On Oct. 10, NHL expansion team the Las Vegas Golden Knights took their home ice for the first time in the regular season. Dressed in gray and gold before a crowd of more than 18,000, the team emerged accompanied by local first responders
The arena stood in silence for exactly 58 seconds as the names of the 58 victims of the Route 91 mass shooting were projected onto the ice, then the Golden Knights began to play as if they alone could lift their new city from the depths of grief and mourning. In the first 11 minutes, the Knights netted four goals.
Hockey fever has hit Las Vegas. The Knights have quickly won over a town that many doubted would rally behind a major league franchise, but the hockey squad is just the first in a scrum of sports teams heading toward the desert. How the rest of them will fare -- and how they'll impact the city -- is a looming question.
After decades bemoaning its status as a city devoid of major sports organizations, Las Vegas is poised for an onslaught of athletes. The Oakland Raiders are on their way to being the Las Vegas Raiders (though they won't show up until 2020 at the earliest); a new minor league soccer team, the Las Vegas Lights FC, is headed to downtown; and MGM Resorts International announced in October that it had purchased the WNBA's San Antonio Stars.
Meanwhile, Triple-A baseball squad the Las Vegas 51s are moving to a new $150 million stadium 11 miles from the Strip in Summerlin, where the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority just spent $80 million on naming rights.
"I thought it was a joke," said Temple University economics professor Michael Leeds of the LVCVA's controversial investment. "I broke out laughing. I would suggest they take the money and put it in a big pile in front of their office building and just burn it. That would generate as much publicity."
When it comes to sports' economic impact on their host community, Leeds says, there just isn't much to cheer for. "A major league baseball team, which is probably the most influential because they're around for 81 home games, probably has the same economic impact as a midsize department store. The entirety of pro sports in the U.S. has the impact of a middle-of-the-range Fortune 500 company. Northwest Mutual insurance. Something like that."
Though politicians and boosters point to construction projects and employment gains, Leeds says teams' financial benefits are limited to a narrow segment of the local economy: sports bars, fast food outlets near the stadium, constructions unions while an arena is being built.
"That's not a lot to hang your hat on in terms of economic growth," he said.
The Knights' home ice is at the T-Mobile Arena, a privately financed venue built by MGM Resorts and AEG that also hosts UFC fights, rodeo events and concerts from artists like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. The WNBA's Stars will play at Mandalay Bay Events Center, sharing the calendar with boxing matches and musical tours, and the United Soccer League's Lights will take over Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas. The Raiders, meanwhile, are getting a brand new build to the tune of $750 million in public money.
"A sports team will bring benefits to the degree that it generates new spending from outside sources," said Leeds, but the potential for the "substitution effect," whereby entertainment spending is just transferred from one venue to another, is enhanced in a city like Las Vegas, where there are so many attractions competing for locals' and tourists' cash.
"It's just taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other," said Leeds. "I tend to be a worrier, but I would worry more about Las Vegas."
Which isn't to say that bringing major league sports to Sin City is going to be a net negative for the tourist town.
"It can be a source of city pride. The Phillies were a horrible team this year, and I still enjoyed going to the ball park," Leeds said.
The key, he added, is to look at a team as a present, a fun gift. "When my kids were young, I gave them birthday presents because I loved them, not because I felt it was going to help them get into medical school one day. As long as a city goes into this with that attitude -- we are buying ourselves a present, we are throwing ourselves a party -- that's perfectly fine. Just doing think this is going to drive economic impact. Because it won't."