Las Vegas’ odds for NBA expansion may be better than you think

Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

While the league has been quietly working at expanding its global footprint for decades, it recently upped the intensity and level of commitment to that goal only to find a tweet from Houston Rockets GM (and, if we’re being honest, China’s approach to geopolitics in recent months) putting whatever the league’s vision of the future is in jeopardy. Whether this makes an expansion in the NBA’s current North American market more or less likely than the internationally-focused academies remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, we’re continuing with our series of NBA expansion articles exploring the possibility of the former as they may relate to the latter – this week with our own Mike Miller to talk the odds of a new franchise in the odds capital of the world, Las Vegas. So, with these caveats in mind, let’s cut to the chase and see what kind of a hand this iconic city has at becoming the league’s newest franchise home in the near-future.

Las Vegas

Sin City always seemed a longshot to host a pro sport of any kind. The attention of most visitors attuned to losing money in spectacular fashion than it did to the sort of spectator entertainment the NBA and other professional sports leagues offer.

Until one came.

The arrival of the NHL in Las Vegas changed the tone of those conversations. The expansion Golden Knights was widely embraced by the city, and made a Finals appearance in their inaugural season. While the luck and sweat behind the former may be lightning in a bottle, the embrace most certainly wasn’t. There are certainly financial and market questions that remain unanswered, given hockey fans do not neatly overlap with basketball fans in any part of the country, and allegiance to a team in one sport does not guarantee a similar interest in another. That doesn’t phase Mike Miller, who had plenty to say on Sin City’s candidacy.

If the NBA is to expand, this argument only needs two words: Vegas, Baby! 

Though apparently that’s not enough, so here we go:

Sin City, America’s seediest town, was at one time a place that major league sports teams wouldn’t dream of calling home. The US attitude towards sports gambling meant for a long time that Vegas’s structural DNA was the antithesis of what leagues, owners and franchises looked for in a potential destination.

But, much like the lure of the blackjack table and the roulette wheel, the temptation has always been there.

The NBA, so often the outlier in pushing new ideas, boundaries and conventional norms has flirted with Vegas for at least a quarter of a century. It started during the 1983-84 season, when the Utah Jazz played 11 home games at the (then) newly opened Thomas & Mack Center. If that didn’t open the door, it at least nudged it ajar. A little over 20 years later, the first incarnation of the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League took place, where it’s been held ever since. In 2007, the league – a little braver – held its All-Star Weekend in the city. The temptation was growing.

Basketball is not the only sport intrigued by the lights of Sin City. The NHL first made an appearance in 1991 and the league’s annual awards have been held there since 2009. In 2017, the Las Vegas Golden Knights joined the NHL, becoming the city’s first major pro franchise.

Shortly after, in 2018, the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars were reborn as the Las Vegas Ace and are now a force to be reckoned with in the W. By 2020, the NFL will have a presence in the city, as the (somewhat nomadic) Raiders depart from Oakland to their new home.

The NBA can’t be far behind. Whether they do so by expansion or relocation, Las Vegas, quite frankly, deserves a team. The city is the 28th largest market in the country and the only one of those 28 to have neither had a shot at their own franchise (I’m counting the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors) or have one nearby (Anaheim isn’t far from LA and Tampa is close to Orlando).

Perhaps it was a stigma, steeped in point shaving controversies of the past (looking at you, NCAA) that kept professional franchises from stepping foot in the only state where sports gambling was legal. It’s clear that the bedrock of Vegas will always be endeavors geared towards “the house” always winning. Fortunately, America’s and professional sport’s anti-gambling stance has softened and in May 2018, the overturning 1992’s Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act effectively paved the way for legal sports betting through the country.

Ever the opportunistic enterprise, within a month of the announcement, the NBA announced a partnership with a certain company with a significant presence on the strip, MGM, as their Official Gaming Partner. The league then quickly followed up divulging proposals for a one percent “integrity fee” from operators, essentially as Adam Silver described it “a royalty”. Surely the next step in embracing this movement is to put a franchise in LV?

The infrastructure is already there. The league’s connections are already there. And as the seventh most visited city in America, there are 42.9 million tourists who can help create one of the most unique atmospheres in the NBA. 

Can you honestly call yourselves “The Entertainment Capital of the World” without a team from the world’s most entertaining league in place?  

The simple fact of having already made a professional sports team work with an existing arena suitable for NBA play may put the city ahead of any other option in the lower 48 states – including Seattle – as the bulk of the logistical issues have been solved or shown favorable evidence in support of such a move. But as we have seen with Seattle and other prospective markets, inertia and a leg up is not enough on its own, as we’ll see with the next two options in our NBA expansion series.

Featured photo –  Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington