Coast Resorts gets jump on sports arena

Jan 22, 2002 7:17 AM

Indoor football could be returning to Las Vegas as construction begins on the Orleans’ arena.

Coast Casinos owner Michael Gaughan says he is talking with ArenaFootball2 about the possibility of hosting a team. AF2 is the “triple-A” circuit of the Arena league. Launched in 2000, it has grown rapidly from 15 teams to 35. Four West Coast franchises begin play this year in Bakersfield, Fresno, Hawaii and San Diego.

But football isn’t the only game on Gaughan’s mind these days. He is also in talks with the Central Hockey League, which is adding a team in Colorado this year, equestrian events and, of course, fight promoters for his 9,000-seat arena, which breaks ground next Tuesday.

“This is all part of our $120 million expansion,’’ Gaughan noted. Among the other upgrades: six new movie theaters, 630 rooms (bringing the Orleans’ total to 1,400) and 3,000 more feet of casino space.

Gaughan is unfazed by reports that Idaho developer Larry Leasure and the city of Las Vegas are hammering out their own plans for a comparably sized arena Downtown.

“We’re not competing with Downtown,’’ Gaughan told GamingToday. “We’re competing with Mandalay Bay, the MGM and, to a certain extent, the Thomas & Mack.

In any event, Coast has a running start on the Downtown venture. “The steel is ready to go, the seats have been ordered and our plans have been submitted to the county,’’ Gaughan said. Tiberti Construction is forecasting a completion date of April 2004.

Sources familiar with both arena projects are betting on Coast. “He’s committed his own money ($43 million) and has it all planned,’’ one reliable insider said of Gaughan. By contrast, the city and Leasure must work through a complex, city-backed financing scheme. “The debt service alone could prove unworkable,’’ the source said. Mayor Oscar Goodman has vowed not to expend any taxpayer money.

Parking poses another hurdle for the Downtown site. By donating the 2.5 acres at Main and Stewart for the arena, Boyd Gaming is relieved of its obligation to erect a parking structure. But some wonder if this tradeoff is a traffic nightmare waiting to happen. “Strangely, no one’s talking about that,’’ muses one City Hall source.

And finally, there’s the supply-and-demand question. With nearby Cashman Center under-utilized and sometimes empty, trade show experts question whether there is a market for convention space Downtown.

Leasure hopes to have the proposed 7,500-seat arena open by fall 2003, with teams including a new West Coast Hockey League team and the men’s and women’s basketball teams from the local Community College.

Meantime, he continues to talk about bringing hockey teams and arenas to other Western cities, including Reno. In September, Leasure set a Feb. 1 deadline to do a deal in Reno. If that wasn’t met, he said he’d consider moving his franchise to northern California. Last week, he extended that deadline through February.

Coast Casinos, meanwhile, sees its arena as the capstone to the Orleans’ expansion. Featuring 220 clubs seats and 24 VIP boxes (which have already generated inquiries), the facility can be divided in half for more intimate events such as concerts.

But Gaughan figures that the Central Hockey League or Arena2 can fill the seats. Though IHL and Arena franchise folded here in the mid-’90s, he believes those failures were due to a combination of poor promotion, high ticket prices and an outsized venue (Thomas & Mack).

AF2, the fastest growing league in the country, averages 7,200 fans per game with tickets running $5 to $10. One franchise, the Arkansas Twisters, averaged 13,000 at the turnstiles last season. AF2 plays a 16-game schedule that kicks off in March.