It's Happening In Las Vegas: Long Considered Too Taboo For Sports, Sin City Soon Could Be Home To 2 Pro Franchises

LAS VEGAS — It is hot and growing hotter in the valley. Wally Backman, the manager of the Las Vegas 51s in the Pacific Coast League, ignites a flame with his cigarette lighter and the end of his Marlboro catches fire. It is his third cigarette in 30 minutes. He exhales; smoke coils upward. He looks down at his ostrich boots. His seat is an aluminum bench in a covered dugout that he refers to as a dungeon along the first baseline. He simmers in serenity at 4 p.m., three hours prior to first pitch. A stadium thermometer, out in the sun, registers the heat at 110 degrees. Six Air King fans — High Velocity! — blow mist on pitchers passing by to throw in the outfield. Backman considers desert life as the Tacoma Rainiers amble onto the diamond.

Forty-foot tall landmark Vegas Vic is ready to welcome as many as two major sports franchises to Las Vegas where biggest sports attraction outside of prize fighting is Mets Triple-A affiliate Las Vegas 51s.

Forty-foot tall landmark Vegas Vic is ready to welcome as many as two major sports franchises to Las Vegas where biggest sports attraction outside of prize fighting is Mets Triple-A affiliate Las Vegas 51s.

(Robert Mora/Getty Images)

“I don’t care if they call it dry heat. It feels like a blow dryer when the wind is blowing,” he says. “These other guys, when they come into Vegas, they come in only twice. This is their second trip. They probably hit the streets pretty hard at night.”

Three casinos — Golden Nugget, The Orleans and Gold Coast — advertise on the blue outfield wall that stands 20 feet high in left and right, 25 feet high in center. The Tank sells itself as Sin City’s best pool and Gold Diggers bills its offerings as “nightlife redefined.” There is an excessive heat warning in effect, as issued by the National Weather Service. Backman declares no batting practice today for the 51s, a Triple-A ball club in the Mets organization that wears alien heads as logos. There are baseball seams stitched across them as a nod to the local legend of extraterrestrial tourists in nearby Area 51 and past nuclear bomb experiments at the Nevada Test Site. The night’s game is dedicated both to Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard as well as Star Trek, and Backman’s players change into yellow uniform tops that honor Captain Kirk of Starship Enterprise. Backman’s focus is on baseball, but each home run is commemorated with a mention from the public address announcer that William Hill sports book will donate $51 to at-risk youths. Recorded outs elicit a sound effect that is a cash register ring. Free slot machines stand in the corridors. Behind home plate, there is a poster featuring former 51s, including Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Matt Reynolds and Kevin Plawecki. Marketers remember the current Mets in Las Vegas as made men of the minor leagues. It reads: “GoodFellas.”


Las Vegas 51s teammates sit under the cooling fans of the dugout that spray a water mist to beat the 100 plus degree temperatures during their game against the Tacoma Rainiers at Cashman Field.

(Francis Specker/for New York Daily News)

“The concerns that I had were players getting in trouble, making it through the first three weeks when they lose all their money and then can’t go back out,” Backman says. “Every year, Rob Kasdon, head of security, comes out the first part of April. He kind of lays it on the line for the players, what can happen here.”

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The Las Vegas 51s, top farm club of the Mets, in action earlier this month at Cashman Field.

(Francis Specker/for New York Daily News)

Due diligence is en vogue in Vegas as rare air circulates throughout the desert sports scene. Long considered to be operating in an orbit separate from the rest of professional sports — save for the betting lines that glow on boards in sports books — the city is on the brink of becoming a major professional sports town. On Tuesday, Las Vegas gained approval from the NHL’s executive committee to be the league’s next expansion city. William Foley II, a West Point graduate and multi-millionaire businessman with Fidelity National Financial, learned that his franchise — likely to be the Black Knights, a salute to his alma mater — will be accepted by the NHL’s board of governors on June 22. He must now raise the $500 million entry fee.

