The Full Court Press: sports shift from St. Louis to Las Vegas
March 11, 2017
(For)give Sin City sports
Stan “not the man” Kroenke called St. Louis a “two-sport city,” and we in Kirkwood felt the burn. How could he insult the business potential of our bustling (first in crime is still first in something, right?) metropolitan area? How will we survive without the validation that belonging to a three-sport city brings? Now when someone points out St. Louis’s downfall, I can only reply, “the Blues will win in the playoffs this time” or “at least we have the Cardinals.” But it’s not like the Cardinals win enough championships to go around, right? They only played in four of the last 12 World Series, for Pioneer Pete’s sake.
Well, you know how many teams Las Vegas has? Zero. Yep. Las Vegas has been a zero-sport city with zero championships since being founded May 15, 1905. And you thought the Cubs had a bad streak going.
“But it’s different,” you might insist. The Chicago metropolitan area’s population exceeded 9.4 million in 2015, and over 2.9 million people lived in the Greater St. Louis area that year. Meanwhile, Las Vegas Valley housed a comparatively meager 2 million residents. How could Vegas deserve as many sports teams as The Lou with only two thirds of its population?
As with Kirkwood School District’s need for increased funding, Vegas’s need for sports stems from healthy population growth. Nevada’s population rose 8.9 percent from 2010-16, while Missouri’s rose only 1.7 percent and Illinois’s declined 0.2 percent. The American migration exists, and sending sports franchises to Las Vegas isn’t a blind cash grab; it’s an investment into the futures of the NFL, NHL and potentially even more leagues down the road.
So why Vegas? Aren’t casinos and strip clubs enough to keep all people happy? Doesn’t the neighboring state of California have enough sports teams to go around already?
To answer these questions, one must first recognize that nearly one quarter of Nevada’s population is under 18 years old. People want family bonding activities, and getting tipsy in a dimly lit room full of scantily clad dancers, scam artists and slot machines doesn’t exactly fit the bill for most parents.
Not to mention, the potential television reach of Las Vegas sports would justify any discrepancies in actual stadium attendance. A meager six NFL teams represent cities west of Kansas, and half of them reside in California alone.
Similarly, three of the eight NHL teams west of Kansas are in Canada, and another three are in (sigh) California. Folks in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming can’t be too happy about that, but bringing NFL and NHL teams to Nevada would also bring sports closer to these states. And proximity means a lot in determining which teams to support over the radio waves. Just ask citizens of the 10 states in which stations broadcast Cardinals games. A Las Vegas franchise could create a similar ripple effect for western sports fans who dislike their few existing options.
Still, Las Vegas suffers from the stigma of its gambling background. Wouldn’t a professional team only increase the intensity of illegal sports activities in the area?
No, not in the slightest, especially given the proliferation of online gambling across the country. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) offers a case study on the location’s lack of influence on local sports betting.
“[We’ve] been booking for years with the UNLV basketball team,” Johnny Avello, executive director of Wynn Las Vegas sportsbook, said in an interview with Forbes last year. “We’ve done the NBA Summer League. We’ve done NCAA, preseason games and all of that. You can just look at the history here and see it’s not unusual.”
Still not convinced? Let me quote the website of St. Louis’s very own Lumière Place Casino; “Lumière Place isn’t just the heart of St. Louis, it drives the rhythm.” Improper grammar aside, it’s safe to say St. Louis (and any other city, really) has its own connections to gambling, but we don’t constantly suspect Cardinals and Blues players of corruption, do we? Instead, “the best fans in baseball” attack Dexter Fowler for acknowledging the existence of politics. Right.
Las Vegas doesn’t hold the rich sports history of cities like St. Louis and Chicago, but ignoring it for this is like ignoring Stanford University because it isn’t an Ivy League school. Thomas Jefferson acquired what would become California in 1803, but the land didn’t receive attention until the gold rush of 1848. Now the state represents America’s greatest economic hub.
No major professional sports team has ever represented Nevada, but the Vegas Golden Knights NHL franchise will look for a gold rush of their own in 2017. And if Mark Davis plays his cards correctly, his Oakland Raiders NFL team will join the Golden Knights as soon as 2019.
