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Why Not Vegas?
IAN THOMSEN
December 13, 2004
Can a pro franchise thrive in the gambling capital of the U.S.? You bet. And major league baseball or the NBA may soon put one there
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December 13, 2004

Why Not Vegas?

Can a pro franchise thrive in the gambling capital of the U.S.? You bet. And major league baseball or the NBA may soon put one there

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Profit ultimately prevails, which is why you will be able to attend an NBA or major league baseball game in Las Vegas within a decade. The priciest tickets will belong almost exclusively to celebrities, politicians, tanned casino executives and foul-mouthed high rollers, who will be treated like royalty. On the sidelines or in the stands the team will employ a troupe of dancers, some of them recognizable from their acts at local gentlemen's clubs. The concessionaire will deliver Beluga caviar and Grey Goose martinis to your seat. Most important, you may even be able to bet, bet, bet on the home team at a nearby casino, without breaking any laws and without--repeat, without--undermining the integrity of whatever it is you're watching.

The barriers that have kept the major professional leagues from placing teams in Las Vegas are on the verge of being toppled like the Berlin Wall. Cash-starved owners are searching desperately for cities in which to expand, and the last frontier (in the continental U.S., at least) is Las Vegas, the manifest destiny of the selling of sports and sex as mainstream entertainment, which began with Joe Willie Namath. Then, too, gambling has become such an accepted part of our culture--from playing the lottery at a convenience store to playing the slots at the nearest casino to playing Texas Hold 'em online--that the will to prevent pro athletes from suiting up in the nation's gambling capital is weakening by the day.

In fact, the only remaining question is: Which league will move a franchise there first? "We'll get either a baseball or basketball team," says Steve Cofield, a talk show host of the afternoon WiseGuys show on SportsRadio 1460, which he and Mike Responts routinely broadcast from strip clubs throughout Las Vegas. Cofield is shouting over a thumping bass line that backs the gyrations of a slim woman balanced stiffly atop platform heels, from which her legs rise like the Eiffel Tower. As the men in the club Striptease swivel back and forth from her performance to the Monday Night Football game glowing silent on a big screen, she methodically unpops each button on her blouse until nothing but the orangey hues of the Bengals and the Broncos are shimmering on her bare skin.

It's as if all aspects of Vegas vice have been laid out: the game, the gamblers (which most of the men in the audience certainly are), the mixed drinks perspiring in their hands, a naked woman writhing to an insistent beat. For Cofield this is business as usual--and so will it be to the many pro players and coaches who someday work here. "I'm desensitized to everything," he says with a derisive wave.

Leagues have avoided settling in Las Vegas mainly because Nevada is the only state with legalized sports betting (apart from Oregon and two others that allow the selling of sports parlay cards). Commissioners would rather not have their players exposed daily to what they fear is a huge pool of potential game fixers. "The Number 1 thing that could bring us down is a gambling scandal," says NFL executive vice president Joe Browne. "That could ruin the integrity of the games." The Maloof brothers, who as owners of both the Sacramento Kings and the Palms Hotel and Casino are among the biggest proponents of moving a pro sports team to Las Vegas--though not the Kings, they are quick to say--cannot imagine an NFL franchise getting approval to locate there. "The NFL doesn't even allow somebody with a gaming issue to own a team," says Gavin Maloof. "We ask about buying a team every few years, and they always say no."

But if the leagues are truly concerned about sports betting--as they should be--then Las Vegas may be the safest place to have a team. Nevada is the only state where those bets (as well as other gambling concerns) are policed, in this case by a staff of 100 agents from the Gaming Control Board. Because Nevada sports books conduct their business openly, the agents were able to see enormous bets being placed on certain Arizona State basketball games, which helped authorities quickly expose the 1994 point-shaving scheme involving Sun Devils players. In theory college football and basketball players, who don't share in the NCAA's multibillion-dollar revenues, are more susceptible to a fixer's pitch than pro athletes earning six or seven or eight figures. And a pro league would lay out well-defined rules for what its players could and could not do in Vegas. "The team would hire some local police who were retiring from the force, guys who know everybody and everything around town," says former UNLV basketball assistant Bill Lastra.

Slightly more than $2 billion was wagered legally on sports in Nevada in 2002. The sports books pocketed $111 million on those bets and paid $6.75 million in taxes to the state--the sort of revenue that isn't realized on the illegal domestic bets that total from $10 billion to $100 billion annually, depending on whose estimate you believe. The successful experiment of a sports franchise in Las Vegas could help change attitudes about sports betting: Though it can be insidious and addictive, it's also universal and irrepressible, so why not lift the prohibition, police it, tax it and make an honest business of it?

Nevada sports books generated $530 million in legal wagers on pro and college basketball in 2002, ranking hoops behind only pro and college football, which generated $861 million that year. NBA commissioner David Stern has qualms about moving to Vegas, but in 2003 he approved a gambling concern as the owner of a WNBA franchise; the Connecticut Sun even plays its games on the grounds of the Mohegan Sun casino. In the 1980s Stern also permitted the Utah Jazz to play regular-season games at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Arena-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the NBA scoring record there in '84--and 14 NBA teams have committed to participate in next year's summer league in Las Vegas. But there has been no legal sports betting on any of these games, and after decades of remaking the NBA as a global entertainment industry, Stern is concerned that moving a team to Las Vegas would harm his league's image. "Most of our fans are basketball fans, not point-spread fans," he says. "I would prefer that our fans not go away from our games happy or unhappy because a team did or didn't beat the point spread."

But would nonwagering fans really be upset if NBA games took place in an arena surrounded by casinos? In 1999 Republican pollster Frank Luntz helped hotelier Steve Wynn look into buying an NBA team to move to Las Vegas, but his efforts were reportedly vetoed by Stern. "Only 15 percent of Americans are completely against gambling, and 50 percent have no trouble with it whatsoever," says Luntz, quoting national research he conducted last February on behalf of the American Gaming Association. "Americans see Las Vegas as mainstream, as an adult Disneyland. Las Vegas is something Americans do for a day or two, and then they go back home." Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, who has retained his influential position as president of the NBA Board of Governors despite recently selling his share of the team, believes that 20 years from now his colleagues will wonder why there was ever so much fuss about entering the Las Vegas market. "Whoever gets [a team] here is going to be successful," Colangelo says. "It's only a matter of time."

"No disrespect to Mr. Stern, but he's completely out of touch with the real world when it comes to betting on the NBA," says Billy Walters, known as the biggest sports bettor in Vegas. "Probably a thousand times more betting takes place on his games outside Las Vegas than inside Las Vegas."

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