Is Las Vegas ready for a pro sports team?

Apr 26, 2005 5:59 AM

Not only is Las Vegas ready, willing and probably able to handle its own pro sports franchise, I believe it will happen in the next five years.

Obviously the major hangup is gambling, but not to the point that something can’t be worked out. At least on the gaming end, there’s room for negotiation. It’s just a matter of the pro commissioners and owners coming around.

This talk of Las Vegas being a "small market" town and not capable of supporting a pro team is way overrated. Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte, Memphis, Nashville, Raleigh (shall I go on?) were all thought to be losing endeavors and somehow they are still floating in pro sports — some even thriving.

None of those cities can match Vegas in terms of restaurants and hotel space. This is the number one tourist and convention destination in the U.S., and the nation’s fastest growing city. NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball exhibition games have drawn well. There is even talk of the NBA holding its All-Star game here, which would be a major coup.

The four major sports would kill to have a sports franchise in Las Vegas. Why? Well, look at the XFL. Vince McMahon’s brainchild included Vegas in a league with New York and Los Angeles, featuring Sam Boyd Stadium as the host venue for the first nationally televised XFL game on NBC.

Vegas averaged nearly 28,000 people for the early part of the season and, while the league did fold after just one season, even the biggest naysayers had a hard time pinning the reason on us.

The city does have Triple-A baseball and minor league hockey, which admittedly does struggle in continued support. But the lone NASCAR race each March draws over 165,000 people to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Most boxing cards on the Strip are successful despite the lack of a glamour heavyweight division, and the National Finals Rodeo is a sellout at the Thomas and Mack each December.

To me, that sounds like a city wanting sports, not one shying away from the responsibility of support in dollars and fannies.

Future NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone said he was very interested in being part of an ownership group in Vegas for pro basketball. Mayor Oscar Goodman has been campaigning for years for a pro team. This would be the crowning jewel in proving that this city is right for family life and not just a place to double down on 11 against a 10 in blackjack.

Sure, Las Vegas is a gambling town and will always be one. That’s part of our appeal. The World Series of Poker, while not a franchise, has become a major national event thanks to ESPN and the general popularity of gaming here. Thank goodness for that. It’s a reason so many folks around the country want to come here.

As for a pro sports franchise, think of how many tourists would plan their vacations or business trips around a Knicks, Celtics or Bulls game here. Imagine how many Red Sox, Cubs or Yankees fans would love coming to Vegas for some gambling mixed in with top-notch baseball.

The NBA would seem the most agreeable match for Vegas. Natural rivalries are in place against Utah and not too distant Salt Lake, along with Phoenix and Los Angeles. And there’s the Maloof family living here and owning the Sacramento Kings.

Baseball and the NHL are betting sports that don’t take that much from the yearly house earnings, which clearly opens the door for a pro franchise.

The NFL would seem the only sport that a team in Vegas would be unlikely. The casinos would never give up gambling on the NFL or the Super Bowl, which accounts for 20 percent of the yearly handle. It neither makes sense nor cents.

Nobody said selling pro sports in Vegas would be easy. But if the right ownership, financial backing and marketing group were in place, I’d bet Steve Wynn’s money it would work.

And a few dollars of my own.