Maybe the Las Vegas “Panty” Raiders will crumble under the corruption of casino life. Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights will melt under the heat of the Calgary Flames or blow away amid the Carolina Hurricanes. Regardless of the Vegas experiment’s results, our Rams returned to Los Angeles to play in a half-empty stadium; let’s quit dealing teams to the same old cities and give our patient friends a hand.
A dangerous gamble
I’ve never been one to bet too much. Sure, I’ve played my fair share of fantasy football, and if someone says the Falcons will give up a 28-3 lead, I’ll take them up on it (still recovering from that one), but I generally avoid offering my wallet to the bipolar mood swings of the sports gods. So back in June, when the NHL officially introduced its first expansion team since the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild in 2000, I had to shake my head, laugh a little and bend my practice of morals in the sports world.
I’d bet you the rest of Giancarlo Stanton’s contract that the brand new Vegas Golden Knights hockey team will fail and relocate in the next decade. I’ll give you 2-1 odds. Hell, I’ll give you 3-1.
Las Vegas has never hosted a major sports organization, so Golden Knights majority-owner Bill Foley is making quite the gamble, to say the least. While expansion competitor Quebec City sat pretty with a royal flush, Sin City went all-in, and here’s why it won’t work:
Vegas ranks in the top 30 city and metropolitan area populations in the country, but according to Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, there are about as many avid NHL fans in Canada as there are in the U.S., even though there are about 10 times fewer Canadians than Americans. According to the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto, as of 2011, Canada could support 12 NHL teams, including second franchises in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Plus, the American teams averaged 17,350 fans per home game during the 2015-16 season, but the Canadian teams averaged 18,320, even though not a single Canadian team made the playoffs. The loyalty of the fans never lies, and you can take that one to the bank.
So, if the NHL doesn’t expand to Canada, doesn’t it make sense to at least consider somewhere more north, like Cleveland, Milwaukee or Seattle? As in somewhere that would produce a loyal fan base? Hockey in Vegas will be about as profitable as baseball in Anchorage.
What’s perplexing, though, is the Golden Knights won’t even be the first team in the desert. Since the former Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes, the franchise has struggled to win and attract fans, as shown by their solitary division title in their new home. So when the relocation rumors around the Coyotes begin to intensify as the team continues to crumble, deal me in.
But this Silver City chaos doesn’t just apply to hockey.
The Oakland Raiders announced their plans to move to Las Vegas Jan. 19, 2017, after a 12-4 season that saw the team establish itself as one of the best in the league. The team, the NFL and Bank of America have now pledged to spend $1.9 billion for a new stadium most likely at the south end of the Strip, pending approval from 24 of the league’s 32 owners in late March. If it passes, the team will continue to play in Oakland until stadium construction is finished, most likely in 2019 or 2020.
So, here’s an interesting one: will the Raiders attract a more laughable crowd in their last few years in Oakland with an estranged fan base, or in their first (and only) few years in Vegas without a fan base at all? I’ll set the over-under at 30,000 a game, for either venue.
You may ask why the Raiders will need a solid fan base when Vegas is so notorious for its ability to constantly attract new tourists. But ask yourself, how many times are you going to hear, Honey, I know we’ve been looking forward to the fountains at the Bellagio, but the Raiders play the Jets tonight, and I just have to go. Skip it. The fountains are only on a few times a night.
Las Vegas has all but clinched two professional sports franchises in less than a year, rudely interjecting itself above one-team megacities such as San Antonio, San Diego and San Jose, all of which rank in the country’s top 10 most populous cities. So, naturally, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred dealt himself in and said the City of Lights is a “viable” market, and that it may host an MLB team in the future. Given that the MLB was staunchly against gambling and any connection with Las Vegas under former commissioner Bud Selig, Vegas will have a tough time finding enough fans for one home game, much less 81 per year. But if the team has trouble looking for people to fill their management positions, I hear Pete Rose is looking for something to do other than sell autographs for $500 a pop.
And then, assuming Vegas succeeds in recruiting an MLB expansion team, the NBA will be the only major sports league left out, and the only major sports league with less than 31 teams. Without a doubt, they’ll at least think about becoming only the 13th city with all four sports.
But in a decade, we’ll look back on this experiment and chuckle. I’ll even bet you the Raiders’ stadium fund on that one.