Vegas looks for love from NBA

Updated: February 16, 2007, 9:35 AM ET
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

Oscar Goodman, the mob lawyer turned Las Vegas political godfather, calls himself "the happiest mayor in the universe." This weekend, the free-wheeling, martini-sipping pol also might be the busiest person at his fair city's very busy NBA All-Star weekend.

In the city that never sleeps -- Pacific Standard Time version -- Mayor Goodman might be schmoozing NBA owners and leaders around the clock. His mission is to convince them Las Vegas shouldn't just be a three-night stand.

This is one more step in Goodman's multi-year campaign to attract a major league team. He got Las Vegas into the hunt for the Montreal Expos, losing to Washington. He's talked to the footloose Florida Marlins. He's put out feelers to the San Diego Chargers. Now if he can pull off a slam dunk of a hoop fest, this week could mark a particularly giant step. Goodman believes the more these moguls observe the city's virtues as a sports venue -- they're already familiar with its vices -- the better shot he will have at landing an NBA team.

David Stern and Mayor Oscar Goodman
AP Photo/Jae C. HongNBA Commissioner David Stern, left, has sent Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman signals this week he might be willing to rethink his views on an NBA team in the city.
If you had to handicap this, Goodman's odds seem to be improving. In the past week, NBA Commissioner David Stern has changed his tune on Las Vegas -- subtly, perhaps, but perceptibly. He's long held that Las Vegas bookmakers must take NBA games off their betting line before the city can be considered. The mayor and the casinos long have replied: no way. Now Stern says there might be room for compromise.

Moreover, if the league's board of governors -- the owners -- approved putting a team here, Stern now says he wouldn't stand in the way.

"Everyone knows my position [about betting on NBA games]," says Stern, reiterating that hasn't changed. "But I'm not Horatio at the bridge."

Stern is sending more signals by the day that he is willing to adjust his thinking. On Wednesday, he told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan that gambling "is not inherently evil," adding, "One of the reasons I was happy to come to Las Vegas [for the All-Star Game] is because there's this lingering notion that gambling is bad. ... Gambling has become the American way, and we're all changing our attitudes with respect to it."

Furthermore, Stern said in a speech Wednesday to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce that he has asked Goodman to find a compromise that would satisfy both the NBA and the Las Vegas sports books, one of the clearest signs yet that the NBA is paving the road to Vegas.

Still, the question remains: Is Sin City really on the verge of being a major-league city? Or is it the new millennium's St. Petersburg -- a sports-hungry city to be used and abused by team owners? For years, the lords of Major League Baseball used the threat of moving to St. Pete to win sweet stadium deals in their respective cities. That Florida city, which built a domed stadium on spec, finally landed the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Outside the Lines
"Outside the Lines" (Sunday on ESPN, 9:30 a.m. ET) looks at the prospects of an NBA franchise calling Las Vegas home. Motion ESPN Video

Distressed NBA teams might enjoy having such a foil. A letter from several owners to Stern last fall requesting more revenue-sharing claimed that nearly one-third of league franchises are posting significant losses. Teams like the Sacramento Kings and Seattle Sonics have unresolved arena problems. Stern insists, nonetheless, that arena issues will be resolved in their respective markets and that Las Vegas isn't a leverage play.

Certainly, Goodman isn't putting all his eggs in this one basket, so to speak. When it comes to courting teams, he's no more choosey than a bridegroom at a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

But Hizzoner thinks his best bet is basketball. Las Vegas is host to the NBA Summer League. Las Vegas was bonkers for Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels of the 1980s. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority just voted to spend $3.8 million to play host to the 2007 FIBA Americas basketball tournament, a qualifying event for the Beijing Olympics run by the NBA. Las Vegas is also, of course, the playground of choice for NBA legends and gambling fools such as Charles Barkley. Says Goodman: "We've shown this is a basketball town."

It doesn't hurt that Stern seems to get along well with Goodman, a fellow quick-witted, nails-tough, deal-maker of an East Coast lawyer. Goodman, a native of Philadelphia, moved to Las Vegas in 1964 to make his fortune representing underworld kingpins like Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro.

