Is Las Vegas ready for a pro sports team?

Apr 26, 2005 6:03 AM

There are many reasons why the city can’t or won’t support a pro sports team — and I’ll chronicle them soon enough — but the prime reason is allegiance: There simply aren’t enough Southern Nevadans who would rally around a team and give it the ongoing support it would require.

This should come as no surprise. This city is noted for its lack of allegiance to community endeavors. We blow up our historical landmarks. And if it weren’t for grants and public funds, we wouldn’t have a philharmonic orchestra or a civic ballet.

More importantly, less than 28 percent of residents say they are either natives or have lived here most of their lives.

Thus, nearly three-fourths of our population moved here from somewhere else. Why would we expect them to all of a sudden support a Las Vegas team?

Quite frankly, they haven’t done it in the past, why would they start now?

Las Vegas is notorious for its lack of support for sports teams. For instance, the Dodgers’ Triple A farm club, the Las Vegas Area 51s, drew an average of 4,300 fans to its 71 home games last year, ranking it 13th out of the 16 Pacific Coast minor league teams.

Lacking a local fan base is crucial. Ignore the argument that a pro sports franchise would be a tourist attraction. That’s goofy.

Tourists come to Las Vegas for the gambling, the nightlife, the debauchery — Las Vegas is an escape in which visitors can have their senses bombarded, let their hair down, loosen their collective belts and maybe break a few rules along the way.

There’s little room in that scenario to catch a ball game. Nor is there much room in a tourist’s budget to factor in the cost of taking the family to a major sporting event, which can reach hundreds of dollars for a basketball or hockey game.

There’s no doubt there is a small core of avid sports fans that would patronize a pro sports team in Las Vegas.

But there are simply too many impediments at this time. The obvious one is gambling. Sports leagues won’t consider Las Vegas for a franchise as long as our casinos offer legal sports betting.

And the casinos, no matter what our civic leaders say, would never shut down the sports books for a sports franchise that would be doomed to failure anyway.

Keep in mind that the resorts are highly sensitive to anything that can add or subtract from their bottom lines. If they could see a way of increasing business through a sports team, they’d be on it. They’re not.

Financing a team’s new facility — a new stadium is practically a prerequisite — is a deal-breaker in itself.

It’s common for sports franchise owners to demand tax breaks and other inducements from cities to help pay for the cost of a stadium, which could top $400-$500 million.

So far, there’s no sign that Las Vegas or the casino industry would be willing to subsidize a new stadium. In fact, the chief of MGM Mirage, Terry Lanni, said he would oppose any public funding of a new stadium or arena.

Without public funding, a sports owner would be hard pressed to make ends meet, especially because the Las Vegas TV market is so small.

Sports teams rely on royalties from networks such as ESPN and Fox, but because Las Vegas ranks as the 51st TV market among U.S. cities, the lower TV ratings would translate into diminished fees.

Currently, the smallest TV market among the 30 NBA teams is Memphis, which is ranked at 44. Yet that’s still seven rungs higher than Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas mayor said in his state-of-the-city speech that a sports franchise would be a "feather in our cap."

Wouldn’t it be better to work on more realistic and practical projects? Las Vegas is among the country’s worst cities for its crime rate and health care. Perhaps our civic leaders should put on their thinking caps and pursue those challenges.