Major leagues finally ready to deal Las Vegas in - The Buffalo News

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Major leagues finally ready to deal Las Vegas in

LAS VEGAS – Whether or not you bought into the NCAA's spook stories that Jerry Tarkanian was shady, it's a fact the legendary basketball coach relied on one particular trick to keep his UNLV recruits in the dark.

The school was called Tumbleweed Tech back then. It was the early 1970s, and the glitzy Runnin' Rebels were barely a glimmer in Tarkanian's eye.

So to lure players such as Reggie Theus and Glen Gondrezick and Ricky Sobers to an unproven program in the desert, Tarkanian would fly them into Las Vegas at night.

"When you came into Las Vegas during the day and looked out the airplane window," Tarkanian's wife, Lois, said, "all you would see was sand forever.

"But when you came in at night you had the lights, those bright lights. As the years went on and more casinos came, The Strip looked almost like a necklace strewn out, an emerald here and a diamond there and a ruby there."

Lois Tarkanian's late husband was a Las Vegas visionary, worthy of space in the same sentence as Bugsy Siegel, the Rat Pack and Howard Hughes.

Nobody was more important to establishing the city's sports identity than Jerry Tarkanian, who vibed on a burgeoning metropolis loaded with possibilities.

A statue of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian is just outside the university's Thomas & Mack Center. (Getty Images)

"Jerry just always had in his heart that this would become a great college sports town," Lois Tarkanian said Tuesday in her Las Vegas City Council office, "that this would be a town that would embrace something that belonged to them."

But she conceded there was no way Tark could have envisioned this.

Las Vegas is big-league. And the old railroad watering post is on the on the verge of getting bigger-league.

As gambling normalizes around the country and the lines between fantasy wagers and traditional sports betting have blurred, Las Vegas' population grows and grows.

The major leagues no longer have an excuse to stay away from the potential riches that await.

The Vegas Golden Knights will make their NHL debut in the fall. The Oakland Raiders are expected to move to Las Vegas by 2020, with NFL owners possibly green-lighting relocation within the next few days.

NFL owners will convene in Phoenix from Sunday until Wednesday for their annual spring meeting. Raiders owner Mark Davis will need approval from 23 of his 31 colleagues to move, and it's believed within league circles Davis already has sufficient support.

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis walks past fans holding Raiders signs as he arrives at a Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee meeting at UNLV on April 28, 2016. (Getty Images)

If the Raiders move, then Las Vegas would join Buffalo and Nashville as the markets with only NFL and NHL franchises.

Although loose ends dangle from the financing required to build a Las Vegas football stadium and the vote could be tabled until the owners' next meeting in May, approval is considered a formality.

Clark County is collecting a hotel tax to contribute $750 million to the new stadium. Oakland, meanwhile, has failed to come up with any semblance of a plan to keep the Raiders or replace the dilapidated Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

The Buffalo News this week in Las Vegas interviewed 15 civic leaders, sports executives, arena operators and connected businessmen. Each one – even those who don't want to spend public money on sports or who'd rather the Raiders stay off their turf – considers the Raiders' arrival forthcoming.

"I'm bullish that this is going to happen," said UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner, previously executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission that oversees boxing and mixed martial arts.

"With the money committed from the state, it's just a natural. It makes sense."

Their confidence shouldn't be classified as naiveté. Las Vegas has been used for sports leverage in the past.

The suffering Utah Jazz played 11 games at the Thomas & Mack Center in 1983-84, but local businessmen failed to make it permanent. The Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes long have been rumored to be a relocation candidate. The Oakland A's flirted with moving here in 2004.

Folks here are naturally suspicious, which makes their conviction about the Raiders more striking.

"Where else are you going to get $750 million in public money?" laughed Don Logan, president and COO of the Las Vegas 51s Triple-A baseball club.

Las Vegas Bowl executive director John Saccenti called the Raiders arrival "the home run of home runs." Former UNLV and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Glenn Carano called the move "a slam dunk."

