is expected to discuss the matter again Monday, but it’s unlikely to finalize a deal then. That means when the MLS Board of Governors on Saturday discusses expanding to either Las Vegas, Sacramento, Calif., or Minneapolis for a final slot, 19 team representatives won’t know what Las Vegas is offering as a stadium deal.
Getting locals to spring for any sports venue is tough.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas until recently was planning to tap public money for a new on-campus stadium. But, after months of discussion, acting President Don Snyder backed off, saying a proposed 50,000-seat, $523 million stadium near the Thomas Mack Center was eclipsed by other money needs, such as a new UNLV medical school. He punted the project to the Legislature in 2017.
… BUT THERE ARE OTHER DISTRACTIONS.
None of this means Las Vegas is not a sports town. It’s just a different kind of sports town, one known more for world-class sports spectacles than the games of a local team each week.
“There simply is no place else like Las Vegas,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter said. “Given our unique ability to host millions of people and provide an unparalleled customer experience matched with the strength of Las Vegas’ globally recognized brand, we have more sports and special events in one month than some U.S. cities have all year.
“We are a major sports city today with a listing of sporting events other cities envy,” Ralenkotter added, “including a variety of championship events held at venues all over the valley.”
The Las Vegas entertainment market is so strong that the MGM-AEG arena doesn’t need an NBA or NHL team to pay the bills. AEG, a major sports and entertainment company based in Los Angeles, can tap concert tours visiting its arenas around the country for programming at its new Las Vegas venue.
When MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren spoke at the arena’s groundbreaking in May, he talked of entertainment — not a team.
“It’s a big day for Las Vegas. It’s a big day for Nevada. It’s a big day for entertainment … We need to create the experience tourists are so yearning for,” Murren said.
Later, Murren said MGM Resorts “will make money without any resident sports team.”
An MGM Resorts-AEG-style strategy is at play at a $690 million arena planed for a 27-acre site next to SLS Las Vegas on the Strip’s north end. Las Vegas businessman Jackie Robinson, a former UNLV and NBA basketball player, plans to build with no local public investment, and aims to open in early 2017 without a team as a tenant.
Robinson has hired Philadelphia-based Comcast-Spectacor to schedule events and manage the 22,000-seat retractable-roof arena. He doesn’t rule out landing a sports team, but envisions brisk business in concerts and other events.
WE’RE HARD TO IMPRESS …
Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of RR Partners, the Las Vegas-based agency that creates the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s ad campaigns, said the Las Vegas market has resisted underwriting sports venues for two main reasons.
First, he said, requests for stadium money could not compete against needs of schools, police and road infrastructure — something UNLV’s Snyder knows firsthand.
“(Elected officials) are not going to underwrite it because there are so many asks,” Vassiliadis said.
Snyder put it this way when delaying the university’s stadium project: “The medical school is the top priority. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to also know there are other demands in the community like schools and police officers.”
The second factor, Vassiliadis said, is that valley residents have grown skeptical after years of hearing from fast-talking characters pitching stadium deals. “Snake-oil salesmen” was the term he used.
Case in point: Texas developer Chris Milam, who pitched a four-stadium complex to Henderson in 2012. The city eventually sued Milam after he advertised the proposed stadium site near the M Resort to private homebuilders. Under his settlement with Henderson in 2013, Milam agreed to never do business in the city again.
Then, there’s Las Vegas’ deep bench of entertainment options, which have been growing with more nightclubs, high-profile disc jockeys, outdoor event sites and music festivals.
In some cities, big-league sports teams dominate entertainment options. But in Las Vegas, a major-league team would have a lot of competition for leisure time and money.
“While sports welfare advocates note we are the largest market without major pro sports (NFL, NBA, NHL),” Las Vegas Councilman Bob Beers said, “we are also the only market where Elton John, Celine Dion and Kiss perform extended residencies, where every night the Blue Man Group and all those Cirque (du Soleil) shows perform.
“We are already the entertainment capital of the world, and not very many of us bemoan not having enough entertaining things to do,” Beers added. “That lack of boredom and misery is reflected in what citizens ask of our elected politicians.”
If Las Vegas ever gets a major-league team, Vassiliadis suggests the franchise market itself just like the other major entertainment shows.
“People know how to sell tickets in this town. They know how to sell packages,” he said. “It’s got to be a show. It can’t be just a basketball game. It has to be entertaining. The arena itself has to offer something special. The video boards have to be spectacular.”
… BUT THEY STILL WANT US
Although the Las Vegas market is less likely than most to pay for play, it still intrigues sports leagues. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly recently visited the MGM-AEG arena site while in town for a sports lawyers conference and checked out suite mock-ups.
Daly did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but this month he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The demographics of the (Las Vegas) market are pretty good in terms of average annual income. Las Vegas natives earn good salaries, good livings. I think they genuinely like sports.”
The NBA isn’t planning a Las Vegas expansion, but Commissioner Adam Silver likes having the annual NBA Summer League here and could see bringing back the All-Star Game and staging an “NBA Vegas” weekend where teams would play neutral-site games that would count in the standings.
Plus, Silver’s recent comments in favor of legal, regulated sports betting could help Las Vegas — long said to be anathema to pro sports because people gamble here — land an NBA team.
“The laws on sports betting should be changed,” Silver wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed article. “Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.”
And the NHL, NBA and MLS are well aware of those oft-repeated and tantalizing numbers — 2 million residents and 40 million annual visitors.
AEG CEO Dan Beckerman, who sits on the boards of governors for both the NHL and MLS because AEG owns the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Galaxy, said Las Vegas deserves teams in both leagues and argued local residents would support the franchises.
“On any given night, 400,000 people who are not residents are looking for entertainment. It’s tantalizing,” Vassiliadis said. “The question is, ‘would our local resident base support a professional sports team?’ It’s been debated and it’s debatable.”
Contact reporter Alan Snel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5273. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel