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Las Vegas talks a good game from the bench

February 16, 2007|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — To hear Mayor Oscar Goodman tell it, this city of extravagance has everything: the best hotels, the best entertainment, the best retail shopping, the most spectacular events.

But the one sign of a major league city that it lacks is, well, a major league team. The mayor wants to fix that -- and he thinks playing host to Sunday's National Basketball Assn. All-Star game will help his city's case.

The NBA has never played its showcase game in a city without an NBA team. Goodman, who made his fortune as a defense lawyer representing Las Vegas mobsters, is prone to crowing already about its apparent Vegas success.

"You want tickets, fuhgeddaboutit, it's sold out," he says.

He sees local support for the game as evidence that his "great American city" would be a great home for a professional sports team.

But Goodman's city also is Sin City, a community commonly regarded as a great place to carouse. And the mayor faces a tough sell.

For starters, NBA Commissioner David Stern says Goodman is mistaken if he thinks the league is using the game to test the Las Vegas waters.

The attraction of Las Vegas as an All-Star venue, he said, was the availability of hotel rooms and convention space for all the activities that surround the game.

"But that's a different analysis from the one that goes on with respect to whether a city can support a franchise," Stern said.

One problem: gambling

And then there's gaming. Nevada is the only state in which sports gambling is legal.

As the NBA commissioner put it in an interview with The Times: "If they'll take the NBA off the board" -- that is, eliminate betting on league games -- "we could consider Las Vegas for an NBA franchise."

Many gambling and sports experts say Stern's demand is anachronistic when 48 of the 50 states have legalized gambling in some form.

"There's a little disconnect between the people in the leagues and the reality of what gambling is in the United States," says David Schwartz, a gaming industry expert at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "Gambling today is strictly regulated."

That reassurance doesn't seem to impress pro league officials, many of whom fear even the public perception that gamblers might fix a game to fill their own pockets. The nationwide prevalence of legalized gambling, moreover, has not fully dispelled its unsavory aura.

As for the NBA, Stern says, it is concerned about gambling more as a distraction than as a moral issue or a threat to the game's integrity. He says he wants customers focused on what's happening on the basketball courts, not among oddsmakers.

"Historically, there's a notion that most of our fans are basketball fans," he says, "not point-spread fans."

The quest to bring a top sports franchise to town dates back years. With a population of 1.7 million, the Las Vegas metropolitan area is equal to or larger than many communities that have major league football, basketball, hockey and baseball teams.

Its population has more than doubled since 1990, but the prominence of gambling has been an enduring obstacle to major league interest.

More recently, Goodman has made landing a sports franchise a cornerstone of mayoral policy. In a January "state of the city" speech, Goodman pledged: "This is going to be the year that we are going to be involved with serious discussions about having a professional sports team locate in Las Vegas."

Though sounding as if a specific deal might be lurking, he has refused to identify what sport or league it might be.

Since becoming mayor in 1999, he has tried various approaches to interest the big leagues. For example, he offered the National Football League a stadium to serve as a permanent venue for Monday and Thursday night games. "It would be a neutral site," he says with a grin. "Sort of like how it was for the mob -- you know, Las Vegas was a neutral city."

The mayor contends that 30 million annual visitors to the region should provide a solid source of attendance for a major league team. Others doubt that those numbers matter.

Not if, but when

"The fan base has to be the locals," says Rossi Ralenkotter, chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and a member of a regional task force that recommended four sites for a publicly funded sports arena last year.

With a local population likely to reach 3 million within 10 years, the arrival of a major league team is "not a matter of if, but when," Ralenkotter said. "One day a league will make a business decision that we're big enough to support a franchise."

Whether Las Vegas taxpayers would be willing to finance a stadium is unclear. And the casinos, which are accustomed to building arenas and showrooms with their own money, might well object to construction of a publicly subsidized entertainment venue.

"It makes no sense to us to take the tax dollars we're creating and build another competitor down the street," says Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Mirage, a leading casino operator in Las Vegas.

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