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THANKS TO GAMBLERS, LAS VEGAS IS AMERICA’S NEW EPICENTER OF SPORTS
Only five years have passed since the Supreme Court legalized betting wagers, and since then, a bunch of crazy people — including the owner of the Athletics — might not survive while others thrive
What America has created, thanks to parlaying fanboys in the Supreme Court, is a massive Zeitgeist of gambling-manufactured circuses in southern Nevada. As recently as 2015, Roger Goodell was called a hypocrite when he banned a fantasy football convention because Tony Romo wanted to place it in Las Vegas. The NFL commissioner said, with no national outcry: “We oppose legalized sports gambling. We haven’t changed our position on that, and I don’t anticipate us changing that.”
Today, Romo’s affair would be far too meaningless to make a roster of local splashes. In a matter of five years, since those rollicking judges legalized wagers on sports, Vegas is a scene beyond belief. Seizing the 2018 elimination of an unlit gambling market, billionaire owners and league bosses promptly turned Vegas into a kingdom of new riches and prominence. No longer did the Supreme Court believe a 1992 federal law — the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, authored by basketball-star-turned-senator Bill Bradley — was necessary to defend sports from integrity criminals.
Never mind the crooks already in place since then. Never mind the fixation of problem bettors who multiply with the frequent commercials of FanDuel, DraftKings, ESPN Bet and other sportsbooks taking advantage of 38 states offering legal gambling, including 26 allowing it via smartphone apps or websites. Sports has changed in gargantuan and never-retrievable ways, all because the Court said the law was unconstitutional. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. commented: “It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”
Tell that to Joe in Alsip.
He now wears his Chicago Bears jersey and uses his phone 10-12 times a day, ultimately losing every time. Sports no longer is an active competition to see which athletes are predominant. It’s about winning a bet, the game outcome just sort of relevant. You think that’s only in Joe’s house? That’s in the markets of all revolving doors surrounding the industry, including mass media, which is more interested in making money off wagering than covering news accurately.
All of which is centered in Vegas, which soon will have all four North American pro leagues despite its stance as the nation’s 40th communications town. A bit off-kilter, wouldn’t you agree? It hosts the Super Bowl in February. It holds all kinds of events without explanations — “let’s go to Vegas,” say the large groups, sensing a night or two at the strip club or The Sphere for a space-age U2 concert. With the Golden Knights winning the NHL’s Stanley Cup, the Raiders coming from Oakland to charge the NFL’s top stadium revenues and the NBA listening closely to LeBron James’ wish to help run an impending expansion team, now we have Major League Baseball ending its lollygag. Last week in Texas, the 30 owners saw a simplistic way of upending a 56-year stronghold in long, lost Oakland, unanimously approving John Fisher’s plan to move the Athletics while Nevada produces $380 million in public financing for a $1.5-billion, 32,000-seat stadium.
Wait, didn’t I just see Mike Tyson do a cameo for “The Hangover” in Vegas?
You mean he could be a regular sports halftime show?
A gambling ad couldn’t have been posted there a few years ago. Now this is the glorious peak of sports as it enters the second fiscal quarter of the 21st century. Remember when you hit the airport and saw dust and schmaltzy show marketing? Wondering if Cheech & Chong were around? Now you take an Uber west on Tropicana Avenue, where T-Mobile Arena is on the right, home of the Golden Knights and Whatever Combat Sport is invented tomorrow. Past I-15 is Allegiant Stadium, where Raiders owner Mark Davis can’t field a winning team but knows loads of visiting customers will pay whatever he wants eight or nine times a season. The NBA will play at T-Mobile or, more likely, an arena yet to be built.
And right at The Strip is the ancient Tropicana, now a DoubleTree by Hilton property, where Fisher is planning his Field of Schemes on a scant nine-acre parcel by a Laugh Factory and a not-glitzy condo building. The idea is to replace the wreckingball of stadia, the Coliseum in northern California, with a season of sellouts that would make the switch worth Fisher’s while.
