Is Las Vegas a baseball town? One version of the question was settled years ago, when native sons Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant won back-to-back NL MVP Awards in 2015 and 2016. Along with Twins slugger Joey Gallo and a variety of other major-leaguers, Harper and Bryant, of the Phillies and Rockies, respectively, came along to attract scouts just as the growing Southern Nevada region started drawing more and more interest from the sports and entertainment community, including MLB, which hosted its annual winter meetings there in December 2018.
A different version of that question is on the table now, as the Oakland Athletics try to nail down a ballpark site and (seemingly more importantly to ownership) public funding to import an MLB team and give the city a foothold in three of the four major American men’s sports leagues.
The A’s, after years of trying to negotiate a ballpark project that would’ve required massive public infrastructure spending in Oakland, announced a pivot to Las Vegas in April and then a smaller pivot to a different site in Vegas earlier this week as they search for a deal local officials can stomach. Whether the team will be able to secure terms amenable to team owner John Fisher and actually pull off a move remains to be seen, but the intent to move to Las Vegas is clear.
And if the A’s don’t do it, the city ranks among the most notable contenders for a future expansion franchise.
“I definitely think it’s a good spot,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, if the A's weren't going there, I think it would be probably at the top of the list.”
Growing up, Bryant and his fellow Vegas natives benefited from the same conducive climates that help California, Florida and Arizona produce strong crops of baseball prospects.
“It gets hot in the summer, but for the most part, you can play baseball year-round,” Bryant said. “And that just gave us a chance to play more baseball than people on the East Coast, in the Midwest. So that was just good for us.”
Clearly, the American sports industry is banking on the Las Vegas area — home to about 2.3 million people and growing — continuing to attract people and sports fans. The A’s would be the third team to make its Vegas debut since 2017, joining the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights and the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, the baseball team’s former Oakland stadium roomies.
How will Las Vegas adjust its sports rooting interests?
But just as local population doesn’t equate to media market size, producing players and producing the critical mass for a successful fan base are not driven by the same forces. Take a look at the struggles of the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays trying to make it work in Florida, another baseball talent hotbed.
Or take Bryson Stott’s word for it. The second-year Philadelphia Phillies second baseman hails from Las Vegas, and with his hometown devoid of professional sports teams, he made a snap decision to root for Cleveland’s teams based on his first Little League squad.
“I have an older brother who said if you like a bunch of random teams, you're a bandwagon [fan], and I never wanted to be a bandwagon fan,” Stott said. “So yeah, like them all — the Cavs, the Browns. I think I'm more of an Eagles fan now than the Browns, but I still root for the Browns. Big Ohio State fan.”
Stott said that was common practice among his friends and family. And he’s not so sure that adults already committed to their fan affiliations will drop them to root for the A’s.
“You kind of get a pick. And once you get to your 20s, 30s, you're not going to just switch because you could go to someone's game now,” he said. “So I mean, I personally think it's gonna be a generation or two before it's actually like a fandom.”
Stott also drew a distinction between the Vegas-born expansion franchise, the Golden Knights, and the team that moved to town, the Raiders.
“I personally don't see it being as good as everyone thinks it's gonna be,” he said of the potential A’s relocation. “Just living there and kind of seeing the Raiders — I mean, the Raiders, it's like 70% away-team fans.”
Citing a phenomenon seen in Las Vegas and with recently relocated Los Angeles NFL teams, Stott saw a slow uptake from local fans even as the stadiums filled up with opposing colors.
The NFL, though, has a vastly different operational model than baseball. The business is more centralized, both in terms of revenue and in terms of games. Football games happen once a week, always during or near a weekend, and in the fall or winter. For the Raiders, that means the allure of Las Vegas can act as a buffer, drawing opportunistic visiting fans while they build up local ties.
For the A’s — who will play throughout the week, in the desert, in the summer and possibly in a far-flung Triple-A park at the outset — Vegas won’t hold the same advantage.
A tough model to follow: the NHL’s Golden Knights
If they do move to Las Vegas, the A’s will need to do more to grab locals’ attention, something hockey’s Golden Knights have done to great effect since their debut in 2017.
“I've been to a couple of Knights games, and they're really fun,” Bryant said. “They do a good job. They really embrace the whole Vegas shows thing and make it a fun atmosphere.”
Stott said the Golden Knights tapped into a population that largely didn’t have strong opinions about hockey teams. They also met the moment when a mass shooter killed 60 and wounded hundreds at a local music festival less than two weeks prior to their inaugural game. The team devoted pregame ceremonies to the victims and survivors and provided an outlet for a grieving city that wanted community. Stott said the Knights showed “that a professional sports team actually cares.”
“I think they kind of just rallied around the city, and the city rallied around them,” he said. “And they played really well. That also helps.”
Really, really well. The Golden Knights took full advantage of their expansion draft and blitzed the league, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season — another boost the beleaguered A’s are unlikely to have.
Bryant was more optimistic than Stott about the A’s chances in Las Vegas, saying that his hometown is “turning into a pretty good sports town.”
“You feel for the fans in Oakland that lost the Raiders and now the A's,” he said, “but I think it's a good opportunity for Vegas in general.”
Other MLB players with Las Vegas roots have shown similar interest in the city’s growth. Seattle Mariners closer Paul Sewald told the Foul Territory podcast that he could be interested in playing the last season of his career in his hometown someday. Harper, for the record, declined to comment when asked about the A’s and Las Vegas.
These days, he and Stott play in a city that has no questions to answer about its devotion to its sports teams. But no city gets there overnight.
“I always think it's kind of funny coming back to Philly every year because it's like, 3-year-olds that are barely talking are saying ‘Sixers’ or something,” Stott said. “And I've never had that, being from Vegas. I think that's really cool, and I think Vegas will eventually be like that.”