There are more who may want in on the rush. Trailing Foley is Mark Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders and heir to his father Al’s rogue legacy. He is mired in a stadium dispute in Oakland at the moment, and has been attending meetings with members of the Vegas business community, going so far as to say that he will make the Silver State the “silver and black State.” Each side is taking the measure of the other with voices weighing in on whether Nevada’s native vice — sports wagering — can be overcome when it is time for NFL owners to vote on Vegas as a possible league town. Hockey has its own arena in place, the hydrotherapy Jacuzzi already bubbling in the new T-Mobile Arena’s bowels, and the building is privately funded ($375 million) in a venture that fuses MGM Resorts International and AEG. It also blends in with its surroundings, the outside wrapped in of-the-desert siding. On the other hand, Davis, wooing residents, reportedly says he can contribute $500 million toward a new stadium. Those who doubt that Davis is committed to coming east insist on calling out five aces, but there are plenty of locals willing to wager that the Raiders brand could thrive in Vegas. There are proposals for a 60,000-seat domed stadium that would cost $1.4 billion. It has been introduced to officials by Majestic Realty Co. and Las Vegas Sands Corp. Decision makers in a greater Las Vegas region that counts more than two million residents will weigh its worth in prohibitive hotel taxes. Estimates are that the public would need to contribute $750 million to it.

“Bring it on. It’s good for the city because of income,” says Brian Gardner, a performer who is dressed as captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek for the first pitch. “Football isn’t really me, though. What I’d like to see is an Indy car race through the streets. Oh God, that would be bitchin’, man. Carve out a track to go by the casinos where people could watch inside. This city can do it. Vegas is big ideas. Bold ideas!”


Until recently the thought of pro sports in Las Vegas was an alien concept to many.

(Francis Specker/for New York Daily News)

Backman’s team is the closest thing to The Show for now, and he knows what a hot hand can do in a town that attracts 42.3 million visitors and makes $9.6 billion each year off of gaming, per the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. He looks past the distractions and dark debauchery to identify the story of a jackpot hit in a game of Texas Hold ’Em poker at the Rampart Casino in the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

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“Best Vegas story so far,” Backman says. “Guy Conti, a senior adviser, came in here to watch Zack Wheeler. He watched, left and, f—-, the game was over a half hour and my f—-ing phone is blowing up, blowing up, blowing up. Guy says he sat down to have a glass of wine and on the first or second hand he hit a f—-ing royal flush. I think it was for something like $20,000. Not bad. Never happened to me, though.”

* * *

Consider the money in Pete Rose’s hat. The all-time hits leader in Major League Baseball history and the best player to be banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame due to bets placed on the game, Rose strides across a thick carpet by the Mandalay Bay sports book. He is a Nevada resident, and insists that he first came not for sin, but syndication with a radio show in the 1990s. That broadcast was done on the MGM Grand’s floor, but now he wears white leather shoes and dons an all-white Reds ball cap as he heads to his new gig at The Art of Music in Mandalay Place. In the front panel of his hat, between the lining and his forehead, he stuffs seven folded $20 bills. It is quick cash for tips that he leaves to servers and valets across town.

“That’s a $140 hat, and I don’t want to lose it!” he says. “It’s a gratuity town, and probably the best town to people watch in. I like the impersonators. I do a great impersonation of Pete Rose 4 1/2 hours a day, 20 days a month. Vegas is the only town in the world that my gig works, and it is simply because every three or four days: turnover. People leave, people come in. People leave, people come in. People who come in: 1. Have money to spend on vacation. 2. They all want to see a celebrity. That’s why the shows do so well. We do real good over here. It’s big business, man.”

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T-Mobile Arena sits next to New York-New York Hotel & Casino and opened this year and potentially will house an NHL expansion franchise in Las Vegas.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It can be a difficult town to quantify in terms of its sports loyalties, what with the transient population and the three-shift work force. Prior to Tuesday, no NFL, NHL, MLB, or NBA franchise had ever put stakes down on the Strip. A list of failed semi-pro teams runs from the Dustdevils of the Continental Indoor Soccer League to the Outlaws of the XFL to the Posse of the Canadian Football League. All fizzled and faded from the neon marquees in time. Still, more come. There is a NASCAR track 15 miles east, and the NBA brings its summer league to UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center each July. UFC 200 is scheduled for a match on July 9; both the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings are slated to host preseason games at the T-Mobile Arena in the autumn.

“I wonder how the lords of sports, the commissioners, how do they feel about a team coming to Vegas?” Rose says. “Knowing how ticklish they are about gambling.”

