The commotion about an NBA franchise in Las Vegas
30 April 2012
VEGAS INC Coverage
By most any definition, Las Vegas is a world-class city.
If our major attractions and global tourism appeal weren’t already enough to earn such a distinction, the arrival of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts downtown made it more official.
There is much more to do if we intend to fulfill our highest potential, and given a continuing economic recovery, we’ll probably soon add to the assets we have. But Las Vegas stepped onto that world stage quite some time ago.
So it might be reasonable to ask if a professional basketball team would really add anything substantive to our repertoire. It’s a frequently repeated assumption, and one that carries potentially serious implications for taxpayers.
Forget for a moment all the issues associated with stadiums or arenas. There’s no question the local economy would benefit substantially from improved venues, but that’s a topic that deserves its own discussion in another space and time.
This is just about pro basketball, and more specifically, whether Las Vegas would come out ahead by getting in league with the National Basketball Association.
Like a lot of readers, I’ve watched the Las Vegas 51s baseball team and the Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team for years now. Yes, they are minor league franchises. But in following their continuing crusades for attendance — even with some of sports’ most clever promotions and incentives — one can only wonder how a major-league franchise with more than 40 home games a year would pay the bills. At least, at this point in our evolution.
I’m not even sure I need to point out that the UNLV Rebels have only occasionally actually filled the Thomas & Mack Center in recent years, even when they are winning, and despite relatively affordable ticket prices.
Thus far into its strike-shortened season, the contending Chicago Bulls are the top draw in the NBA, averaging 22,000-plus fans a game. At the lowest end of the spectrum, the also-ran New Jersey Nets average just under 14,000. The numbers we would need to draw are probably somewhere in between. That seems ambitious indeed.
Television revenue? It won’t be high, because TV actually is one area in which we’re technically not world-class. By broadcast standards — I’m talking advertising revenue here — we’re a secondary market.
Of course, putting a team on the court is only part of the project. Being competitive is another. Given the high salaries in today’s major sports, it takes a fortune to field a winner.
Another assumption is that NBA access would appeal to our visitors, some of whom can’t get their hands on tickets in their hometowns. And yes, we would draw from our tourist base.
But there are 30 NBA franchises in the U.S. now, and only nine regularly play before a full house. That means there are seats available to most fans within driving distance of an NBA venue. And even if some tourists do have a pent-up desire for tickets to NBA games, some of these purchases would be coming out of a budget they’d otherwise be spending at existing attractions here.
These days, NBA franchises essentially appeal to a municipal vanity, world-class status being only one justification. They’re also touted as a way to bring a community together, to give it a common cause and something we can all root for. But there are many high-profile examples of how pro sports can also divide and distract, such as when they start demanding investments in venues.
To understand some of the dynamics, consider the ongoing saga of the Sacramento Kings, who have averaged slightly more than 14,000 fans a game and draw from a metro area of about 2.5 million. The Kings have been at an impasse with the city over who will pay for the new arena they insist they must have.
Even though its mayor is former NBA star Kevin Johnson, Sacramento has thus far refused to pay for it.
In fairness, the problem was not caused by the Maloofs, who incidentally have been exemplary corporate citizens in Las Vegas. It’s just how things work in pro sports these days. And if a solution isn’t reached, well, you know what happens when sports teams get disgruntled: They simply move on, to a city more willing to spend.
When a city lands a pro basketball team, it’s making a decision to help ensure its solvency. We’re world-class, and there are many more pressing needs in our community than subsidizing an NBA team.
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