Five hundred feet. That was what Steve Stallworth believed would make or break his quest to shatter yet one more barrier to the perception that gambling — or sports wagering, specifically — would forever hinder Las Vegas’ ability to play host to major collegiate sporting events.
In early 2002, the state’s sports books had halted their practice of prohibiting bets on UNLV and Nevada basketball and football games. No established rules or laws banned the practice, so the casinos had been catering to a myth.
That’s about when Stallworth, who was managing the Orleans Arena for Michael Gaughan, began trying to obliterate another myth that college basketball games could not be staged in an arena with direct access to a casino and its sports book.
Stallworth asked Gaughan for permission to use his private plane, to meet with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley in Gainesville and Lew Perkins, his counterpart at Kansas in Lawrence. Stallworth arranged for Kansas senior associate athletics director Larry Keating to visit Las Vegas.
“Larry, you’ve got to come see our place,” Stallworth said. “You’ve just got to see it. We just need one of you.” Stallworth figured if Kansas would commit, Florida would follow suit; or vice versa.
Stallworth flew Keating to Las Vegas. Golf and other festivities were on the weekend itinerary, but Stallworth considered a stroll down the 500-foot bridge-like hallway that connects the horseshoe-shaped arena with the property’s casino proper to be the make-or-break portion of an Orleans tour.
“Larry walked into the arena,” Stallworth, who now manages the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center for Gaughan, said Wednesday afternoon inside VSiN’s Studio A, “he walked down that long hallway … and he goes, ‘What’s the problem with this?’ I said, ‘Larry, that’s what I’ve been saying for five years.’ ”
And so, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006, a sellout audience of 8,500 watched 10th-ranked Kansas topple Florida, 82-80, in overtime of a groundbreaking Las Vegas sporting event. The rambunctious pro-Jayhawks crowd, according to wire reports, turned it into “a mini-Allen Fieldhouse.”
The Gators entered that game with a No. 1 national ranking. They had won a national championship eight months earlier, and they would successfully defend it in four months. And with the impeccable pedigree of the Jayhawks, that landmark contest could not have had more cachet.
Stallworth had not wanted that 500-foot walkway to be a gauntlet, a deal breaker. But the plank turned out to be a fable. He also knew that securing the facility for such a major game would, in the future, render such a direct connection to a casino moot, a non-starter.
“Of course. One hundred percent,” he said. “That didn’t bother Larry, either. He called Jeremy Foley. And [Keating] calls his AD [Perkins] at Kansas. As soon as Kansas blessed it, the rest was history.”
That singular game led Larry Keating to connect Stallworth with his son Kerry, then coaching Santa Clara. That conversation led Stallworth to chatting with West Coast Conference commissioner Michael Gilleran, and that is how the WCC postseason tournament has been staged at the Orleans Arena since 2009.
Today, Las Vegas also plays host to the Mountain West (since ’07), Pac-12 (since ’13) and Western Athletic (since ’11) conference tourneys. The Big West Conference might be seeking a Vegas venue for its tournament, too. The Vegas Golden Knights begin play as an NHL expansion team this fall, and early next week the NFL might announce the relocation of the Raiders to Las Vegas.
All of which can owe a major assist to the 53-year-old Stallworth. The former backup quarterback to Randall Cunningham at UNLV had been working in administration at the Thomas & Mack Center for 10 years when Gaughan inquired about having him run the arena he wanted to build adjacent to his Orleans hotel and casino.
It became the home of the minor-league hockey Wranglers. Stallworth always believed he could lure big-time college hoops to the barn, so he pestered Gaughan — son of the late Vegas legend Jackie Gaughan — about his vision.
“He said, ‘Quit it. I don’t want to hear it again,’ ” Stallworth said. “After I talked to him, oh, 10 times about it, he told me to quit bringing it up to him. I just kind of did it on the side … We were 500 feet from the casino. My argument was, we’re separated from the casino, separated from the sports book. The kids can come in through the back. They don’t have to stay at our hotel. There were all these arguments.”
Chris Spencer and his father, George, both of whom specialized in group travel arrangements, began scheduling tournaments in the first few years of that decade at Valley High School, where the gym could accommodate 1,200 fans, in Las Vegas. Illinois, when ranked No. 1, came one year. Oklahoma State, too.
“All of a sudden, he had Florida and Kansas,” Stallworth said of commitments Chris Spencer had received around 2004, with a contingency; the Gators and Jayhawks would not play at Valley. Chris pondered building a temporary 10,000-seat venue at the Convention Center.
Stallworth knew that the Spencers had been dealing with coaches, that the only way to pull this off would be to meet with administrators. “Steve,” Chris said, “if you can do it, let’s do it.” Stallworth bolted to Michael Gaughan. Michael, we need the plane! “What do you mean, We need the plane?” Gaughan said. Stallworth explained, flew to Gainesville and Lawrence, had Keating fly to Las Vegas.
Done deal. (Both Florida and Kansas played games the night before facing each other at the Orleans; the Gators put up 101 points against Western Kentucky, the Jayhawks won by 18 over Ball State.)
What Stallworth accomplished can’t be mitigated. At that time, hometown UNLV wouldn’t even play in an arena attached to a casino; when the National Finals Rodeo, a massive annual 10-day windfall for the city, was staged at the Mack in 2006, the Rebels played a home game in St. George, Utah.
Stallworth credits Larry Keating as “the guy that was gutsy enough to make that call.” That green light also provided the impetus for USC to play in a tournament, against Kansas State and Wichita State, a month later at the Orleans. Trojans senior associate athletic director Steve Lopes had asked Stallworth, “Is this the casino that Mr. Gaughan owns? Then yes, sir, we’re in.”
Should the Raiders relocate to Las Vegas, Stallworth might be the happiest person in the valley. A lifelong Raiders fan, he is tight with former Raiders quarterback David Humm and he owns a nifty silver-and-black golf cart, perfect for tailgate transportation at the prospective $2 billion dome. That state-of-the-art facility would likely attract a Super Bowl.
A Final Four, the NCAA’s marquee event, might not be such a long shot, either, not after the foundation that Stallworth has established.
“I think the only questions [left] are business questions,” he said. “Is the market big enough? Do we have enough of a sponsorship base? Do we have all those things, from a business standpoint, to support these teams?
“But, yeah, I think the sports gaming thing is done. That wall has crumbled.”