Gambling isn’t the only thing that hangs over the denizens’ heads. The whole sports scene is haunted by the specter of a late coach with sunken eyes. No sports figure survived longer or advanced farther in the desert than Jerry Tarkanian, who won the NCAA basketball title in 1990. He is dead over a year now, but diehards wrapped a towel over the eyes on his statue outside the arena last spring after the athletics department bungled the hiring process of a new men’s basketball staff. When UNLV was at its height, high-rolling supporters sitting courtside were known as Gucci Row, and the list of performers to sing the national anthem before games included the show business likes of Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross. The music soon died as scrutiny came. Three UNLV players were photographed in a hot tub with Richie “The Fixer” Perry. The NCAA paid Tarkanian multiple visits, and there was so much concern regarding gamblers’ influence that during the last seven years of the Rebels’ reign, all bets related to the team were off the board in Nevada sports books. A 1985 statute from the Nevada Gaming Commission ruled out gambling on state colleges, regardless of game locations. Pro teams were off, too, but there was only a minor league team in state. Fans continued to fete, and the gaming commission eventually lifted the betting ban on UNLV games in 2001, but no Vegas team has won big since. This December, UNLV is doubling down on nostalgia. The Rebels will run across town to the new arena in an attempt to awaken echoes against Duke. The Rebels leveled the Blue Devils to win the 1990 NCAA title and then fell to Duke in the 1991 NCAA semi. They have not played since.

“It always helps to win,” Rose says. “It’s like any other town, you’re a helluva lot better if you’re competitive. A lot of ways to spend your sports dollar these days.”

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Rose and others wonder about the sustainability of a fan base for a franchise. His sports diet ranges from Monday Night Raw to hockey to baseball, and he vows to support any pro team that comes. He lives close to the new ice hockey arena, and cites the suspense that past prizefights inspired, how Vegas swelled for slugfests.

“The town gets busy,” he says. “You can always tell when there’s a big fight.”

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Another look at the 20,000 seat sports and entertainment venue in Vegas.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Tourists continue to file through the turnstiles for big events in a town that feels like one long variety show, but many visitors fly or drive in just to watch sporting events taking place across the world on television. Weekend gamblers respond with Pavlovian salivation to the bugler’s call on casino sports book screens, and the best sports-watching venue in town is Lagasse’s Stadium, a bar and restaurant owned by chef Emeril Lagasse. It requires a map to locate in the basement of the Palazzo, but once there, fans lounge on leather couches arranged in stadium-seating style. There is a projector screen and 100 smaller televisions. One room is decorated exclusively with UFC memorabilia, replete with a blue mat from a 2014 match that is stained with dots of blood. A sports book run by CG Technology, a separate entity from the restaurant, is up front with open windows. The biggest moneymakers are the first three days of the NCAA tourney. Reservations open up at 8:30 a.m. on January 1 and sell out in two hours. Fans eat, watch games and lay bets.

“I tell my friends, Vegas is not for everyone,” says Gerardo Rodriguez, the general manager at Lagasse’s Stadium. “If you can’t control yourself, it’s not for you.”

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Vegas is city where baseball’s hit king Pete Rose holds court at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino decades after gambling got him kicked out of baseball.

Vegas is city where baseball’s hit king Pete Rose holds court at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino decades after gambling got him kicked out of baseball.

It is for Rose. Back across the Strip, pilgrims pay their respects and $100 per autographed ball to Rose. A carnival barker at the door makes the case for the cash.

Don’t move a muscle until you see Charlie Hustle!

He has over 4,000 hits with no steroids!

Here today, gone tomorrow! He’s only No. 1!

Bettors bite. One introduces himself as Tom from Anchorage. He is with friends and buys a ball. He informs Rose that he is to be married later in the day.

“Wow,” Rose says.

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Tom leans in closer and whispers to Rose.

“Weird that this here is the highlight of my day, right?” Tom says.

Rose shrugs.

“Anchorage, huh?” Rose says. “That’s a long way to trek here for the guillotine, no?”

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* * *

“It was like walking into a dark room and not even knowing where the switch is,” says Peter Sadowski, an executive vice president and the chief legal officer for Fidelity National Financial, as he recounts negotiating the NHL’s expansion process. He walks the empty hallways of T-Mobile Arena behind the New York-New York Hotel & Casino on the Strip, and there is a dress rehearsal going on for the Miss USA pageant on the stage. His credentials afford him access to the new building that just opened in April; spotlights dance across the rafters. His boss, William Foley, is the reason that Sadowski, a son of Warsaw, Poland, is here. As of now, they are the only employees of what is expected to be the Black Knights. Sadowski recalls the NHL executive committee’s vetting. “We had ups and downs. It was a roller coaster.”