"I'm told by people involved with the process this is all but a done deal," Saccenti said. "They want to push this thing through and set a tone that says, 'If any other team isn't getting help from its local municipalities, look at what Las Vegas did to get the Raiders.' "

Carano and his siblings own seven casinos, including Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie, Pa. He has a Super Bowl ring as a rookie backup to Roger Staubach in 1977 and served two terms on the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

"There are Las Vegans that are totally against public tax dollars paying for something like the Raiders," Carano said. "But it's time."

The team name and logo for the Vegas Golden Knights were unveiled Nov. 22, 2016 and were displayed outside the venue the team will compete in, the T-Mobile Arena. (Getty Images)

Fortunes change for pro sports

Las Vegas repeatedly has reinvented its image. Casinos maintained a dusty, wild-west theme before mobster Bugsy Siegel came along in the 1940s with his Flamingo vision of glamour and sophistication.

Wise guys ran Las Vegas businesses for decades until billionaire film and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes phased them out. He bought the Desert Inn, several other resorts and almost every vacant parcel on The Strip, ushering a corporate attitude.

Sin City still was too seedy for major-league tastes.

Nevada is the only state with legal, full-scale sports betting. Fears over bookies getting their claws into coaches and athletes to fix games or shave points doomed any dreams of putting a team here.

"The NFL was so adamant about never being seen dead in a place where there was gambling," one-time UNLV and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson said.

Given that sentiment, Las Vegas stood zero chance with the major leagues as recently as eight or 10 years ago.

"It didn't matter whether we had a stadium or how many season tickets we could guarantee," said Logan, a longtime proponent of bringing Major League Baseball here. "Nothing would happen until gaming was accepted."

("Gaming," by the way, doesn't refer to playing "League of Legends" or "Halo" video games. "Gaming" is Nevada's marketing-preferred term for the activity otherwise known as "gambling.")

Las Vegas in the 1990s briefly morphed into a family destination with amusement parks and all-ages entertainment. Few fell for it.

Then, in 2003, Sin City fully embraced its decadent, devil-may-care personality with the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" advertising campaign.

Las Vegas stopped pretending, stopped offering apologies.

Las Vegas became comfortable in its own skin. The community's maturing needs took shape in its medical, educational and cultural offerings. The rest of America seemed to catch up with Las Vegas' more progressive diversions.

Casinos are within walking distance of many major-league venues now, including KeyBank Center in downtown Buffalo. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has advocated betting on games. Leagues and teams have partnerships with lotteries and high-stakes daily-fantasy companies and collect advertising revenue from casinos.

Gambling arguably is the biggest economic driver in pro sports.

"Without gambling," Ratner said, "the NFL is just another ballgame."

Ratner doesn't declare that flippantly. The Las Vegas High and University of Nevada alum has made a career overseeing sports integrity.

In addition to running the state's athletic commission, he was a longtime NCAA back judge, handles the shot clock for UNLV basketball and NBA Summer League and runs the Southern Nevada Officials Association.

"When people over the years would tell me gambling is evil, I wouldn't argue with them," Ratner said. "I would just think to myself, 'They're wrong.' Gambling and sports go hand in hand.

"I think if you could get [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell away from everybody, he doesn't want it here. But if you ask [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones and [Patriots owner] Bob Kraft and you have hundreds of millions in public money, that changes the whole equation."

The Raiders are proposing a $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium that would open in 2020 and accommodate UNLV's football team.

The Raiders would spend $500 million. The county has earmarked $750 million in room taxes. Another $650 million would come from a third party that was supposed to be Sheldon Adelson. The powerful Las Vegas Sands CEO and Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher withdrew after he claimed the Raiders excluded him from critical discussions. Adelson's departure led project underwriter Goldman Sachs to bail, too.

