If the major leagues were not going to come to Las Vegas, then Las Vegas was going to come to them.
The door of the black stretch limousine opened, and out came the mayor of Las Vegas, flanked by one showgirl adorned in yellow feathers and another in red feathers, trailed by an Elvis Presley impersonator.
This was 16 years ago, on an otherwise routine day at baseball’s winter meetings in Anaheim. On a recent day, as Oscar Goodman was hearing the story, he interrupted. The telling of the tale was missing a critical detail.
“Not only did I have the showgirls on each arm,” Goodman said. “I had my martini in hand.”
Goodman played for the cameras, dropped a few sound bites, and chatted up Tommy Lasorda and Dusty Baker. He did not return to Las Vegas with a major league franchise or an invitation to apply for one, not long after baseball had just considered nine other cities for expansion.
“It started off almost as a joke, as far as these owners were concerned: Who is this guy with the beautiful girls and the drink in hand?” Goodman said. “It was almost as if they wanted to kick me out.”
Goodman was mayor of Las Vegas from 1999 to 2011, desperately seeking to lure a big-time sports franchise. He lobbied the owners in Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL.
“I struck out, for all intents and purposes,” he said. “But, fortunately, I was succeeded by a great mayor, and the great mayor is enjoying the fruits of her efforts.”
The NHL came first, in 2017, and the Vegas Golden Knights played to sellout crowds in an inaugural season that culminated in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Raiders come next, scheduled to debut this summer, in a stadium as colossal as any of the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip.
The great mayor is Carolyn Goodman, Oscar’s wife, who succeeded him in office. Carolyn did not consider her husband’s winter meetings stunt particularly crazy. She thought back to college, where the couple met half a century ago, and to his love of betting, even in student housing.
“Ants or cockroaches or ladybugs,” she said, “which one was going to hit the wall first?”
Betting, of course, is the original sin in pro sports. Las Vegas could delight in staging boxing matches and auto races and golf tournaments and rodeo events, but the major sports leagues drew a line in the desert sand.
There were legitimate debates about whether the population of Las Vegas was large enough to support big-time sports, or whether the media market was lucrative enough, or the economy was diverse enough. No matter what the league, though, Oscar Goodman said he got the same answer: Give up sports betting, or give up on live sports.
The Goodmans and other Las Vegas officials long had argued the leagues were short-sighted. Betting would happen whether Las Vegas hosted a team, so the argument went, but the legalized and regulated betting offered there would give league authorities the best possible chance to combat any gambling by players or employees.
In 2007, NBA referee Tim Donaghy admitted to betting on NBA games. In 2018, the NFL suspended Arizona Cardinals defensive back Josh Shaw for betting on NFL games.
In the interim, MGM put up an arena on the Strip, primarily for concerts and fights. Two years after construction began, and three months after the arena opened, the NHL awarded an expansion team to Las Vegas.
The arena was privately financed, but local taxpayers contributed $750 million toward the Raiders’ stadium, an anachronism in an era when economists have established that taxpayers seldom get back what they give toward construction of sports facilities. While some cities might consider a contribution toward a stadium as an investment in raising their national profile, Las Vegas does not lack for exposure or awareness among potential visitors.
“The novelty of Las Vegas forever has been that it is always like a chameleon, always changing its colors, and making each time you come different, and better,” Carolyn Goodman said.
“There is no hard-core industry here. The product here is fun and excitement.”
Casinos and showrooms and celebrated restaurants are old hat. With the new stadium could come a Super Bowl, a Final Four and college football playoff games.
In coming years, Carolyn Goodman says she expects the NBA, MLB and Major League Soccer each to put a team in Las Vegas.
“This isn’t going to be the end of it by any means,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
The growth in the town, and in its sports scene, is no surprise to Don Logan, the longtime president of the triple-A Las Vegas Aviators. The team moved into a new suburban ballpark last year and led the minor leagues with an average attendance of 9,299. In the majors, the Miami Marlins averaged 10,016.
Logan remembers that wacky day in Anaheim all those years ago. He was in the entourage with Oscar Goodman and the showgirls.
“That was the first time everybody stood up and took notice and said, hey, this legitimately might be a major league town someday,” Logan said. “You have to have some official that is going to champion the cause. He certainly was willing to do that.”
For so long, betting was the great attraction for Las Vegas — and the great restriction. Fans had to come there to bet on games elsewhere, but the leagues refused to play games there.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that any state could legalize sports betting. Today, fans can bet online or on their phone. In California, where sports betting remains illegal, tribal casinos nonetheless do a brisk business. The leagues themselves, aware that resistance to betting has become futile, have partnered with gaming companies to get a piece of the action.
And at a time the leagues have decided to embrace Las Vegas, the city might have gone from wanting pro sports to needing pro sports.
“It diversifies the portfolio here, in terms of entertainment options,” Logan said. “It’s always going to be an event-oriented town. You bring major league sports into the mix, and that’s just another reason to come into the market. With the proliferation of gaming around the country, there isn’t anywhere you can’t go today where you can’t find basic gaming — slots, table games, what not.
“To differentiate Vegas from other gaming destinations, I think that was important.”
Oscar Goodman cannot wait. When the NFL finally kicks off in Las Vegas in September, he will be 81.
“I’ve already been dealing with the Black Hole gang, with the Raiders,” he said. “We’ve already had a drink together. They’re going to be a terrific addition to our community.”