Exposing baseball future in Las Vegas

Jun 22, 2004 2:25 AM

The two local daily papers have run a lot of stories in the last month about the possibility of major league baseball moving the Montreal Expos to Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Sun, in particular, seems insistent on the possibility that our city is in the running to land the Expos, so much so that one has to wonder if the Greenspun family has a financial interest in the team being relocated to Sin City.

The arrival of the Expos in Las Vegas would certainly put money in somebody’s pocket, although at this point it is not exactly clear whose. The Expos, a franchise now being run and financed by the other 29 big league teams, need to find a new home and major league baseball has finally said that a decision will be made soon, probably within the next two months.

Before anybody here rushes out to buy their Expos caps, a few factors need to be considered:

Both the team and the stadium it would need are big-ticket items. The price tag on the franchise is reportedly $145 million while the cost of constructing a stadium has been put at about $240 million. These are not pocket change figures, not even by Las Vegas mega resort standards.

Las Vegas has stiff competition. Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, the Norfolk area of Virginia, Monterrey, Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, are all in the running for the team.

Like other major sports, baseball’s muckety-mucks have reservations about moving a franchise into the country’s gambling capital. Not all of their fears about the possible corruption of their game by shady Vegas gamblers have been put to rest by the posting — without repercussions — of UNLV and Gladiator odds in the local sports books.

There are, however, some factors in Las Vegas’ favor that the competition can not compete with, the largest of which is our city’s exploding population growth. Moreover, a team in Las Vegas would have natural rivalry games not only with the Dodgers, Angels and Padres but also with the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. And Las Vegas city officials could almost guarantee major league baseball officials that no games here would be rained out.

Weather has to be a very negative factor in rainy Portland’s bid as does the fact that the Rose City already has a professional sports franchise, the Trail Blazers, and a football and baseball team just a short ride away in Seattle. The weather in Portland would seem to mandate that when the city builds a major league baseball stadium, it would have to come with a dome, and many baseball traditionalists insist baseball is a game meant to be played out doors.

Similarly, a new team in Washington would have to compete with the sports dollar there with the beloved Redskins, the NBA team, the Washington Wizards, and, to some extent, the major league baseball team in Baltimore. Washington, considered by many to be the front runner in the race for the Expos, also has to explain why its residents wouldn’t support the last two major league franchises that called that city home.

Along with differences in the predominant language, Monterrey poses security, economic and political instability issues at a time when attacks on Americans living in other countries can almost be expected. Finally, the Virginia area already has professional sports franchises in nearby Baltimore and Washington, and has no track record of being a state that will support a professional sports team of its own.

So every city competing with Las Vegas has drawbacks. It’s a question of how each city’s strengths and weaknesses will be weighted when major league baseball compares each of the bids for the Expos. Given the recent history of professional sports, economic factors almost certainly will be given more consideration than any of the others.

Aside from the gambling concerns, Las Vegas has two main drawbacks. One is that the city’s population is made up to a large extent of people who moved here relatively recently from somewhere else, and they aren’t going to have a very deep allegiance to the local team. In the East and Midwest, loyalty to a team is passed on from one generation to the next; that’s not going to be the case here, which means that unless the team wins consistently, the attendance base, if it is centered around the locals as opposed to visitors, will probably be shaky.

The second issue has to be television ratings. The bald truth is that being as geographically isolated as it is, Las Vegas can’t count on far flung suburbanites to boost the team’s television ratings, and television money is the mothers milk of all sports. The folks living in San Bernardino and Riverside counties are going to remain Dodgers and Angels fans, and the people living in northern Arizona are, presumably, going to continue to root for the Diamondbacks. By the way, the biggest reason the Expos are leaving Montreal in the first place is because of the atrocious television package they are operating under (very few games on television and some of those are in French). In contrast, the reason why the Yankees can throw around the kind of money they have is because their television deal is so lucrative.

That leaves only the good folks of Barstow and St. George, Utah, - and neither city is exactly a teeming metropolis - as being the only other fans likely to join with the people in and around Las Vegas-Henderson to turn their television sets on to the local team’s games and even at that, Barstow will be up for grabs with the California teams.

By far the most troubling aspect of the local bid for a major league team is the location for a stadium that is being bandied about by people who should know a whole lot better. The talk is that the stadium would be built behind Bally’s on the chunk of land between Koval Lane and the Strip. The proposed location is probably the worst suggestion we have heard in the last 10 years. The traffic jams that a stadium at that location would cause are almost too terrible to imagine. The last thing the intersection of Flamingo and the Strip needs is more congestion, and that’s exactly what a stadium there would bring.

Instead, we suggest that the prospective owners — a group whose identity as individuals has been carefully shielded from the press - instead consider a site anywhere along East Fremont, an area that has deteriorated over the years.

Here at GamingToday, we wonder what the cost will be at the local sports books. Will major league baseball say that the only way a franchise will be allowed to locate here is if all baseball games are taken off the boards of the sports books or will the moguls say just no betting on the Las Vegas’ team games when the team is playing a home game or no betting on it whether it is playing either at home or away? Or will they allow all games, including those involving the local team, to be posted as they are now?

If all baseball betting is eliminated, sports books will be mighty lonely places in the summer months and some jobs will undoubtedly be eliminated.

On the other hand, the addition of a major league baseball team would certainly add to the sports buzz around town, and that would have to be good news for all of us involved in the sports world.