Businessmen are known to have toed the Vegas pools before. None placed both feet in like Foley. Sadowski recalls earlier trips to Vegas for conventions with the company, and he also took his grown daughters to tennis tournaments in Vegas in their youths. Then came the NHL idea, and while the team would come via expansion, Foley and Sadowski relocated from Jacksonville, Fla., where the company headquarters is located. Fidelity followed, too, establishing a new footprint in nearby Summerlin, Nev. Sadowski remembers one particular question from a friend.

“Do they even have schools out there?” the friend asked.

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In the land of point spreads and over-unders, Sadowski knows how to read the populace. In order to prove to skeptical NHL owners that there is a demand for hockey in the desert, Foley and Sadowski gained the authority from the NHL to host a season’s ticket drive. They organized a campaign – “Vegas Wants Hockey” — and hit the trail, venturing into bars, chambers of commerce and community centers in order to make their pitches. Shortly after commencing the sales process, Sadowski recognized that locals were referring to Foley as though he was entrenched in the community. Suite boxes sold before there was an arena built on site or real signs that a team was coming its way. As late as last week, the number of season-ticket commitments was over 13,700. The committed buyers’ payments are in escrow currently. Once the team becomes reality, Foley will have the chance to buy into the arena for a 15% stake, according to Sadowski. MGM and AEG split the ownership at 50-50 right now. Sadowski adds that the arena is “agnostic” in relation to casinos.

“The biggest industry here is gaming, but the teams cannot have gaming sponsors or a relationship,” he says. “There is nothing inside to tie it to gaming.”

The league will be in town to host its annual awards show at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Wednesday. It is the seventh straight year that Vegas will play host, and an official announcement regarding Foley is expected to be made prior to the party. The NHL last welcomed new teams — in Minnesota and Ohio — in 2000, but opportunities abound now. Walking through Hyde Lounge on the arena’s top floor, Sadowski says a Detroit businessman already informed the ticket office that he is interested in renting the whole tower space when the Red Wings come to play in Vegas. The team is not expected to take the ice until the 2017-18 season at earliest.

“There aren’t too many people you can call for advice,” Sadowski says. “We would need about 80 employees within six months. I already am having a migraine.”

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The roller coaster above New York-New York roars on outside; thrill seekers scream with each dip in the tracks. The arena has plenty of acts booked. Wayne Newton headlined opening night and Billy Joel played the venue soon after. The Rolling Stones signed on for a show last week, but Miss USA owns the stage at the moment. A dress rehearsal goes on, and hockey becomes the subject when Halley Maas, Miss North Dakota, emerges in bikini and sash. Olivia Jordan, the reigning Miss USA, informs the crowd that Maas talked her father into allowing her to play ice hockey in the sixth grade. She became captain and led her team in goals.

“Looking nice on the ice!” Jordan says.

* * *

The 'Mob Museum' is just one of the attractions available to tourists visiting Las Vegas.

The 'Mob Museum' is just one of the attractions available to tourists visiting Las Vegas.

The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — better known as The Mob Museum — stands one mile south of Cashman Field and a block west of Las Vegas Blvd. It is located in the old courthouse downtown, and customers are greeted with an image of J. Edgar Hoover, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gripping a machine gun. His weapon is trained on a target.

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“Welcome to the world of the mob,” a sign says.

Vegas remains an environment rich with enticements, and yellowed police blotters highlight the high rollers who crapped out due to crime. There is an exhibit that focuses on “The Sporting Life.” It includes a fan’s ticket from Game 4 of the 1919 World Series that was thrown by the Black Sox, and college pennants of schools caught up in gambling scandals –from C.C.N.Y. to Boston College – adorn a wall. Still, the list of athletes who trekked into Vegas with appetites for action and left town with court dates only grows. They range from O.J. Simpson to Jarret Stoll. None is more infamous in recent lore than Adam “Pacman” Jones. He is the NFL cornerback who incited a melee that led to the shooting of Tommy Urbanski, a former nightclub manager and now paraplegic, when the NBA All-Star Game was played in Vegas in 2007. Celebrations for the Chinese New Year and All Star parties choked the streets. Many in Vegas considered it to be the most crowded night ever.