Bank of America has since joined the project with a pledge for the missing $650 million, but it's unclear what entity is being backed.

The proposed site for a new NFL stadium in Las Vegas. (Tim Graham/Buffalo News)

If the insiders are wrong and the Raiders – or any other NFL team – aren't secured by April 2018, then the collected room taxes will pay for a smaller UNLV stadium.

The Golden Knights will play in the privately funded T-Mobile Arena, a 50-50 partnership between MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which built Staples Center in Los Angeles, StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., and Target Center in Minneapolis.

T-Mobile Arena is between The Strip and Frank Sinatra Boulevard. A leading candidate for the Raiders' stadium is a 63-acre vacant lot at Russell Road and Dean Martin Drive.

That's right.

Rat Pack roads would take you to Las Vegas' big-league arenas.

No substitute for the big-time

Jay White figured his days of playing in recreational hockey leagues were over when he and his family moved from Detroit to Las Vegas in 1990.

Jerry Tarkanian of the UNLV Rebels watches his team in action in the 1989-90 season. (Ken Levine/Allsport)

But if you want to be a full-time Neil Diamond impersonator, then you go where the work is.

"Of all places to get a job offer from," White said, "it had to be a place that didn't have any hockey."

The year White arrived, Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels won their national championship and a year later would come two victories away from completing an undefeated season. UNLV was the hottest ticket in town, with local celebrities and powerbrokers sitting courtside on Gucci Row.

The idea of hockey in the desert was absurd.

But the now-defunct International Hockey League launched the Las Vegas Thunder in 1993. The timing was perfect to make the Thunder a phenomenon.

The NCAA hounded UNLV and Tarkanian with arbitrary probations and penalties over vague recruiting missteps. He eventually resigned in 1992 (the NCAA paid him $2.5 million in a 1998 settlement). The Runnin' Rebels allure faded fast.

The Thunder emerged to fill the void partially, sometimes drawing 12,000 fans to the Thomas & Mack Center on weekends.

White was more than a spectator. At night he was Neil Diamond; by day, he was the Thunder's practice goaltender until it folded in 1999.

Jay White has played for minor-league hockey teams in Las Vegas. (Courtesy Jay White)

When the East Coast Hockey League added the Las Vegas Wranglers in 2003, White was their emergency goalie and dressed five games for coach Glen Gulutzan, now the Calgary Flames head coach. The Wranglers folded in 2015.

White provides a unique perspective on the Golden Knights. In his 34th year of performing – he sang with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014 at Kleinhans Music Hall and will play Seneca Niagara Casino again in October – White understands audiences.

He's fully aware Las Vegas' economy relies on discretionary income and is vulnerable to recessions. No American city was devastated more deeply by home foreclosures in the 2008 crash. Over the first six months of 2009, one in every 13 homes here received a foreclosure filing.

White headlined at the Riviera from 2002 until 2010, but when the economy dipped his 250-seat ballroom would get 50 customers some nights.

"It might not work, but Vegas is a gambling town," White said Thursday after a pickup game in the SoBe Ice Arena at the Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino. "They're gambling there are enough people here now to support a team, and I think there will be."

Jay White moved to Las Vegas to further his career as a Neil Diamond impersonator. (Courtesy Jay White)

The Golden Knights must cope with playing in a city where 110,000 tickets are available on any given evening for singers, acrobats, comedians, electronic-dance shows, showgirls, magicians and other sports.

Oh, yeah, and probably the Raiders.

The NHL slow-rolled committing to Las Vegas as an expansion market. The Golden Knights slow-rolled announcing their team name, logo and whatnot.

Before the Golden Knights gained their foothold, the NFL swiped their local media coverage. The Golden Knights have season-ticket pledges through a couple years, but the Raiders could be here in three. The Golden Knights better win quickly.

"A couple years to establish the team would be a good thing," said White, who has played in NHL Alumni charity games. "Then let the Raiders come in and do their thing.

