Which Sport Will Gamble on Las Vegas First?

If any city is affiliated with the word “relocation” in North American sports it is Las Vegas, Nevada. The sport doesn’t matter; no sporting body in the continent has a league comprised entirely of thriving franchises. In tandem with struggling teams comes discussion of relocation as fans and media search for a market better formulated for financial and athletic success.

Without exception, Las Vegas inevitably comes up in every one of these discussions. It is a market that each sporting community thinks is a viable location for a new, or rebranded, franchise. Vegas is the global home of entertainment, which is what sport truly is at its core, and therefore an attractive host. With that entertainment prowess comes the monetary image that the city promotes, which many consider to be, as Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria puts it, an untapped goldmine for sport.

However, there have been many roadblocks in the perceived sporting gold rush in Vegas. The main issue has been a lack of tool with which to mine the gold, in other words an adequate facility to house a major franchise. With no place to play Vegas has been by default excluded from legitimate relocation discussions between league officials.

By 2016, this roadblock will no longer be in place for at least two of North America’s major sports. Two corporations who already have strong influence within Las Vegas and the American sporting community, AEG and MGM resorts, have invested in a $350 million arena along the infamous Las Vegas Strip. The modern facility is reported to have around 20,000 seats, making it viable for both a NHL and NBA franchise.

But if this were the only problem that has stopped major sports from taking a turn at the metaphorical blackjack table that is Vegas there would have been a franchise in the city a long time ago. Gambling is outlawed across the board by major sports and Las Vegas is the global capital for betting. Match fixing is also a distinct concern, and, considering the number of shady figures in the area, a legitimate one.

Meanwhile, there is the difficulty the city will have with attracting athletes. There are obvious reasons as to why players, especially those with families, would not be likely to uproot and try to carve out a profession in Nevada. Despite the modern tendency of athletes to take the money, deterring factors still have an effect (see “Winnipeg” and “really, really cold”).

The sense is, however, eventually a league will assess the risk and decide that the possible reward, both in terms of financials and publicity, outweighs the multitude of negative factors. As for which sport that will end up being, it is a complicated and multilevel issue. What isn’t as complicated is identifying the league’s that can be quickly removed from the conversation.

The NFL and MLB are 1a and 1b in terms of revenue and exposure in the North American market, and therefore are incredibly unlikely to take the unnecessary risk. Furthermore, there are currently no facilities in place for a franchise from either of these leagues. The same is true for MLS, who could once be considered the frontrunner in this regard. They would now require a modern soccer-specific stadium as a qualifier for expansion and it is unlikely one will be constructed in the near future.

That leaves the two previously mentioned leagues: the NBA and NHL. Both leagues are in the middle of the revenue spectrum in North America, and therefore are a nice fit. Both also have connections to Las Vegas, which has caused speculation that they may someday attempt either relocation or expansion in the market.

The NHL host their end of the year award ceremony in Vegas, although Commissioner Gary Bettman has nothing to do with expansion. But hockey’s roots in the city go further than this. A number of preseason exhibition games have been played in the city and have always drawn good audiences. Meanwhile, several minor league NHL teams have played in Vegas, creating a small grassroots community for the sport in the region. There were also rumours that Jerry Bruckheimer was going to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Vegas, however recent developments have caused that speculation to die.

But with all the headaches that the NHL have recently had with franchises underperforming in the financial department, it is unlikely they will risk that headache getting larger. The league has hinted at potential expansion, and the imbalance between the two conferences makes this seem reasonable. However, Seattle and Kansas City both make more sense for a league that appears more interested in stability. Simply put, the NHL have taken enough risks with the markets in which they currently reside.

The NBA have also played their fair share of games in Nevada. It is a consistent destination for summer league play, an attribute that definitely helps its expansion prospects. Furthermore, the league hosted their 2007 All Star festivities in Vegas, making it the only non-NBA city to host. Commissioner David Stern will not be in place to implement any sort of expansion, but has been quoted saying that he believes Vegas is a favourite for a future franchise.

Basketball would be a far easier sell in Vegas than hockey, although both would theoretically do well financially. While plenty of marketing would still need to be devoted to convincing the public to attend NBA games rather than the many other attraction the strip has to offer, it would probably require half as much as hockey. The NBA is very much an entertainment driven league, as exemplified by the resurrection of the now Brooklyn Nets. This fact in itself makes the NBA and Vegas a potentially lucrative and successful fit.

Provided the designer did an adequate job, merchandizing for a Las Vegas NBA franchise could be massive. A large part of the New Jersey-to-Brooklyn move that was so successful was the rebranding of the team’s uniform. The classic looking black and white getup has placed itself among the league’s most desirable, up there with the LA Lakers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. The simple fact that the uniform/t-shirt/hat would say “Vegas” on the front would be enough to convince most fans to reach for their wallets. Not to mention the fact that it would make a pretty great souvenir.

There is also the fact that it is more likely you could fill an NBA Vegas roster than an NHL one. This is no shot at NBA players in general, but rather a reflection on the smaller lineup size. It is easier to convince 13 decent basketball players and their families to settle in Vegas than 23 NHLers, most of whom would be Canadian.

Considering how close Adam Silver, future NBA commissioner, has worked with David Stern for the past seven years it is likely that they share many of the same opinions. If Stern highlighted Seattle and Las Vegas as the two most serious contenders for NBA “expansion”, which could be a euphemism for “relocation”, than it is more than likely true. Proposals from both these cities will probably be considered in the next couple of years. Seattle is the favourite, with the infrastructure and history as an NBA market. But if Silver truly wants to cement his legacy in basketball history conducting the great Vegas experiment would be a good start.

All this being said, expansion/relocation to Vegas is still unlikely at this point for the NBA or any other major North American league. The negative risks still present too many liabilities that would have to be dealt with personally by league officials, something that would take time away from other aspects of the sport. A franchise in Vegas would require many resources and a plan for the worst, consider it an all-in maneuver.

But eventually a green haze will convince one faction of the sporting world to roll the dice on Las Vegas, Nevada. The fact that there is now an adequate venue in place only quickens that process.


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