This kind of stadium funding could only happen in Las Vegas
How can a city pay $ 0 for an arena and set itself up for the best sports expansion deal in modern times, but then be asked to spend a record $ 750 million in tax dollars for a stadium to house a team nobody else wants?
Such things happen when that city is Las Vegas.
After being shunned for years because of its ties to sports gambling, Las Vegas currently finds itself being courted by revenue-hungry leagues seeking better luck in the desert. MGM Grand (which already operates the Grand Garden Arena in town) and sports conglomerate Anschutz Entertainment Group dumped $ 350 million into T-Mobile Arena, which just opened in April, and have been long rumored as a National Hockey League expansion or relocation candidate.
While NHL franchises in Raleigh, N.C., and Glendale, Ariz., have been disgruntled by arena and attendance issues in their home markets, the NHL is still looking into expanding by two more teams and sees Las Vegas and Quebec City as viable options. While there are questions about whether the league can handle the dilution of its talent base, there’s little question that placing a team in Las Vegas without uprooting it from its current home or asking Vegas taxpayers to foot the bill is an ideal scenario for the city.
Less ideal, however, is the proposal that Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis unveiled at the end of April that would help move his National Football League franchise to Vegas. The Raiders, who are currently an alternate for the second-tenant spot at the Los Angeles Rams’ new stadium — with the San Diego Chargers’ owners getting first dibs — are looking to build a stadium with $ 300 million of Davis’ own money, $ 200 million from the NFL … and roughly $ 750 million in hotel and rental-car taxes.
Just in case $ 750 million doesn’t sound like a whole lot of money, keep in mind that it would be the single largest sum of up-front public money (bond interest always inflates the figure to far more) ever paid for an NFL facility. It would be a full $ 130 million more than Indianapolis paid for Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008 and it would be more than the cost of any NFL stadium built prior to 2009.
And who’s asking for that money? Not just Davis, but his presumptive business partner, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. For those unfamiliar with Adelson, he is the owner of the Las Vegas Sands Casino corporation, multiple casinos (including The Venetian in Las Vegas), the Las Vegas Review-Journal, numerous estates and, likely, a beloved childhood sled that will be thrown on to the fire by thoughtless servants after his demise. He is worth $ 30 billion and will likely be the person who throws the extra $ 150 million in “private funds” into this $ 1.4 billion stadium project, though he’s been angling for a big public payout (with help from his newspaper) for months.
The NFL would still have to approve any move the Raiders make and, with the Chargers still pushing a stadium vote in San Diego and the second Los Angeles spot still empty, the league has no incentive to take any position on Davis’ Las Vegas proposal yet. However, considering that moving even one team to Los Angeles took away a big bargaining tool for NFL owners seeking stadium money from taxpayers in other markets, having Las Vegas as a fall back option certainly holds some appeal for the league — at least until prospects in England, Mexico, Germany or elsewhere prove a bit more feasible.
In the meantime, MGM and Anschutz have just reset the asking price for arenas in U.S. cities. It may have come too late for fans in Milwaukee, but onlookers in Seattle and elsewhere now have an example of the powers of both a prime location and deep-pocketed private interests. As for Davis, Adelson and the Raiders, they serve as a reminder that the same NFL that saw a stadium built for the New York Giants and Jets without public funding in 2010 has watched hundreds of millions in public funding (including roughly $ 500 million in Minneapolis) spent on every stadium its owners have built since.
With unemployment in Las Vegas still sitting above the national average at 6% and the city’s foreclosure rate still sitting among the top 20 (1.5% compared with 0.8% nationwide, according to RealtyTrac), Las Vegas needs to decide how it wants to play in the major leagues. Does it want private interests to pay their own way, or does it want taxes that could help its ailing city diverted directly into private hands?
Even in Vegas, the house doesn’t always have to win.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Notte received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.