LAS VEGAS – From crooners to comedians, intricate architecture to elaborate water fountains, tall pyramids to short skirts, this city is built on entertainment.
Entertainment brings in gamblers, which brings in revenue, which has attracted so many people that Southern Nevada now has a population of more than 1.6 million. And counting.
Given this population boom, big-time professional sports potentially is right around the corner – an entertainment option that just a decade ago seemed completely far-fetched for Sin City.
Major League Baseball is set to decide (maybe as soon as next week's All-Star Game) where to move the Montreal Expos. Speculation has Washington, D.C., or suburban Northern Virginia as the favorites.
But Vegas – glitzy, gambling Vegas – is one of six official finalists and a serious dark-horse contender.
"There is nothing you can't do in Las Vegas," state Sen. Warren Hardy says. "Why not add professional sports to that?"
Seriously, why not?
Vegas is both the Strip and so much more than the Strip. The combination of a surging and sports-starved local middle class, big money for corporate suites and the never-ending waves of tourists (300,000 for a big weekend, according to tourism officials) make Vegas a potential gold mine for pro sports.
The main drawback is an old and tired one: legalized sports books. But gambling has become a national obsession – there are casinos within walking distance of Detroit's Comerica Park, and Pennsylvania just legalized 61,000 slot machines.
Sure, Nevada is the only state in which you legally can wager on sporting events, but only the most naïve don't recognize that there is heavy betting in every community.
There's the old suggestion that casinos take the local team off the board to ease corruption fears. But that's foolish. Nobody wants clean games more than the casinos, which have the most to lose and thus work as a watchdog for point shaving. If you are a sports league, or the FBI, the sports books are your best friends.
Vegas is ready, willing and able. But if you believe the buzz, the city will have to wait as MLB gives Washington another shot at making a franchise work.
In this case, much of the problem is the sport itself. Baseball is not the best fit here. With its 81-game home schedule, baseball relies on day-in, day-out die-hard fans to come to the park. In other warm-weather, entertainment-rich markets (Miami, Tampa, San Diego), the fans tend to find something else to do when the team isn't winning (and sometimes even when it is).
"[The franchise] would have to be committed to winning, and winning early," Hardy says. "Vegas supports a winner."
But winning early is not exactly what expansion teams (and the Expos) are known for.
Then there is the weather, which routinely produces triple-digit temperatures. A retractable-roof stadium (closed for most games) would be mandatory, and a dome in a desert doesn't exactly conjure up visions of old-school baseball.
So what are the options?
The best one for Vegas undoubtedly would be the NFL. So perfect is this marriage that they could probably build a 160,000-seat stadium and sell out each week – 80,000 tickets to locals and 80,000 to fans from the visiting team, who would use the game as an excuse to party.
But the buttoned-down NFL isn't coming to Las Vegas any time soon, even though it greatly benefits from gambling. Besides, the league already has 32 teams and is far more committed to moving a franchise to Los Angeles.
The NBA would be a nice fit – indoor sport, star power and an urban draw. When UNLV basketball was a national power under Jerry Tarkanian, the school's 19,500-seat arena was routinely sold out. Considering the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats, the NBA isn't looking to expand either. Vegas may be waiting for a franchise to fail. But with the Nets committed to Brooklyn, there aren't many suspects.
Then there is the NHL … OK, forget it.
Which makes baseball's upcoming decision so critical for this sports-starved city. NASCAR, rodeo and prizefights can only take you so far. If Bud Selig gives the nod to Washington, then Vegas will have to wait.
But at least it could console itself with a night at the Palms.