“I’m dying to get a hockey team, but I don’t want the Raiders,” Urbanski says. “They might bring every dirt bag in the world. Maybe if they come I can sue the NFL down here.”

A billboard warns about dangers of Sin City.

A billboard warns about dangers of Sin City.

(Kevin Armstrong/New York Daily News)

Other athletes share their cautionary tales from quieter corners in Vegas. Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, first mixed painkillers and alcohol during a quick trip to town. It was during a popular fight weekend when he used to trek east to watch Oscar De La Hoya perform. Leaf elected to rent private planes for $5,000 an hour rather than fly in commercially for $150. He was a frequent visitor because he liked to lose himself.

“I felt unjudged in Vegas,” says Leaf, who later served a prison sentence for stealing prescription drugs in his native Montana.

The “C.S.I.” series that explored life inside the Las Vegas Crime Lab is off the air, but script material continues to appear in the headlines. There are already twice as many murders in Las Vegas this calendar year as there were at this time in 2015. Authorities are interested in tracing the roots of the surge, but gunplay is an evident attraction for many. Drive the Strip at any hour and billboards invite visitors to “COME SHOOT A MACHINE GUN” in an indoor range. For $89.95 at The Gun Store on Tropicana, one can fire 25 shots on an MP5, 25 shots on an M16 and 10 shots on a P226. At Battlefield Vegas, a billboard says one can pop off .50 caliber shots for $29.

“Them young boys need to watch out now,” says Lloyd Daniels, a former UNLV hoops recruit who was arrested for buying cocaine on a visit in 1987. “There’s a ton of distractions, but I loved walking through Caesar’s Palace when I was there.”

Gene Kilroy, a former business manager for Muhammad Ali, sits in a steakhouse three miles from The Mob Museum and regales the staff with stories about The Champ, rides in his Rolls-Royce and conmen. He relishes his role as a renowned raconteur, and offers advice to all who come to conduct business in the desert valley. He calls it wisdom a mafia man schooled him to in Vegas years ago.

“Stay out of the bull---- here or they’ll send you back in a box C.O.D.,” he says.

* * *

Legal gambling has long been thought to be the reason to keep pro sports out of Las Vegas.

Legal gambling has long been thought to be the reason to keep pro sports out of Las Vegas.

A blinking board outside Bally’s Casino invites guests to “WAGER ON YOUR FAVORITE NFL TEAM HERE!” at all hours. It is June 2. NFL teams are wrapping up Organized Training Activities, but Vegas is in midseason form: fountains dancing outside the Bellagio, a Stephen Curry doppelganger dribbling along as he announces to passersby giving him double takes that he accepts donations. A few blocks over, on East Tropicana, Michael Roberts and Susan Hudson labor toward the Strip as day burns into night in the desert. Their 1997 Astrovan broke down, and they look haggard. There are three dogs on leashes among them, a bag on each back. Roberts carries a five-gallon red container as he nears a Rebel gas station. He wears a Ben Roethlisberger jersey with Super Bowl XL insignias stitched on it. The lot to his right is vacant but may not be for long. It is 42 acres that the Raiders could soon build their dome on. A bus stop advertisement reads: “Don’t let construction trip you up.”

There are abandoned diggings across the desert, but this is what a potential ground zero looks like: shattered glass, splintered wood and tangled crime-scene tape. A billboard overhead reads: “Sinners Beware. God Knows!” UNLV owns Area 42 for now, and the site, which is adjacent to campus and behind the MGM Grand, is included in the Sands and Majestic team’s proposal to the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee. It is possible that an enclosed stadium could be shared between UNLV and an NFL team. Goldman Sachs worked on a financing risk matrix. Private planes come in hot, touching down on the McCarran Airport landing strips.

“This is prime real estate!” Roberts says. “Woo-wee!”

He is bearded, hails from Santa Barbara, Calif., and wears a black hat. He is only passing through town. His belief is that Las Vegas has been “starving” for a team ever since Tarkanian jumped to the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA in 1992. Should the NFL come to Las Vegas, Roberts believes visitors would be most at home.

“Go Steelers!” he says.

Source :

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