"I'm hopeful the Golden Knights get a chance to break through and make a name for themselves and stand on their own."

High-stakes population

Clark County's population was under 300,000, with about only 18 percent born in Nevada, when the Tarkanians moved here from Southern California.

Las Vegas now is the most populous U.S. city that was founded in 20th century. And if there aren't enough residents to support NFL and NHL box offices, then executives trust fans from the visiting team will circle Las Vegas as a destination and supply the difference.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority counted 42.9 million visitors last year.

"I think Vegas can handle the NFL and NHL on its own," said 1980s UNLV quarterback Steve Stallworth, general manager of South Point Arena and Equestrian Center.

"However, what a great fallback if we can't."

The Las Vegas market is measured by Clark County data. The corporate limits of Las Vegas are but a sequin in the region's iridescence. For instance, the Las Vegas Strip does not actually run through Las Vegas, but unincorporated Clark County.

Clark County's population is estimated at 2.2 million and growing. A 2015 population forecast by UNLV's Center for Business and Economic Research projected 2.8 million Clark County residents by 2035 and 3.1 million by 2050.

By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau lists Erie County's population at 921,046 and wobbling.

"The leagues have been watching closely," Logan said. "Were we the kid who was 6 foot 1 in eighth grade? There was a thought out there that kid wasn't going to grow anymore; the city's as big as it's going to get.

"Then through the 2000s we continued to grow. The economic collapse in '08 and '09 stopped the world for a while. But the town keeps growing."

Lois Tarkanian smiles as she watches a video at a tribute to her late husband Jerry at a celebration of the basketball coach's life at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 1, 2015. (Getty Images)

So, too, does Las Vegas' needs. That has Lois Tarkanian anxious about giving the Raiders $750 million.

Yes, that $750 million is coming from tourists. But she wonders why politicians hadn't endorsed a similar idea for the Clark County School District or the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

"I don't think we should use any public monies to any significant degree to bring a team here," Lois Tarkanian said. "Now, if you need public monies to help with infrastructure to make it easier or safer for the public to attend the game, then that's our job.

"But to build a stadium? I don't feel that way. Until we have some very serious problems taken care of, I just don't think so.

"That may be bad for me to say, and my husband might disagree, but that's how I feel."

Lois Tarkanian referenced St. Louis, which scrambled to replace the Cardinals by building the Rams a new domed stadium in 1995. The Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

"Some cities have had pro teams make demands and then leave," she said. "Then what are you left with? An empty coliseum. What are you going to do with that? Or maybe once they're here they demand something else that squeezes you.

"We have scarce dollars. What if there's another recession around the corner? You don't want to put your people in a position where we can't pay the bills. We don't want to be hoodwinked."

Lois Tarkanian is second from right in this photo, which features Engelbert Humperdinck receiving a ceremonial key to the city from Las Vegas leaders at City Hall in 2011. Las Vegas city councilmen Bob Coffin and Steve Ross, singer Engelbert Humperdinck, Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tem Stavros Anthony, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Wolfson, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, and Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow. (Getty Images)

As attractive as metro Las Vegas' size is, however, the Raiders play in the sixth-largest television market. More eyeballs mean more money when the NFL brokers its obnoxious broadcast deals.

Nielsen ranks Las Vegas the country's 40th-largest market for the 2016-17 television season, which would put it ahead of only No. 47 Jacksonville, No. 50 New Orleans, No. 53 Buffalo and No. 68 Green Bay among NFL cities.

Las Vegas also presents population quirks of which leagues aside from the NFL should be wary.

"The gaming issue has crumbled," said Stallworth, who backed up Randall Cunningham at UNLV and then started two seasons. "The wall is down, and it continues to crumble every day.

"The question now is: Are we a viable market from a business standpoint? I don't know."

Las Vegas is a three-shift city. On evenings the Golden Knights are on the ice, substantial chunks of the workforce will be at work or asleep and unavailable to be a customer.

