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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Stadium roulette

MLB flirts with Las Vegas as new home for Expos

Posted: Friday March 26, 2004 3:08PM; Updated: Friday March 26, 2004 3:09PM
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Don't you love it when the staid, old game of baseball tries to get hip? Lately, we've witnessed juiced baseballs and outfielders looking like the original Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. Now comes word sure to put a grin on Pete Rose's fleshy mug -- baseball is playing footsies with Sin City.

That's right, Las Vegas. The gambling capital of the world. The only place in the land where one can legally bet on a ballgame.

Can't you just picture Rose back in uniform, working the home dugout just off the Vegas Strip? The stadium concourses lined as far as the eye can see with one-armed bandits and video poker machines?

A top baseball official confirmed that Las Vegas is "under active consideration'' as baseball shops for a buyer to relocate the Montreal Expos. From a business and buzz perspective, it makes a heckuva lot more sense than Portland, Ore., Monterrey, Mexico, or maybe even Northern Virginia. Vegas is flush with cash, as well as being home to a burgeoning population and 35 million tourists annually. But it presents an ethical dilemma that you'd think Bud Selig and his band of merry owners would rather avoid at the moment.

Listen to the ethicists' take on baseball and Vegas.

• "I'd like to be able to say people can locate their businesses wherever they want, yet it does raise some questions about line-drawing that I am not sure we can trust Major League Baseball to implement,'' says Marcia Sage, president of the Sports Ethics Institute. "What good can come from putting a Major League Baseball team in a city known for gambling? I can see a lot of financial reasons for doing it, but I think it is morally questionable.''

• "I hate to say it, it is like putting an alcoholic in a bar. You are not obligating anybody to drink, but it seems to me that it sends a message,'' says Stuart Gilman, president of the Ethics Center Resource. "As a sport, Major League Baseball really needs to take seriously the issue of integrity and understand that both appearance and reality are important.''

From the sound of things, it's a good bet that the owners will pass when and if a decision comes down later this year -- with the favorite still thought to be the Washington/Northern Virginia area. A Vegas insider told SI.com this week the chances of striking a deal with baseball are "less than 50-50.'' Still, it's amusing to find baseball openly flirtatious with Vegas, even if only to create competition and thus hike the value of the Expos.

Major League Baseball's relocation committee has trekked several times to the desert, and is weighing a proposal built around construction of a 40,000-seat, retractable-roof ballpark. The stadium would sit not far from the Strip on land owned by Caesars Entertainment Inc., which is hot for something that can be reconfigured to seat 25,000 as a concert site for the likes of Cher and the Rolling Stones.

But knowing baseball never could hook up with owners directly tied to the gaming industry, Caesars has smartly cast itself as just the landlord. The major investors are described as "Wall Street people'' with no ties to Vegas -- and that's why baseball continues to listen. "In that particular circumstance the structure [of ownership] is going to be important,'' acknowledged John McHale, MLB's executive vice president for administration and a member of the relocation committee.

The investors themselves have to be comfortable they can pull the deal off with mostly private money. Because the small local market won't produce the amount of TV rights revenue received by most teams, a snag could be whether the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is interested in helping make up the difference, which could approach $10 million a year.

Obviously, Selig and baseball's executive committee will engage in lively debate if the Vegas bid has legs, but you wonder what they're waiting for. Can you put a team in the gambling mecca or not? "It doesn't reduce itself to saying, 'Yes, that is consistent with our policy' or, 'No, it isn't consistent with our policy,''' McHale says. "I think it is something that weighs into the calculation of the merits of the proposal.''

Left unsaid is Vegas could gain considerable favor if its sportsbooks were to agree not to post betting lines on MLB games, or at least games involving the local team. An industry source said not taking bets on the Vegas franchise wouldn't be a hard sell, but that the casinos would likely balk at taking down all major-league games -- even though sportsbooks are not a huge profit driver for casinos and baseball isn't big with gamblers.

The hunch here is baseball's owners would entertain offers from Baghdad if it'd jack up what they can pocket from the sale of the Expos. Isn't that what this delay game is all about -- money? But as markets fall out of favor and the relocation options dwindle, bet on Las Vegas eventually landing a big-league sports team.

And then we'll catch the sports leaders' fancy footwork.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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