This is where the Vegas Gamble, always the trick, comes into play. Of all the team ideals — the Knights scream local, the Raiders are a nationwide domain, and the NBA can do what it wants in that place — the Athletics will have difficulty packing in 81 regular-season games even with some semblance of a retractable roof. They are dealing with brutally high temperatures that reach 91 degrees in May and stretch through 100, 105, 102 and 95 through September. They’ll play almost all night games, the antithesis of Wrigley Field, but it’s still on the very warm side. Will the Vegas A’s, who keep their name, bring in enough of the annual 45 million tourists in an off time of the calendar year? And do they have enough residents in a metro area of 2.2 million — and enough media viewers watching a dramatic drop-down of regional sports networks — to field audiences for a sub-foreign franchise known for everything from “Moneyball” to roster-trashing?
Will Fisher draw enough to avoid more grotesque last-place finishes? For a club that doesn’t have a TV deal yet, isn’t MLB commissioner Rob Manfred way too optimistic in laying out long-term prospects for owners? Should he advance a colossal bet in the overall ownership report? Yes, the A’s couldn’t get a ballpark deal in Oakland without private financing. Even Fisher, a Gap successor, refused to sell the team to Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who would build by himself on the spot. This is an alternate concept.
Said Manfred: “The report covers a mandatory set of topics that are essentially laid out in the relocation guidelines in terms of what’s the operating territory, what’s the home television territory. The relocation committee was unanimous in the view that Las Vegas was a strong market — probably the strongest, one of the two strongest open markets in the United States — and that it had more than enough capacity to support a major-league team. The A’s analysis of the market was consistent with that view. And we actually used an outside consultant that did market analysis as well, (which) was consistent with the relocation committees’ view as well as the projections that the A’s had prepared.”
Yet with so many fresh teams and happenings in Sin City, isn’t baseball the one that could crash? In an interview with The Athletic, club president Dave Kaval all but diminished broadcast ratings in relation to what the A’s will bring into the park. “And that was one reason I think when people looked at Las Vegas, maybe even like 10 years ago, they’re like, look, it’s got such few households for cable, that it wouldn’t make a good regional sports hub, wouldn’t get a lot of money there,” he said. “But our industry is changing, and actual revenue that you deliver out of your building — tickets and sponsorship and ratings, like how good you are — matter more now. And so I think in that new era, Vegas actually punches a little above its weight, compared to where things were 20 years ago.”
He’d better promise more weight-punching if he wants Tyson’s attention. When the fanboy-parlaying Supreme Court justices considered legal betting five years ago, they weren’t considering grand immediate odds for Vegas to make it as a four-team market. What we’ve seen so far means it can succeed as a two-teamer and a three-teamer, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver sold on Vegas and Seattle. But baseball could die — especially if Fisher is investing small fractions of what the latest World Series-champion teams, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, spend in the American League West. He’ll invest what ballpark revenues indicate. Good luck with those July dates.
Over the weekend, Formula One invested $600 million on a new course built on the Strip and through the desert. Typically, the Vegas shriekers and Liberty Media grandstanders turned the race into an excessive farce. Said three-time world champion Max Verstappen: “We are just standing up there, looking like a clown,” adding he thought the production was “99 percent show and 1 percent sporting event.” A lawsuit was filed against F1 by fans, a group of 35,000, who were sent home after a practice delay. A weak drain cover wrecked a $10 million Ferrari. Prices for tickets and hotel rooms fell all week. Why?
Everyone felt better when Verstappen won his 18th race of the season and said, somehow, “Viva Las Vegas! Viva Las Vegas! It was a lot of fun out there. I hope everyone enjoyed it — we definitely did. We’re already excited to come back next year.” He finished under a checkered flag waved by Justin Bieber, while wearing an Elvis Presley firesuit. Viva! Were they on drugs?
The finish, though bizarre, gave fans a little hope that the A’s won’t maul off the Tropicana track. “I understand this is an incredibly difficult day for Oakland fans, and I just want to say we gave every effort and did everything we could to try and find a solution there,” Fisher said the other day. “I’m very excited about the opportunity in Vegas. The fans there are terrific.”
But are there enough fans? Might the Supreme Court reconsider a ruling? It’s unconstitutional, isn’t it, to make sweltering people watch minor-league ball when the owner had nowhere else to go?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.