Vegas vs. Dallas

It’s a fight we can’t afford, but can’t afford to lose

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has made it clear: He’s targeting Las Vegas with his new $1.2 billion stadium. What else can you read into the news that the man who built the Cowboys into one of the nation’s most lucrative sports franchises wants to host a November championship boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao?

Cowboys Stadium—with its Texas-size video screen—hosted the March bout between Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey, which drew 50,994, the third-largest crowd for an indoor fight in boxing history. Jones is convinced that he can double that figure with a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, even in a sport that’s lost its buzz to the Las Vegas-based UFC.

“There’s no question in my mind we would maybe approach 120,000 for that fight,” Jones told ESPN.

He may be right, and if so that’s one more piece of bad news for a Las Vegas Strip marred by unemployment, plunging casino revenues and threats by casino industry patriarch Steve Wynn to move his corporate headquarters to the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau. Las Vegas needs Mayweather-Pacquiao, as much for a healthy payday as to help reverse the existential crisis rocking this community, from our neighborhoods to our video-poker bars.

Can we compete with Jones and Dallas? Should we even try? One side of the argument finds those who believe Las Vegas must remain an innovative entertainment destination, a place that employs the newest technology while transforming the definition of public spaces. We could build a stadium with Vegas panache, and maybe attract a professional sports team while we are at it. Building a stadium would create 3,000 to 4,000 construction jobs, backers say, and the construction industry could certainly use the boost, having lost an estimated 75,000 jobs since its 2007 peak. The Associated General Contractors, an industry trade group, places the construction industry’s unemployment rate at 50 percent in Southern Nevada and 75 percent in the north.

We need the jobs, we need a larger venue and we could sure use the ego boost.

The problems come when you start looking at where the $600 million or so will come from.

There are four proposals on the table, three of which include floating publicly backed bonds, offering tax abatements or raising the sales tax in the resort corridor. In a community that has watched a publicly backed monorail system go bankrupt, maybe it’s time to think a little more carefully about how we spend public money.

It’s doubtful that in the best of economic times Las Vegas could attract an NBA or NHL franchise. But now? Clark County’s population is about 2 million, which would make it one of the smallest markets in any pro sports league. Then there’s the question of whether tourists would buy tickets to see a Las Vegas sports team, not to mention the traditional reluctance of casino operators to send gamblers off-property for events that don’t ring their cash registers.

Meanwhile, we’re just nine months from the start of what could be the most devastating legislative session in Nevada history—nine months to a session that could see cuts of $2.5 billion to Nevada’s public schools, colleges and universities, public health and public safety.

The concerns that Jones’ mega-stadium has stolen one too many championship boxing matches from us are legitimate, as are fears that we could lose the National Finals Rodeo—hosted by the aging Thomas & Mack Center where it has been held since 1985—to Jones’ new stadium when the NFR’s Las Vegas contract expires in 2014.

But where is the community-wide talk of the devastation that’s about to come with massive budget cuts? Few Nevadans are willing to push for a corporate or personal income tax in the best of times, but somehow it’s more palatable to talk of building a sports arena with some form of public financing.

Bottom line: If developer Garry Goett, Harrah’s Entertainment, or Sue and Paul Lowden want to build a new arena, have at it. Tap into the public equity and debt markets, assume the risk yourself and you’ll benefit from the success. But in an anti-tax, small-government state where political candidates tout their opposition to corporate bailouts and tax increases, wouldn’t it be wise to say thanks but no thanks to public money?

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