Wednesday, September 17, 2003

The Las Vegas Expos? Don't be daft

My colleague Norm! Clarke, the Review-Journal's gossip columnist, broke the story (here -- check "Sightings" -- and here) that Major League Baseball has opened high-level negotiations with parties who hope to make Las Vegas a possible destination for the Montreal Expos. Mayor Oscar Goodman, casting about as always to find something, anything that might revitalize his bedraggled downtown, is all aflutter. But back to reality. As much as I would love to have a big league ballclub playing a half-hour or so from my home, I'm convinced this is a ploy by MLB, using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip to extort a higher franchise fee out of the eventual owners in Washington or Portland (or Montreal, for that matter).

In no particular order of significance, here are several reasons we won't get a major league franchise:

Gambling. Every time talks of bringing big league sports to Las Vegas are initiated, they go nowhere, because so long as Nevada sports book continue to accept wagers on teams in the sport in question, the leagues back away. The casinos offer a self-serving (though plausible) defense for refusing to close the books: So long as bets are being placed in public, above board, under the scrutiny of financial and government regulators, the chances of successfully running some sort of fixing scheme go down dramatically. Once wagering slinks underground, though, as the phrase goes, all bets are off. Even so, the leagues feel the need to act all high and mighty and resist placing their teams in cities that allow gambling.

Fan base. The Las Vegas metropolitan area has about 1.6 million residents. That would give it the smallest population of any major league city. (It's slightly smaller than Milwaukee and Kansas City, roughly 20 percent smaller than Cincinnati, and a whopping 45 percent smaller than Portland, which is also bidding for the team.)

What's more, there are no nearby "feeder" cities which could provide additional fans if the Vegas nine were to attempt to market itself as a "regional" team in the way the Braves, the Reds and the Cardinals have done so successfully over the years. When I lived in North Carolina, for several years my family made a point of scheduling a trip to Atlanta to see the Braves, even though it was a seven or eight hour drive. Thousands of other families who live closer than we did make a trip to Turner Field a somewhat regular weekend getaway.

Such a plan would be tougher to pull off in Vegas, because the closest real cities are Phoenix (240 miles away), L.A. (280) and San Diego (336) -- and those cities have their own teams. There ain't much else here to draw from.

Facilities. Cashman Field, where the Dodgers' Triple-A franchise (the 51s) plays, holds 9.000 fans. I suppose additional temporary seating could be installed until a permanent home were built, but that final resting place would be an extremely expensive proposition. Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, cost upwards of $400 million to construct, and I'm guessing we'd need a similar structure (with a retractable roof) here. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the daytime highs rarely drop below 100 degrees, and temperatures between 110 and 115 are common in July and August. The mercury will often not descend into the double digits until midnight or later, so an air-conditioned facility for the players and the fans would be a must.

Who would pay for that? The money could come from tourist taxes collected by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, but the LVCVA guards its booty zealously. Taxes on tourism would have to go up. And once the stadium is built, annual operating costs can run in the tens of millions of dollars, which for damn sure won't come out of the owners' pockets.

Competition for the entertainment dollar. Hey, it's Sin City. You think people will travel here to watch baseball? OK, initially, supply may create its own demand. Sheer novelty will attract tourists and locals alike. Tourists attending a convention or on a gambling trip might set aside a few hours and a few bucks to take in a ballgame. But long term, I can't imagine a substantial number of out-of-towners supporting the team, especially since most of the games would be played in the heat of the summer, when tourism drops off.

As for the locals? Well, they've supported NASCAR and Rebel basketball, but those are the only sporting events they've regularly attended, and they take up, what ... 20 days a year? The Expos would play 81 home games each season. That's a lot of Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Ultimately, Las Vegas is being used by MLB. We won't get a team. But that's OK, because the cost to taxpayers -- locals and tourists alike -- of obtaining and maintaining a franchise and a stadium would be staggering. If Oscar wants to rejuvenate downtown, he should implode the ratty casinos there and encourage Steve Wynn, George Maloof or the Fertittas to clear away the wreckage and build an eye-popping megaresort on the site. That'll bring the folks back.

No comments: