LAS VEGAS — It’s rare occurrence these days when sports and politics don’t intersect, especially when it comes to building stadiums and arenas.
Here in Nevada, the Governor’s race is over and incumbent Steve Sisolak is out of a job. But it’s unclear whether his successor, Republican Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo will follow Sisloak’s mantra when it comes to the Oakland Athletics and their quest for public funding for a new baseball stadium in Las Vegas.
Sisolak made it abundantly clear on more than one occasion while he was still in office that he was not going to give the A’s a dime for a ballpark. He reiterated that sentiment to me a week ago when he made an appearance at the F1 kickoff party, an event he wholeheartedly supported and pointed out did not require public funding to be held next November.
Lombardo, whose platform is built on fiscal conservatism, has not made his thoughts known publicly on whether he would take a different approach when it comes to assisting professional sports franchises. Remember, it’s not just Major League Baseball that is seeking a refuge in Vegas. The NBA, which already has some roots here with its annual Summer League and a G-League franchise in the Ignite, may decide to put an expansion franchise here. The Oak View Group, which announced plans earlier this year to build an arena and hotel project south of the Las Vegas Strip near Blue Diamond Road, has a relationship with the league, but not necessarily with Lombardo. It’s not known if the change in Carson City will impact OVG’s attempt to break ground and build its arena, which will be completely privately funded.
There’s also Major League Soccer, which has its eyes set on Las Vegas as an expansion team. However, commissioner Don Garber pushed back the timetable for Vegas yet again when he spoke prior to the MLS Cup. What was supposed to have been announced in the first quarter of 2022 has now been moved to sometime in 2023. Will MLS seek public funding for a soccer-specific stadium as part of an agreement to put a team here? And would Lombardo be a willing partner in such an agreement?
But let’s get back to the A’s for now, given they’re ready to step to the plate so to speak. We all heard MLB commish Rob Manfred say during the World Series that time is running out for the A’s in Oakland, where, ironically, there’s a turnover in the political landscape. Libby Schaaf, the city’s mayor who had already lost the NFL’s Raiders to Las Vegas and the NBA’s Warriors to San Francisco, couldn’t afford to lose yet another major league franchise on her watch. So, to save part of her legacy (Schaff is not eligible to remain in office due to term limits), she worked and cajoled and thought she had a deal to give the A’s the public money they have been seeking to not only build their ballpark, but also develop the land around it with shops, restaurants and bars, residential units and a hotel. The price tag is approximately $12 million. The ballpark alone would cost well over $1 billion.
But there are still hurdles to clear for the Howard Terminal project to get the final green light and while whoever the new mayor and city council in Oakland will be and may be supportive of the plan, getting it across the finish line may not be happening soon. And Manfred and John Fisher, the A’s owner, are getting a bit antsy.
The funny thing is, the A’s already have a presence here in Las Vegas. The team’s Triple-A franchise, the Aviators, play in Summerlin in what has been voted America’s nicest minor league ballpark. But while it has a lot of bells and whistles, it wasn’t designed for major league baseball and it really can’t be retrofitted to accommodate the A’s and MLB.
So the A’s would have to build their Vegas ballpark from scratch. We’re probably talking 35,000 seats with a retractable roof to make playing summertime baseball tolerable. And that’s going to raise the price tag well over the $1 billion it would cost to build a new stadium in Oakland. The speculation is a new Vegas ballpark would be located at one of two sites — near the tropicana Hotel and Casino on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue, or the Las Vegas Festival Grounds, which is off the Strip by East Sahara Avenue close to the I-15 freeway.
Bally’s Corporation owns the Tropicana site while Phil Ruffin, who owns the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, is the proprietor of the Festival Grounds land. Frankly, neither location is ideal, especially for the county’s 2.3 million residents who have enough inconveniences when it comes to traveling to the Strip and trying to park to attend events.
That’s a lot of potential voters and don’t think our Governor-elect doesn’t know that. He ponies up, say, a billion or so dollars for a ballpark that few of his constituents will utilize instead of putting more cops on the streets or more teachers in the classroom and he could have a short stay in the Governor’s mansion.
Sisloak was the “Sports Governor.” He even ran campaign ads that were sports-themed. He’s a huge fan of the NHL’s Golden Knights going back to when Bill Foley was trying to get into the league. He’s solidly behind the Raiders, even as bad as they currently are. And he’s a frequent visitor courtside at the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces games. Sisloak and Raiders/Aces owner Mark Davis are good friends.
But even he knew where the line was drawn and he was going to be damned if he was going to cross it in appropriating public funds or creating tax districts or bond ploys for a baseball team.
We don’t know if Lombardo shares Sisloak’s enthusiasm when it comes to pro sports. I’ve never talked with him about what his favorite sports and favorite teams are. I remember him at the Golden Knights’ emotional home opener during their inaugural season following the horrific mass shooting of Oct. 1, 2017. He’s been back to T-Mobile Arena a couple of times since but I wouldn’t call him a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool VGK fan. I’m sure he’s happy when the Knights win and, for that matter, the Raiders.
What I do know is if some owner or representative, say, A’s president David Kaval, is going to request a sit-down meeting with him, I can’t see Lombardo giving away the store for a baseball team. But let’s see what he says when he gets asked, and he will be asked, what his policy will be for using public funding to subsidize private enterprise. Maybe his response will surprise everyone.