The city of Las Vegas is an affront to everything rational, a waste of precious resources in the name of activities that range from immoral to bacchanalian. On top of all that, the universe decided in its cosmic humor to plant an ice hockey rink just off the Las Vegas Strip, where temperatures regularly exceed 110 degrees.
I am not a spiritual man, precisely because Las Vegas stands as stark evidence that there is no benign creator. Some day, this world will notice the accounting error in the margins. Either drought or spiraling degradation will ease "Sin City" loose from this mortal coil.
Until that day, however, its people will be ready to lose their minds over professional sports.
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With UFC 200 last weekend, the NBA's Summer League currently in full swing, and the Team USA basketball squad descending on Las Vegas next week, the desert's cup overflows with sports this month. Yet I came to stare into the maw of this beastly city to ask one question. Do the locals, the people who live in this illusion on a daily basis, care about pro teams potentially moving here?
Results have been mixed so far. One poll commissioned by the Sands Corporation (a potential partner in a hypothetical Raiders move to Vegas) showed overwhelming support for the idea. A poll backed by the MGM showed overwhelming distaste, but those who support a move claim that poll was worded in a misleading manner in order to convince people to fund an expansion of the town's convention center instead. The conclusion: Polls are the receipts of snake-oil salesmen.
Recently, the local Chamber of Commerce assumed the mantle of due diligence. An 83-question survey was formed -- undoubtedly parsed through layers of marketers making sure every word was perfect, every question thoughtful, every possible response precalibrated, because genuine responses require focus groups in 2016. That document was emailed to 10,000 Vegas residents; one thousand of those might see it, should they be burdened by weak spam filters.
On the other hand, we know sports care about Vegas. That aforementioned NHL team is on the way, set to take up residence in the gorgeous, new T-Mobile Arena. And of course, there are those pesky Oakland Raiders, who with every passing month beat the drum a little louder for a potential move to Las Vegas -- one that comes with a rising price tag, as will happen with these things.
The desert will do funny things to a person, however, especially when vast sums of money are at stake. This is a land that tempers your hopes and forces a cold cynicism deep into your being. Surely, if ever there were a population that would harbor a reserved skepticism about pro sports, it would be Vegas.
Absent hard data and in search of answers, I did what any man of science would do: visited the local watering holes.
There is no better place to find the pulse of a city than where its inhabitants drink. A bartender knows all -- thanks to the old, reliable customers who sit perched atop their well-worn, form-fitting stools. In Vegas, that means journeying away from the surreal ordeal that is the Strip to the places where people actually live. Henderson. Summerlin. North Las Vegas; the parts of the town most never see.
In these communities, you will find places like "Dylan's Food and Pub," a dank little video poker parlor tended by a young woman named Jennifer. At the mention of sports, she lit up, cutting me off before I could ask the question with a wholehearted declaration: "I love hockey. I'm so, so, absolutely ecstatic about the NHL coming to Vegas. I already have my season tickets."
Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Vegas has a history of hockey -- again, nothing about this city makes sense -- in independent leagues. But Jennifer got to the core of the question. Here is someone who works in the hospitality industry, at night, and would likely find it difficult to make time to attend games. Right?
"Maybe. But we don't sleep here, anyway." She laughed; the trash can of discarded Red Bulls behind her did not. "It'll happen, for sure, though. On nights I can't go, I'll either sell my tickets or give them to friends. I don't think being a city that thrives at night will be a problem. Yeah, a lot of locals work, but we'll find time to go to games."
"The NFL might be a harder sell, I think. It seems like a better game when you can sit at home on your comfy couch with your big TV and just kick back. Sundays are for rehabbing, right?"
I wanted to agree; everyone needs a rest day. But a gentleman to my left named Jeremy, who'd moved to Vegas from Denver 12 years ago, jumped in. "NFL will kill in Las Vegas. But I'm a Broncos fan, so I don't know if I could be a Raiders fan. They'd have to re-brand." At this, he rolled up his right sleeve, proudly displaying a Broncos tattoo. Never had I seen such a patriotic display from a man downing a giant margarita and cursing at a video poker machine embedded within a bar. "Get the Raiders a new name and put them in the NFC, and I'll gladly ink them on my other arm."
"Everyone's from somewhere else," added another patron. "They all have their rooting interests. If they're bringing the Raiders, though, they'll stay the Raiders. There's too much value in the name still."
"It would make Las Vegas a true destination, more than it already is," he continued. "Think about everything that's in this city that goes on every night. Britney Spears practically lives at one of the casinos, and they find a way to sell tickets all the time. That's not just locals."
Here, the Broncos fan agreed. "With hockey, I saw how much [the Avalanche] plus the Rockies helped give Denver a sense of identity, you know? Vegas needs that." He smirked. "And when I get season tickets, I can sell the tickets I don't want to tourists and make a few bucks. Gotta love Vegas."
In Summerlin, where the well-heeled sit poolside and stare westward at gorgeous red-rock mountains, "Roadrunner Saloon" bartender Kim echoed that sentiment. "I'm not a sports fan, but I moved here from Dallas, where sports rule. It's just fun to live in that kind of environment. Vegas is already all about the spectacle. Sports would just help that. Plus, I'd probably make more money."
