Viva pro sports? Vegas makes play for team - Sunday 4th of December 2005

Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman says hell wager on anything and everything: football games, the passage of city ordinances, even a cockroach race. Now, Goodman is making the biggest bet of his career — that he can successfully lure a pro sports team such as Major League Baseballs Florida Marlins to Sin City.

If the Dallas Cowboys are "Americas team," a Las Vegas franchise would be the "worlds team," says Goodman, a former criminal defense attorney for mobsters such as Meyer Lansky. If Goodman were a betting man, and he is, hes betting hell throw out the first pitch for a Las Vegas baseball team by 2008. The team should be called, what else, "The Oscars," suggests Goodman.

"To be a great American city, you have to have sports," says Goodman, who played himself as a mob lawyer in the movie Casino.

Can you say "Viva Las Vegas"? With a population approaching 2 million people, Las Vegas is one of Americas fastest-growing metropolitan areas. The town already has boxing, pro wrestling, Ultimate Fighting, NASCAR, the Arena Football Leagues Las Vegas Gladiators and the 51s, the Class AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now it wants one of the Big Four pro sports: MLB, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL.

Pro leagues are running out of markets without a major league franchise. As the stigma surrounding various forms of gambling — from sports betting, poker and fantasy sports to Native-American casinos, state lotteries and church bingos — fades, a pro team in Las Vegas could be a matter of when, not if.

But betting is the ultimate taboo in pro sports. Just ask Pete Rose. Despite Time giddily proclaiming Las Vegas the "New All-American City," none of the major sports has embraced the city. Until now.

Before the Marlins received the OK from MLB officials last week to seek a new home, Goodman had talked with team vice chairman Joel Mael last December. The mating dance infuriated city of Miami mayor Manny Diaz, who said he was "shocked, disturbed, disappointed, disgusted."

Driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, George Shinn, owner of the NBAs Hornets, also sounded out Goodman.

The NBA recently picked Las Vegas as the host city for its 2007 All-Star Game. MLB and mens tennis are also planning major events here in the next three years.

Besides Goodman, theres a powerful group of residents beating the drum for pro sports. Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson is leading a deep-pocketed investment group looking to buy an MLB team and move it here.

If successful, hed be the first African-American managing partner of an MLB franchise. Jackson says hell invite fellow African-American Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Ernie Banks to participate as equity investors or as advisers.

"Certainly, I think about the impact that Jackie Robinson had. Jackie, I hope, will be smiling. I hope his wife will be smiling," says Jackson, a 14-time All-Star.

Gavin Maloof, owner of Maloof Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBAs Kings and the WNBAs Monarchs 572 miles away in Sacramento, would "look closely" at joining an acquisition bid by Jackson. "This is all Reggie talks about. Hes a man possessed."

Odds improve

This bawdy, tawdry city in the Mojave Desert celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Its odds of landing a pro team are improving as the cards finally turn this citys way:

•Hooking the Marlins. The Marlins, two-time World Series champions, will talk to all of the markets that pursued the Montreal Expos before they moved to Washington, D.C., and became the Nationals, team president David Samson said last week during a news conference.

Among the contenders: Las Vegas; northern New Jersey; Portland, Ore.; and Monterrey, Mexico.

Previously, Las Vegas signed a deal to host baseballs winter meetings for the first time in 2008.

•Reg-gie. Jackson came up short in a bid for the Oakland Athletics this year. But his backers include some wealthy, politically connected investors: Brian Greenspun, editor of the Las Vegas Sun; developer Marty Burger; investor Stephen Ross; and the billionaire McCaw brothers.

•An NBA All-Star. NBA Commissioner David Sterns selection of Las Vegas to host the 2007 All-Star Game is raising speculation the city is next in line for an NBA franchise. (Las Vegas is the first non-NBA city selected to host the game.) The NBA has history here: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtook Wilt Chamberlain as the leagues all-time leading scorer during a game played against the Utah Jazz at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center in 1984.

•Tennispalooza. The ATPs Tennis Channel Open is moving here in 2006 from Arizona to create a 10-day "tennispalooza," Tennis Channel president Steve Bellamy says. It will be the first pro tennis tournament here since 1985.

Top jocks love Las Vegas. Michael Jordan backed a resort called Aqua Blue off the famed Las Vegas Strip before it was canceled. His Airness has staged his basketball fantasy camp here for a decade. The Maloofs cater to athletes at their hip Palms resort.

This town is the darling of Hollywood, which has embraced the city as the setting for TV dramas (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS; Las Vegas on NBC), poker shows (ESPNs World Series of Poker, Bravos Celebrity Poker Showdown), sports reality shows (The Contender, Ultimate Fighter) and films (Oceans Eleven, Leaving Las Vegas).

Oceans Eleven star George Clooney is teaming with Cindy Crawfords husband, Rande Gerber, and possibly Brad Pitt to build a $3 billion hotel/casino/condo resort called Las Ramblas they hope will restore some of the Old Vegas glamour of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

With famous residents ranging from tennis star Andre Agassi to porn queen Jenna Jameson, Las Vegas appears to have the numbers to support a team. The 24/7 gambling engine has created a $72 billion local economy, with annual job growth clocking in at 7.4%, according to UNLVs Center for Business and Economic Research.

A Las Vegas team could tap a potential annual fan base of 39.2 million residents and tourists, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce says. The population of Clark County has tripled to 1.8 million the last 20 years. Sin City attracted 37.4 million visitors in 2004, the chamber of commerce says. Las Vegas ranks as the nations 48th-largest TV market with 651,110 TV households, according to Nielsen Media Research. Thats more than Buffalo and behind Oklahoma City.

The problem? Many potential fans are either seasonal residents who flee town during the summer heat or night-shift workers unable to attend evening games.

Lunching poolside with his brother, Joe, Gavin Maloof predicts the NBA All-Star Game will open eyes about the potential of his adopted hometown. "Everything a person wants is right here in Las Vegas," he says. "So why cant it have a major league franchise?"

The answer, of course, is gambling. Any attempt to move a Big Four pro team here will draw opposition from gambling foes who view Nevada, home of legalized prostitution (although not in Las Vegas) and gambling, as Sodom and Gomorrah.

The National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, a coalition of consumer groups fighting the spread of legalized gambling in 30 U.S. states, would launch a letterwriting campaign to make pro sports in Las Vegas an issue during the 2008 presidential campaign, executive director Tom Grey vows.

The temptations of the real city that never sleeps would inevitably lead to the kind of athletic point-shaving scandals that shook Arizona State, Boston College and Northwestern over the last two decades, Grey adds. "At some point will come the Big Fix," he says. "How much money could be made if they fixed the Super Bowl?"

Joe Maloof counters a Las Vegas team would be the "safest" in the country. Sports bookmaking is legal, regulated through the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The casinos helped uncover the point-shaving scheme at Arizona State in 1994. (Noticing unusually heavy betting, sports books flagged authorities, who prosecuted two ASU players for trying to throw four games.)

"Is a pro athlete who makes millions of dollars going to throw his career away for a few thousand bucks?" Joe Maloof asks. Maybe not. But even smart athletes do dumb things.

One solution to the gambling dilemma could be a resurrection of the rule that from 1960 to 2001 banned sports books from accepting bets on games involving UNLV or the University of Nevada.

Such a compromise would mean Nevada casinos that raked in $2.1 billion in sports betting revenue in 2004 would have to leave money on the table. The casinos also might not be thrilled about a pro team drawing away gamblers in the first place. While the sports books may be willing to skip one NBA All-Star Game, they might revolt at taking a home team, or a sport, off the board for an entire season. "Their own greed will do them in," gambling opponent Grey predicts.

Goodman and others seeking a pro team have other potential problems, too. Other than the championship-caliber UNLV basketball teams of the Jerry Tarkanian era, no sports team has drawn well in Las Vegas, although Joe Maloof says fans here want to see major league stars, not minor leaguers.

Even if Goodman lands the Marlins, he has no stadium for them. The mayor has set aside a 61-acre site in downtown to build a domed park, City Hall and performing arts center.

Joe Maloof acknowledges a major league franchise may be a dream until "the city steps up, builds a spectacular venue for whoever the new owners are — and gives them the keys."

While the hurdles are formidable, Goodman is the kind of politician/carnival barker who could pull it off. The 66-year-old Philadelphia native won re-election with 86% of the vote in 2003. The politically incorrect, martini-guzzling mayor surrounds himself with showgirls and Elvis impersonators during public appearances.

Goodman put the sin back in Sin Citys image by ordering up the risqué "What happens here, stays here" tourism campaign that portrays Las Vegas as the no-questions-asked playground for consenting adults.

Voice not quiet

Goodman thinks big. He surprised the NFL by offering to build a stadium — just to host all Monday night games. The league turned him down, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

Goodmans shoot-from-the-lip style gets him in trouble. He outraged parents here by telling a classroom of fourth-graders hed take a bottle of gin with him to a desert island.

Goodman still simmers over what he perceives as snubs by the NFL. The league is hypocritical for banning Las Vegas commercials on Super Bowl telecasts when football betting lines are everywhere, he says. "Without betting, there wouldnt be an NFL. People would be taking their children for walks in the park rather than being couch potatoes on Sundays."

It was mobster Bugsy Siegel who drew a line in the sand and launched modern Las Vegas in 1946. Goodman defended the towns most famous recent organized crime figures: Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, real-life models for the characters played respectively by Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in Casino.

(Rosenthal was added to the states infamous Black Book of people excluded from state casinos. Spilotro and his brother Michael were beaten with baseball bats and buried alive in an Indiana cornfield by mob enforcers in 1986.)

Opponents worried that pro sports would spark a resurgence in organized crime should recognize that era ended for good in the late 1980s, says Goodman, subject of the recent biography Of Rats and Men. "Theres no organized crime in Las Vegas. None. And I know it. Because I used to represent them."

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