- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

If ever the stars were perfectly aligned for Las Vegas to land a team in one of the four major professional sports, it would seem that time starts Monday.

Major League Baseball pulls into town for its winter meetings, the most significant event the league has held in many years in the city, which was an also-ran in the bidding to land the Montreal Expos in 2004.

Mayor Oscar Goodman is expected to bounce around the meetings extolling Sin City’s virtues, and why wouldn’t he? The city hosted the NBA All-Star Game last year, rumors continue to persist that Vegas could be a permanent home for the Sacramento Kings, and the public’s level of comfort with sports betting appears to increase all the time.

And on top of all of it, talk of a neutral-site World Series is more prevalent than ever after the rain-soaked conclusion to this year’s Fall Classic.

But in Las Vegas, optimism about landing a major professional team isn’t running so high.

The economic collapse has hit Vegas, too, where the little cash floating around is being invested in near-completed projects on the Strip, not a new sports facility. Plans for an arena to be completed by 2010 have fizzled, and some of the town’s central figures are wondering if Las Vegas has missed its window for a while.

“You look back 10 years ago, when growth was really starting to fly and land was at a record low , we needed the foresight then to be able to say, ‘Let’s go now, so we’re ready in 2015,’” said Daren Libonati, the events director at the Thomas and Mack Center, which hosted last year’s NBA All-Star Game. “We should have been doing it in ‘01, ‘02, ‘03. We’re going to miss this curve, and it’s going to be a while before we have a chance at the next one.”

NBA commissioner David Stern had little to say about the possibility of bringing a team to Las Vegas.

“We have no plans for expansion,” he said.

Even the normally loquacious Goodman is mum on the subject. He said, through spokesperson Diana Paul, that he continues to work on plans for an arena. In addition to a lack of cash, Las Vegas must deal with questions about its ability to support a team - questions that have nothing to do with gambling.

There’s still plenty of faith in the market long-term, but as the booming city tries to build its infrastructure in the midst of a financial crisis, it’s unlikely any momentum generated from the winter meetings will translate into results anytime soon.

“Short-term, it’s going to go through some pain,” said Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo, whose leadership of USA Basketball has frequently landed him in Las Vegas for pre-Olympic training. “Long-term, the market will come back like I believe the real-estate market will.”

More than gambling

But even when the market does rebound, uncertainty about Las Vegas as a major sports town will remain.

For the metro area’s rapid growth (its population has jumped by an estimated 25 percent since the 2000 U.S. Census to roughly 2 million), it’s still not among the 25 largest markets in the country.

There are plenty of other oddities to the Las Vegas market that make some wonder whether it could support a professional team through an entire season.

For one, the sheer size of the hospitality industry leads to questions about a prospective team’s season-ticket base. There are nearly 125,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, and the number of residents working late hours could put a dent in any team’s season-ticket base. Some also question why corporate beverage giants like Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola would sink dollars into a pro team when they can distribute more of their product in a few weekends at a hotel on the Strip than they could in an entire professional season.

Beyond the immediate Las Vegas area, there’s also a dearth of people - the next sizable town is St. George, Utah, which is nearly two hours away and has a population of roughly 70,000.

Those reasons alone have Colangelo, who helped bring the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks to Phoenix in 1998, convinced that big league baseball could never work in Las Vegas.

“You need more people, more business, more of a lot of things to support MLB,” he said. “Some cities may have smaller populations than Las Vegas, but on a regional basis, they have four or five times that number - St. Louis, Cincinnati. From a baseball standpoint, there’s limitations for baseball in Las Vegas because there’s so many more events.”

Minor league baseball has thrived in Las Vegas - the Blue Jays’ new Class AAA affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s, has averaged more than 5,000 fans a game for 26 years - but general manager Don Logan said smaller casinos have carved into their fan base.

Those venues, located away from the Strip and aimed at residents who work downtown, thrive among residents and present another challenge for a team trying to draw a crowd every night.

And though Colangelo remains convinced the NBA is the best fit for Las Vegas, Libonati has questions about whether the market is positioned to support any team on a consistent basis.

“If you were a city like Dallas or Phoenix, you need pro teams to have that magic for your city,” he said. “We don’t need that. We are Las Vegas. We have this wonderful, big wheel. To be able to be one team, when you really look at it, doesn’t make much sense.”

A different solution?

That’s why Libonati, sensing he could capitalize on the city’s big-events culture, has proposed something different: a multivenue complex that would serve as a neutral-site home for some of the country’s major attractions.

He envisions it would be like the Meadowlands, where there is a football stadium and arena just outside New York, and allow Las Vegas to host NBA All-Star Games, Super Bowls and a rotating series of regular-season games.

“If we could wiggle our noses, we’d create a stadium, get 16 [baseball] games and have eight two-game series,” he said. “We’d go to the major markets and say, ‘We’ll buy you out of that opportunity. Your Cubs fans will follow you.’”

He envisions a similar concept in the NBA, with its concentration of teams in the Southwest, as well as two or three “Monday Night Football” games every season.

“People need to start thinking more globally like that,” he said. “Many times, teams will visit a market that might be weak. We could have 40,000 people instead of 18,000.”

Logan said he expects Goodman to be a visible presence when the winter meetings convene at the Bellagio and Las Vegas Hilton this week, and it might be that concept that gives him an audience. Las Vegas can put the gaming issue to bed by touting its level of regulation on sports betting, Libonati said, and the echoes of the World Series ending might get people to listen.

But until an investor comes through with enough cash to take a chance on Las Vegas, the big ideas won’t be any more than that.

“Regardless of what sport you’re talking about, a need for a venue is all over the place. That’s part and parcel of any discussion,” Colangelo said. “Some of the plans to build new facilities have been put on the shelf. All of these things take time.”

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