LAS VEGAS — Before Saturday’s Tampa Bay Lightning-Vegas Golden Knights game, there was a conversation in the T-Mobile Arena press box among a few writers about which Las Vegas professional sports team is currently the most popular among the locals.
Not surprisingly, the hockey writers seemed to agree that the Golden Knights own the hearts of Las Vegans more than any other team. And while the NFL and Raiders are indeed popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Las Vegas loves the Raiders more.
And as far as allegiances go, the WNBA’s Aces can make a case for popularity given their recent success. But when you don’t sell out your building you can’t claim to be the most beloved team in town.
No, that honor belongs to the Golden Knights. At least for the present. But could that change?
The rumors of Las Vegas getting an NBA franchise have been ongoing for years. During his media availability Saturday at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City, commissioner Adam Silver reiterated the league has no plans to expand right now. Any expansion talk will have to wait until the NBA secures a new media rights deal, which it is in the process of negotiating. Once that is completed, Silver said expansion could go back to the front burner.
That makes sense. The best commissioner in sports knows that fiscal security trumps anything else and making sure the league and its players are together and maintaining labor peace is paramount.
But once that new TV deal is achieved and the league has a better handle on its long-term financial future, the NBA be able to fast-track its expansion plans. There’s no doubt Seattle would be in the mix as the NBA would likely go from its current 30 teams to 32. The SuperSonics should never have been allowed to leave and a return to the Emerald City would right a grievous wrong.
As for Las Vegas, the Oak View Group, which is headed up by Tim Leiweke and has former Raiders president Marc Badain as its president, has grandiose plans to build an arena, casino and hotel off of Blue Diamond Road near the south end of the Las Vegas Strip with a price tag of around $3 billion. Though the announcement came almost a year ago, there is nothing at this point that says the project will not take place and as Silver’s repeated announcement that expansion is not imminent, there’s no rush. They can have the arena portion of the project completed and operational by the time the league awards a team to Las Vegas, which could come with a fee reportedly around $2 billion. The Fenway Sports Group may be interested in being the majority owner of a Las Vegas NBA team and if superstar LeBron James decides he wants to be part of a Vegas ownership group, that’s fine. But it would help King James if he knew the teams that play here. He should know the NHL team in Vegas is the Golden Knights, not the Kings. It took our Arash Markazi to remind LeBron of the name of the hockey team here when he talked Sunday about his desire to own an NBA team when he’s finished playing.
Kinda embarrassing for someone who aspires to do business in Las Vegas, don’t you think?
My thought is an NBA team would jump right to the top of the list when it comes to being the locals’ favorite. The Golden Knights were the first major league pro sports team to call Las Vegas home and the organization formed an unbreakable bond with the community in the aftermath of the mass shooting of Oct. 1, 2017. That will never change.
But basketball has a special place in the hearts of Las Vegans thanks to the success UNLV had during Jerry Tarkanian’s tenure. Four trips to the Final Four, a national championship in 1990 and a lasting legacy of success makes Vegas a basketball town first and foremost.
You can point to the NBA Summer League as a reason the sport is popular here. And while fans from the 30 NBA cities converge on the town every July, the bulk of the support has always been from the locals. Silver has acknowledged that many, many times and he and the league have embraced Las Vegas. You don’t need to sell this commissioner on Vegas.
The Golden Knights have done a good job of growing hockey in the desert. More kids, both boys and girls, are playing the sport than ever before. The game is part of the physical education curriculum in the Clark County School District and more ice sheets are planned for construction in the near future as team owner Bill Foley looks to maintain his promise from when he acquired the team to be a steward for the sport here.
But anyone will tell you it’s easier to grow basketball. All you need is a hoop and a ball, both of which are in abundance in Southern Nevada. One of the reasons the Aces are so popular is their community outreach and helping connect kids to the sport. They, like every professional sports team, understand that the next generation of ticket-buying fans has to be cultivated from when they’re young and have an emotional bond with the team.
At some point in the future, the Raiders will have that. Currently, the majority of their fan base remains in California, both in the Bay Area and in Southern California. Yes, there are Las Vegans who have adopted the team as their own or have added the Silver and Black to their NFL allegiances, but you only need visit Allegiant Stadium on game day and notice the abundance of visiting team fans on the premises.
The Golden Knights battle that stigma on occasion, especially when NHL Original Six teams or the other Canadian teams visit T-Mobile Arena. But not to the extent of what the Raiders deal with. Not even close.
A Las Vegas NBA team would no doubt attract lots of visiting fans. It may be why Oak View Group wants to build a hotel on the arena site. Those visiting fans would need a place to stay. Why not take their money?
But ultimately, the Vegas NBA team would have more than enough local support to offset any visiting team fan base. And if that NBA team were to have success and challenge for the title? Let’s put it this way, the parade route would be slightly longer than the couple of blocks the Aces’ parade lasted last year.
So stay patient Las Vegas. Your time to be an NBA city isn’t that far away.