Ah, yes. America.
A regular customer by the name of Brandon interjected, in between fevered glances back and forth from a Las Vegas Summer League game on the television to his phone, where he kept an eye on various wagers with a mobile sports-betting app. "NFL's fine, I guess. I'm not sure I want to deal with that many people on a Sunday, though." Basketball, then?
"Vegas and the NBA are made for each other," he bellowed. "We're a basketball town with the [UNLV] Runnin' Rebels. We'd have the greatest homecourt advantage in the league. You know what I mean? Guys might fake injuries for a road Sunday matinee in Vegas. It's L.A. or New York on steroids."
"What about gambling?" I asked of the man buried in betting lines. "Gambling's not a problem. It's the perception of gambling that's the problem. We've got this locked down. Nobody comes through here and does anything shady with betting. You gotta keep that [stuff] out in the open if you want to make it work. Sunshine's the best disinfectant, my grandma always said."
He's half-right. Gambling wouldn't be a problem, not due to any scandal. The leagues and teams would see to that. Instead, it's that Vegas locals want to bet on things -- like poker player Amy, who invited me to sit to her right at a rickety table in an odd miniature casino called "Ichabod's" east of the Strip. "Give me something to gamble on, and I'm there." When I politely informed my new friend that a team in Vegas would almost certainly be taken off the boards, the enthusiasm vanished. "Then I couldn't care less."
She raised the next time I bet. I folded, but a player from out of town named Carlos called.
"Here's the dirty secret with Vegas that no one talks about," he said. "Most of the time, it's a lot of fun. Every time you're here, though, there's a few hours where you don't know what to do and you don't want to go to the pool anymore because the sun sucks. Put a sports team here?" He bet; she folded. "I'm from a city without sports, [so] I'd go to a game every time I came to Vegas -- hockey, basketball, football, whatever that isn't baseball. We were here for UFC 200, which to me, Vegas is already a major sports city. UFC proved that it works."
"But," he continued while raking in the pot with a grin, "People from Vegas want things at a discount. I lived here for six years, owned a business; it drove me crazy. They get the 'local's discount' on everything. Sports teams would have to figure out how to get locals in for cheap and make their money off the whales. That's what this city does. They'll figure it out."
Not everyone is so sure, though, particularly when it comes to infrastructure. At "Ellis Island," a bar in the shadow of the Strip, a woman in her late 30s by the name of Pai expressed her reservations. She'd lived in Vegas for 11 years before leaving, although she still visits regularly. And according to Pai, the problem has always been the same.
"Anyone who says they think more sports, more anything here is a good idea isn't thinking clearly. It's about location, stupids! Traffic is already a nightmare. We're under construction every day. It's like they just move the cones around for fun and to keep getting paid. More stuff here? Sure, that could be good. Depends on where. Not on the Strip, I don't think."
Her friend, born and raised in Vegas, agreed. "Parking. Parking is going to be a disaster. We went to a show at the T-Mobile Arena the other night, and no one knew what to do with parking. We had to park at the casinos nearby, which charge you to park there. That never used to happen before they built that thing."
"I don't like sports, but I like other people enjoying themselves. They have to fix the parking, though. Have to."
As if to drive home the point, a security guard engaged me in the parking garage on the subject of the Raiders when he saw my press credential. "Security is going to be a problem if you put it on the Strip, because people can't find places to park. They'll drive around and get into accidents. The more time people have to spend waiting, the more they're going to get into fights. I used to do security for some of the clubs, and it only was a problem when we couldn't get people inside or out the door fast enough. As long as people keep moving, they're fine."
The guard, who will not be named here, then tried to sell me what he claimed was a homemade firearm out of the back of his car, all while continuing to insist that none of the proposed sites for the Raiders made sense. For the sake of my health, I agreed (with his evaluation, not to the sale).
That criticism, salient as it is, could mean the dream of an NFL stadium on the Strip is for naught. There are alternatives, though. One proposed location would be on the north side, closer to Nellis Air Force Base -- an often overlooked facet of this city.
At "The Cannery," a north Vegas casino/bar, I spoke to a number of enlisted military members and their families. Naturally, they were the most vocal about the Raiders coming to Vegas.
Michael, a 21-year-old who looked like he could fight a bear without taking a scratch, made his thoughts clear. "At the end of the day, you have this huge military community here that craves football. I know the idea is to put it near the Strip, but I guarantee you this: If the stadium were on the north side, we'd sell it out with military personnel every week."
Fellow airman Justin took it a step further. "I don't know why people think this is complicated. You put an NFL team here, and people would plan their entire weekend around coming to see a game, going to a show, and doing a little gambling. You've got the LA Raiders fans coming to Vegas, you've got the Oakland Raiders fans coming to Vegas, you've got locals, you've got tourists, you've got international tourists who are flying here anyway. It's a no-brainer. Give us the Raiders. Give us whatever team. Give us the NBA, too. This is a city of winners. If the team wins, or if it's entertaining -- because we love entertainment, that's the other thing -- then we'll be there."
So it seems. The people of Las Vegas are ready to steal the Raiders, if only someone's willing to take the chance.