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Steve Friess: A’s Should Beware The Attendance Lesson Of The Lackluster Vegas Raiders

There’s a stubborn belief in Las Vegas that baseball is a good addition to the Strip. Trust me, it’s not. Just take a look at the Raiders.

Steve Friess State of Play Las Vegas Raiders Stadium
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7 mins read

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

The Las Vegas Athletics are a bad idea. They always have been a bad idea. And now I have proof. They’re called the Las Vegas Raiders.

Have you looked at attendance for the pathetic Raiders lately? I did, by accident, the other day. According to ESPN, the abysmal, last-place franchise draws to Allegiant Stadium the second smallest crowds in the NFL ahead of the equally abysmal, also last-place Chicago Bears.

What’s worse, that Vegas venue is 96% full for its average home game this year. That sounds high except that the Bears are at 100.9% capacity. If the decrepit, nearly century-old, no-dome Soldier Field with that wicked Lake Michigan wind whipping across it all winter had more seats, it would easily surpass Vegas. Plus, this being Vegas, Lady Luck only knows how many of those seats were filled by casino comps.

This should set off alarms for the movement to bring the A’s to Nevada which, evidently, is a fait accompli at this point. Instead, there’s a stubborn belief that baseball — a game that has hemorrhaged attendance and TV audience so much in this century that the only way they’ve reversed its slide was by making the games shorter — is a good addition to the Strip.

It’s not.

 Vegas misunderstands itself, keeps blowing opportunities

Nobody else in the sports or gambling media will say this because the sacrosanct principle right now is that Vegas must continue to acquire the accouterments of other places to attain some mythical legitimacy as a “real” city.

What a pathetic, needy, sniveling waste. Vegas is as real a city as any other — and a better one, too, for having forged its own unique path for all of these decades.

On football in particular, Vegas blew an incredible chance. I’ve long argued a radical alternative in which, rather than bringing in or birthing a franchise of its own to inevitably have good and fallow years, Vegas became a weekly neutral site for other teams.

Instead of eight or nine Sundays (or Mondays or Thursdays nowadays) of business, that arrangement would have guaranteed 18 sellouts plus two fan bases of tourists flocking in to make a weekend out of their teams’ Vegas games. The revenue would be massive enough for both teams — and certainly more than whatever they get playing in London or Germany or Mumbai or wherever the NFL road show goes these days (Brazil is next) — to give up a home game of their own.

Alas, the powers that be feel importing a crappy Bay Area team to a stadium paid for in part with $750 million in hotel taxes would be better for public morale and civic unity. Maybe so in terms of selling merch, but in the Vegas Raiders’ first full and only winning year (2021) at Allegiant, they filled just 94.1% of the seats while going 10-7 and earning a wild-card playoff slot. The next year they finished 6-11 and average attendance was 95.5%. And now they’re heading to another sad last-place season.

Vegas to losers: Keep out

And here’s the problem for the A’s and all those supporters of the corporate socialism that brought the NFL and soon Major League Baseball to town: Las Vegas does not support losers.

One more time. Vegas. Does. Not. Support. Losers.

The locals aren’t in this through thick and thin. And the tourists don’t love football enough to blow a day on the Strip to go watch unless their home teams are playing. And this is pro sports; as the New England Patriots are proving this year, even the greatest teams will become losers sooner or later.

Yet the we-must-have-sports-to-be-real-boys crowd doesn’t care. And so the powers that be have now decided to import another crappy Bay Area team to a stadium paid for in part with hundreds of millions of dollars in government support.

It’s supposed to be great for public morale and civic unity.

The Golden Knights rule does not apply

Oh, you say, but look at what wonderful success the Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights have had!

It’s too early to tell if that’s an exception or if the Golden Knights are simply riding an exceptional roll of really fortuitous timing, excellent community outreach and marketing. The team had the unusual circumstance of debuting at a moment when the locals, traumatized by a gruesome and gargantuan mass shooting, needed a positive diversion to rally around. Then, surprisingly, they vastly overachieved in that 2017-2018 debut season.

The VGK also isn’t someone’s sloppy seconds. It was an expansion team conceived of and realized entirely by and for Vegas. We don’t know if the city will sour on them if and when gravity brings them back down to Earth and for a losing season or three. It is fair to say, however, that the team has embedded itself in the emotional skyline of the region in an authentic and meaningful way that has earned it a storehouse of patience, forgiveness, and grace.

T-Mobile Arena is also a much smaller venue and much easier to fill up. The VGK average attendance in its championship year was still only about 18,000 per game; Allegiant requires 65,000 to fill up. The new baseball park for the Vegas A’s that is expected to open in 2028 will have 33,000 seats — and twice as many home games as in an NHL season.

Does anyone believe the promiscuous, disloyal A’s, the only franchise in MLB history to move four times and notoriously one of the worst-operated, least fan-friendly teams in all of sports, will connect with Vegas residents in the same way?

Taking shots at Oakland’s pro sports demise

Oh, actually, some people say they do. There are sports reporters and publicists who are crowding a booming public Facebook group to cackle at Oakland for losing its football, baseball and basketball teams.

A sports radio producer on that public group, Mike Uselding, is emblematic. Here’s one recent comment:

“Hard to believe that in the span of about a decade, Vegas has gone from zero professional sports teams to four in that time frame. First the Vegas Golden Knights , then the Las Vegas Aces, then the Raiders and now the A’s.  The success of both the Golden Knights and the Aces leaves no doubt that professional sports can thrive out here.”

Notice that the commenter didn’t reference the Raiders. And the WNBA’s two-time champion Las Vegas Aces are a great story, but they only draw fewer than 10,000 attendees. Also, they didn’t require hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to exist at Mandalay Bay’s events venue.

Uselding goes on later in that thread:

“First, the Golden State Warriors move across the bay to San Fran, then the Raiders move to Vegas and now the A’s are following suit. As long as the leadership in Oakland keeps doing what they’ve been doing, the city and citizens will continue to suffer as a result of their ineptitude.”

I don’t know much about Oakland, but I do know that the unpopularity of your losing, mismanaged sports franchises cannot be laid at the feet of municipal (or state or any) government. If city leaders think that the team is extorting too much out of the public coffers for whatever value they provide, that seems like a reasonable decision to me.

At least it’s a bold and principled one. Vegas and Nevada used to make those before it decided it needed to be “normal.”

Baseball can work, but not this way

Is pro baseball in Vegas a bad idea? Maybe, maybe not.

I doubt many tourists will pass up time on the Strip at a show or dinner or the tables to go see a Vegas team’s game, even if the team was good. And the obnoxious traffic and parking nightmare that will accompany a baseball stadium on what is already one of the most congested intersections — Tropicana and Las Vegas boulevards — should keep all but the most rabid local fans far, far away.

But there’s definitely a better answer. Do it my way.

Build a baseball stadium on the Strip, sure. But make it a neutral venue. Host rivalry weekends. The tourism for a Mets-Yankees or White Sox-Cubs series would be amazing. The gambling revenue also would be outstanding and would come to Nevada rather than staying back home.

Even better, it won’t matter (to Vegas) if the teams are good. It won’t matter (to Vegas) who wins. It won’t matter (to Vegas) if the local population takes an interest in an increasingly unpopular sport.

Vegas will be raking it in by doing its own, special thing. Fans will come as much for the Vegas experience as for their teams.

That’s why the mockery of Oakland saddens me so much. It will be just fine without these sports franchises. Heck, there will be more public money to spend on things that matter.

And, unlike Vegas, it has the confidence to resist the pressure to be like everyone else.

That used to be Vegas. That was the Vegas I loved.

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Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

View all posts by Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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