Las Vegas overcoming obstacles, emerging as major-league city

February 27, 2017 03:40 AM
The Vegas Golden Knights, an NHL expansion team owned by Bill Foley, hit the ice in the fall.

By Matt Youmans

VSiN senior editor

A billionaire businessman and self-described recluse, Bill Foley showed his face in Las Vegas, put down a bet and pulled off what was once thought nearly impossible.

Foley brought a major league sports franchise to the Strip. He was not the first to try it, but he was the first to do it. He’s not going to be the last.

The Vegas Golden Knights, an NHL expansion team owned by Foley, hit the T-Mobile Arena ice in the fall. Sometime this spring, the NFL might follow hockey’s lead and vote to allow the Raiders to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas.

Commissioners of the NBA and MLB are speaking out in favor of the Las Vegas market, and, not to be forgotten, Major League Soccer also wants in on the action.

“I’m rooting my ass off because I would like to see all of it,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker. “I’ve said for 40 years, why can’t we do it here?”

Legal sports wagering was the biggest obstacle.

“I don’t think the gambling’s an issue anymore,” Vaccaro said from his office in the South Point sports book.

How is this happening? How is Las Vegas going from no major league teams to potentially multiple teams in just a few years?

There was a time when this city was deemed unfit for a major league franchise. It was a desert graveyard for failed minor league teams, and more importantly, an evil tourist destination that attracted unsavory characters who liked to gamble. That perception existed not so long ago.

The gambling issue had to first be addressed in a different light, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed himself to be a more progressive thinker on the topic than his predecessor, David Stern.

In a groundbreaking 2014 opinion piece for The New York Times, Silver wrote, “Betting on professional sports is currently illegal in most of the United States outside of Nevada. I believe we need a different approach.”

Silver was the first major commissioner to come out in favor of legalized sports betting. He has expanded on his opinion several times, never wavering.

It’s a simple concept that some find difficult to understand, but legal wagering in Las Vegas serves to protect the integrity of the games, not threaten it. Wagering increases fan interest and boosts TV ratings. Silver’s message has been heard.

Stern, who retired in 2014, was not the worst critic of Las Vegas. He allowed the NBA All-Star Game to be held at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2007, and the summer league has been staged on UNLV’s campus since 2004.

Bud Selig, who retired as MLB commissioner in 2015, was as progressive as Herman Munster. In 2014, Selig said he never would put a baseball franchise in Las Vegas. Early this month, new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred took the opposite stance.

“Las Vegas could be a viable market for us,” Manfred said during a news conference in Phoenix. “I don’t think the presence of legalized gambling in Las Vegas should necessarily disqualify that market as a potential major league city. We are reexamining our stance on gambling.”

If sports betting is becoming acceptable with the NBA, NHL and MLB, what’s left?

“The gorilla in the room is still the NFL,” Vaccaro said. “It’s like the other leagues are waiting for the NFL’s OK.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell still talks about betting as if it’s taboo and the need to protect the integrity of the games, but he also has blurred the line by promoting fantasy sports gambling as a fun form of family entertainment. Yes, he says that with a straight face.

Aside from gambling, Las Vegas for years faced two other obstacles — it had no stadium for a major league team, and the market size was on the small end of the spectrum nationally.

T-Mobile Arena, built by MGM Resorts and AEG, changed the game by opening the door for the NHL and possibly the NBA. Plans by different developers to build another arena on the north end of the Strip recently were reported.

In October, Nevada lawmakers approved $750 million in tax revenue for the construction of a 65,000-seat stadium to lure the Raiders. Of course, several questions remain unanswered, and no shovel has hit the ground.

And no plans have been announced to build a baseball stadium, but the Chicago Cubs are playing their annual exhibition games at Cashman Field — a facility barely suitable for Las Vegas’ Triple-A team — in late March.

As for market size, there are encouraging signs. At the NFL owners meeting in Irving, Texas, in December, Goodell spoke in an optimistic tone about Las Vegas for the first time.

“There are some real strengths to the Las Vegas market,” Goodell said. “It’s clear the Las Vegas market has become more diversified and more broadly involved with entertainment and hosting big events. There is a growth to the market. You can see the trajectory and where it’s going when you look at the data.”

Goodell’s comments came after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Las Vegas a “vibrant, growing, global destination city.”

With a population topping 2.1 million, Las Vegas was the largest U.S. city without a major league franchise before the NHL’s 31st team was awarded.

Different rules should define this market, too. The city attracted 42.9 million tourists in 2016, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and McCarran International Airport annually ranks as one of the nation’s 10 busiest airports.

One concern within the NFL is that Las Vegas would rank as the league’s fifth-smallest media market at No. 40 — ahead of Jacksonville (47), New Orleans (51), Buffalo (53) and Green Bay (68) — but indicators signal the city could support at least one and maybe multiple major league teams.

Las Vegas surpassed 15,000 deposits on season tickets for the Golden Knights’ debut in 2017-18, a persuasive factor that convinced the NHL to endorse Foley’s venture.

“Nothing is a done deal yet,” Vaccaro said.

The Golden Knights are a done deal, but the Raiders remain in limbo, and the NFL is the most significant piece in any major league puzzle.

In October, Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, said he envisions the NFL and NBA following the NHL to the Strip.

“I’m utterly confident we’re going to get a basketball team in the next few years, and I hope it’s at T-Mobile,” Murren said. “Imagine having three of the four major sports in Las Vegas and what that will do to further our growth of our tourist economy.”

The discussion is no longer about the Arena Football League, XFL, International Basketball League or minor league hockey.

If the football stadium is built and the Raiders come, Las Vegas someday could host a Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and other major events in addition to what’s already here — boxing, UFC, NASCAR, PGA Tour, National Finals Rodeo, international soccer, college basketball tournaments and a bowl game.

“The NFL is still up in the air, but I am greedy,” Vaccaro said. “I want to see it all happen. Something that was maybe a million to one 10 years ago is down to maybe 100-1 or even lower than that.”

The odds are shifting, and the betting windows are open.

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