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Why Not Vegas?

Dec. 13, 2004
Dec. 13, 2004

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Dec. 13, 2004

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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

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.

This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2004 issue Original Layout

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."

The league that seems to grasp the bigger picture is the one that suffered the biggest fixing scandal: the 1919 Black Sox. "If we were to relocate a team to Las Vegas," says Bob Dupuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, "[sports betting] is an issue that would have to be confronted and would cause some consternation." Yet Dupuy, who received a crash course on Vegas when it was among four cities short-listed to acquire the Montreal Expos (who are now headed to Washington, D.C.), predicts that either his league or a rival will conclude that it's better to have regulated sports betting than to allow it to fester as an illegal activity. "Gambling has become more and more accepted across society as a recreational vehicle over the last 15 to 20 years," he says. "Las Vegas is one of the most attractive markets in the U.S. for a pro sports franchise."

The prime candidate to move to Vegas in the short term is the A's, who may not receive public funding for a new ballpark in Oakland. Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman is planning to attend baseball's winter meetings in Anaheim from Dec. 10 to 13. "I'm going to show up in the arms of at least two showgirls and at least one Elvis, and I'm going to make a first-class presentation to seize the next team available," says Goodman. "I've not spoken with the commissioner, but I've spoken with people who are very much in touch with him, and I'm told that Major League Baseball likes the idea of Las Vegas as a home for a team."

Goodman is a former mob lawyer who earned the lifelong trust of his clients by openly refusing to represent anyone who would turn state's evidence. He retired from representing the likes of Meyer Lansky and Tony (the Ant) Spilotro (the basis for the character portrayed by Joe Pesci in the movie Casino) to run for mayor in 1999. In 2003 he won reelection with 86% of the vote. Even if he didn't have such a huge mandate, he would refuse to apologize for his or his city's old criminal associations. His former clients included Richie (the Fixer) Perry, who was banned from entering Nevada casinos after rigging college basketball games and harness races. Pictures of Perry in a hot tub with three UNLV players led to the 1991 resignation of coach Jerry Tarkanian. Yet Goodman calls Perry "one of the great guys of all time."

He's a charming old-fashioned pol out of a Cary Grant movie, quick with the repartee and utterly without shame. "I'll bet on anything that moves, and I'm a two-fisted drinker," says Goodman, who received $100,000 (donated to charity) to appear in a Bombay Sapphire ad campaign called Martinis with the Mayor. On his office couch is a full-sized replica of a dismembered horse's head. "You know, from The Godfather," he says. "When it first came out [of the box], it had blood all over it."

Goodman makes the odds 1 to 5 that he'll have a major league baseball team within five years. Though it might put off potential tenants, he says that he has no interest in instituting a pro-sports version of the old UNLV rule (rescinded in 2001), which barred sports books from posting lines or taking bets on games involving Nevada colleges. "There haven't been any issues with Nevada teams," says Keith Copher, the Gaming Control Board's chief enforcement officer. "We keep a good eye on this." The Maloofs believe such a law is self-defeating. "Betting makes sports popular because you'd rather watch a game if you have money on it," Joe Maloof says. "The red mark is apathy: If people aren't betting on hockey or MLS, then you know those leagues are in trouble."

So take it or leave it: There is no better place to grow. "Our conservative model was that the Expos would bring in $160 to $170 million if they moved to Las Vegas, which would rank in the upper quartile of baseball revenues," says consultant Michael Shapiro of Centerfield Management Group, which worked with two groups that wanted to move the Expos to Las Vegas and build a privately financed 38,000-seat stadium one block from the Strip. The projection was based on selling 35% to 45% of the team's tickets to the 36 million tourists who visit Las Vegas annually, making up for the market's relatively small population of 1.6 million (51st in the U.S.). Shapiro projects that the nation's fastest-growing city will have a population of 3 million in 10 years. "Because of where it is in the desert, putting a team in Las Vegas won't intrude on anyone else's territory," Shapiro says. "The team that gets there first is going to have a lot of advantages in premium ticket money and sponsorships that you really can't find in any other market."

There are other things the Vegas market bears. Strippers are a temptation for professional athletes in every major league metropolis, but Las Vegas is in a league of its own. According to Jack Sheehan, author of Skin City: Uncovering the Las Vegas Sex Industry, an estimated 15,000 women have received sheriff's cards permitting them to perform topless or nude in 40 adult clubs in Clark County. Full-time dancers average $85,000 in mainly untaxed income, in spite of supplemental competition from the hundreds of coeds who fly in from Arizona, California and Texas to dance on weekends. Nude women are the anonymous celebrities in Vegas, says Lastra, who is developing a $20 million health club near the aptly named Strip. "When it opens, I'm going to give scholarships to strippers," he says. "People are going to want to work out where there are good-looking babes."

The same appetites--along with the absence of state income tax--might help lure free agents to Las Vegas. Local golf courses and restaurants routinely comp athletes who pass through town with the understanding that celebrities help attract tourists. The consensus among NBA coaches is that the players of a home team would become, to use Cofield's term, desensitized to the nightlife, but that visiting players will be vulnerable to extended and potentially draining excursions during their trips to Las Vegas. "If I'm having to take a team to Vegas," says Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "I want it to be the second game of a back-to-back, and we fly out right away afterward."

In the end the success or failure of the Las Vegas Whales or Bugsies or whatever they happen to be called may depend largely on whether the team's management is canny enough to produce a winner. "It could pull the community together," says Luntz. "Right now nothing unites the people in Las Vegas except their pursuit of the American Dream." And if the team should fail to win? Consider the fall of UNLV, the former national power that last year played to two-thirds capacity at Thomas & Mack. "Nobody here likes a loser," says Lastra, "because this town sees losers every day."

A sports franchise in Las Vegas could help change attitudes about SPORTS BETTING: It's irrepressible, so why not lift the prohibition, tax it and make an honest business of it?

"Gambling has become more and more accepted across society as a recreational vehicle," says MLB's Dupuy. "Las Vegas is one of the MOST ATTRACTIVE markets in the U.S."

"If I'm having to take a team to Vegas," says Celtics coach Rivers, "I want it to be the SECOND GAME OF A BACK-TO-BACK, and we fly out right away afterward."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chip SimonsPITCHMAN Goodman plans to pull out all the icons when he tries to sell his city to major league baseball at its winter meetings. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chip SimonsLIVE FEED While fans tune in to Cofield (left) and Responts, the sports jocks tune out the scene at the clubs in which they do their show. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chip SimonsRUMINATIN' REBEL Former UNLV assistant and future health-club owner Lastra thinks teams would hire ex-cops to police players. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chip SimonsEAGLE EYE Copher and the Gaming Control Board keep close tabs on the sports action, including bets on Nevada's college teams.