The UNLV population forecast estimates 24.6 percent works in the hospitality industry and another 6.4 percent in construction, an around-the-clock profession here thanks to the climate.

Another demographic issue for the Golden Knights is a swelling Latino community that comprises 30 percent of the current population and is estimated to reach 33 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2035.

The NHL, known to hypothesize that Northeast transplants and snowbirds should fill those arenas in balmy locales, has failed to cultivate a significant Latino fan base.

A 2014 Sports Media Watch examination of fan demographics found NHL supporters are the least-diverse among the four major leagues, and Hispanics comprised between 2 percent and 6 percent of the Stanley Cup Finals audience.

The NHL's biggest franchise failures have been in warm-weather markets. Twice the NHL has evacuated an expansion team from Atlanta to Western Canada. The Arizona Coyotes eight years ago went bankrupt in the No. 12 TV market and became a ward of the league for four years.

Of the NHL's 30 clubs, the Florida Panthers rank 27th, the Coyotes 29th and the Carolina Hurricanes last in attendance this season.

Raiders, Rebels and rogues

John Robinson proclaimed the NFL wouldn't have any issue filling a Las Vegas stadium, and with it seemingly inevitable the Raiders are the ones coming here?

The bygone UNLV coach and athletics director unleashed a whoop.

"It's going to be a wild scene, boy!" Robinson said.

The Raiders, he noted, are transcendent.

John Robinson during his tenure as coach of the USC Trojans. (Stephen Dunn/Allsport)

Robinson coached the Raiders' running backs under John Madden before winning the 1978 national championship as USC's head coach. Robinson shared Los Angeles with the Raiders while head coach of the Rams from 1983 to 1991.

"The Raiders have become more of a state of mind than a location," Robinson said.

A Silver and Black state of mind should work well in the Silver State. The Raiders' rogue spirit suits Las Vegas well.

"They're the bad boys," Carano said. He played against the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. "They had refugees, defectors and rejects. They were has-beens from somewhere else that turned into renegades.

"UNLV is the Rebels, and under Tark you had a lot of players who needed a second chance, and he took them in and did something special.

"The Raiders have a certain iconic appeal to everybody. It's a beautiful thing; the Raiders, coming to Las Vegas."

Potential problems lurk for UNLV. Robinson described Las Vegas as a town with little patience for minor-league events, that UNLV's football and basketball programs have done little to capture the locals' imagination lately.

Stallworth, a UNLV scholarship donor and season-ticket holder, worries that major-league sports will eclipse college sports.

"I think UNLV is really going to suffer," Stallworth said. "Our basketball program has never been worse. Our football program has been horrible for 25 years.

"When you look at all the things going on, we're going to have the NFL as an option in the fall and the NHL as an option in the winter. UNLV is in such a hole."

Saccenti, the Las Vegas Bowl executive, claimed the town will roll with whatever comes.

"Where I have concern is with these sports with long seasons," Saccenti said. "I don't know if hockey is going to work, but I hope it does.

"But the NFL is perfect for Las Vegas. We are an event town, and when you have a once-a-week event, we get excited about it. I have no doubt it's going to work."

Saccenti knows every nook in the Las Vegas sports scene. His career began as the Thunder's mascot, Boom Boom. He worked for the Thunder and the Stars (since renamed the 51s) and then jumped at the chance to be marketing director for the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws in 2000. Upon the XFL's demise, Saccenti joined ESPN Events, which bought the Las Vegas Bowl.

Saccenti, a New Jersey native, attended UNLV largely because he was blown away by the Thomas & Mack Center's incandescent atmosphere when two cousins took him to a Runnin' Rebels game.

"I got hooked on it immediately," Saccenti said. "The energy and excitement of Las Vegas drew me in.

"This is the most exciting time I can ever remember for this city. We are right on the edge for unbelievable things.

"I'm a little nervous we're going to have too much going on."

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