It's not like the frosty non-relationship Goodman had with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose retirement Goodman openly cheered. The NFL has so distanced itself from gambling that it has refused Super Bowl ads from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Goodman has charged the NFL with hypocrisy, considering the extent to which betting drives its popularity. (Ken Weitzner, president of the online wagering Web site Eye On Gambling, estimates $2.6 billion was bet on NFL games during the 2006 season.) Nonetheless, the mayor had as much chance of getting an NFL team during the Tagliabue administration as Wayne Newton has of winning the NBA Slam Dunk contest.

Goodman deepened his relationship with Stern over the course of several NBA exhibitions in Europe last fall. The mayor was on the continent to tout the All-Star game and its host city, and he did so with a showgirl on each arm. Goodman is eager for more quality time with Stern this week. "I'm hoping I'll soften him up (further) and we'll be able to come to an understanding," he says. "He's a smart fella."

Even if and when Las Vegas advances past that threshold barrier of the NBA betting line, its major-league quest faces other major questions:

• Do the major casino operators welcome this competition for the entertainment dollar? They're sure not acting like it, and Goodman's local political clout is more than matched by the gaming industry's economic clout. If the casinos don't back public financing of a $400 million-plus arena or stadium -- the likely prerequisite for attracting a team -- it probably won't happen.

"Is it competition to us? Bring it on," says Alan Feldman, senior vice president of the MGM Mirage. "Las Vegas benefits from more competition, not less. But don't offend us by saying the only way you're coming to town is by us paying for an arena. If you want to participate in this economy, you do so with your checkbook open."

• Do the good citizens of Las Vegas really crave big-league sports? You wouldn't know it by their tepid support of the Las Vegas 51ers (Dodgers Class AAA farm team), the Las Vegas Gladiators (Arena Football League) and Las Vegas Wranglers (East Coast Hockey League).

MGM Lion
AP Photo/Jae C. HongIt seems all of Las Vegas, including a lion statue at the MGM Grand hotel, is decked out and ready to make an impression on the NBA during All-Star weekend.
Just like their 39 million visitors a year, the locals seem to be a lot more obsessed with gambling. They pack the so-called "locals" casinos, away from the Strip; they play slots in the convenience stories; they frustrate the minor league teams' operators. "Local gambling takes up so much leisure time and money," says one, pleading anonymity lest his gate fall further. "I'd say the public is indifferent to lukewarm [about getting a major league team]. There's no sense of community."

Goodman says that's a central reason for his crusade. Las Vegas doesn't need a big-league team to raise its profile, a la Indianapolis or Charlotte, N.C. It's got plenty of profile, but it lacks a rallying point. "In order to be a world-class city, we have to have something with we can identify," he says, "something which can be a unifying factor."

• Is Las Vegas big enough? The city has grown like the devil, doubling its population to 1.9 million during the past 15 years and still going strong. Las Vegas had the second highest growth rate of any U.S. city from 2000 to 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But it's still the nation's 48th biggest TV market and is, moreover, isolated. Memphis isn't a big market, either, but the Grizzlies at least draw from other nearby small cities. Get beyond metro Las Vegas and there's the Nevada desert. Las Vegas does have 39 million visitors a year, but they're mostly coming to gamble, not see NBA players gambol.

In addition, Las Vegas is headquarters to two companies in the Fortune 500, both of them gaming behemoths (Harrah's and the MGM Mirage). Without a critical mass of big corporations, a big-league team can't sell enough suites, club seats and sponsorships to make the numbers work.

George Maloof, who runs the Palms Casino Resort in Vegas and whose family owns the Sacramento Kings, insists the numbers work for Las Vegas. You just can't look at it like other major-league market because it's unlike any other, he argues. "Las Vegas is never the norm," says Maloof. "You have this fast-growing population base, which I think is hungry for a team. Then you have all these visitors, whose home teams will play here and whose games can be marketed to them, too. It's a hybrid."

Goodman remains confident as a card-counter. The recalcitrant casinos? They'll not only come around but be major leasers of luxury suites -- great amenities for their "whales," the high-roller patrons on whom they bestow perks. The stadium/arena financing problem? Stay tuned for a (relatively) tax-free solution, promises the mayor. How we'll know he's making real progress? Uncharacteristic silence.

"If I get some real serious vibes," Goodman says, "I'm going to stop talking about it."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."