Monday, May 20

Professional sports in Las Vegas are not universally acclaimed

The history of Las Vegas has been marked by an incessant production of hotels, casinos, theaters and restaurants. But only recently has the city’s landscape included major professional sports teams.

The National Hockey League’s Golden Knights were the first to start playing here in 2017. The Women’s National Basketball Association Aces started in 2018 and the National Football League’s Raiders arrived from Oakland in 2020. Last year, Major League Baseball Athletics has been given the green light to make the same move from Oakland to Las Vegas, and the National Basketball Association is expected to add a team in the next few years.

Las Vegas’ transformation into a professional sports city reflects not only the leagues’ interest in the city and their general interest in sports betting, but also the power of the region’s primary economic driver, tourism. No other major U.S. city is so dependent on a single industry, and a broad coalition led by top resort operators has helped secure lucrative subsidies to build new stadiums, with the idea that out-of-town visitors would following.

Those efforts will be on display Sunday when Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders and built in part with public money, hosts Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.

“Our role here and what Vegas offers is a platform where people with big ideas can come in and make them real,” said Steve Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the man most responsible for helping to attract teams to the city. “We are a destination that is trying to say yes.”

Not everyone, however, has embraced this strategy. In Las Vegas, the decision to set aside public money for private teams has amplified scrutiny of state funding of critical social services, particularly for education in the nation’s fifth-largest public school district, with about 300,000 students.

This week, a group of Nevada teachers sued the state and its governor, Joe Lombardo, challenging the constitutionality of a law passed last year to financially assist the A’s in building a stadium. Mr. Lombardo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

“It’s really the haves and the have-nots,” said one of the plaintiffs, Christina Giunchigliani, who in 2016 was the only member of the seven-person Clark County Commission to vote against funding Allegiant Stadium. “If they really wanted to diversify the economy, would sports add a component? YES. But they didn’t need public taxpayer money to do it.”

However, fighting the region’s economic engine is a tall order. Lawmakers have tried to diversify the economy for years, but Las Vegas remains dependent on tourism. Nearly 41 million people visited the country in 2023.

Economists almost universally argue that publicly funded stadiums do not finance themselves. Mr. Hill acknowledges the skepticism, but insists that Las Vegas is different because most subsidies are funded by hotel taxes paid by out-of-towners.

“A lot of places build stadiums for community development reasons, and God bless them, but it’s not really an economic benefit,” Mr. Hill said in his office filled with reminders of groundbreaking innovations and ribbon-cuttings. “But here we have so many people who come to Las Vegas because of the events that take place in the stadium.”

Over the past decade, Hill has led efforts to diversify an economy prone to booms and busts. He arrived in Las Vegas in 1987 to run a cement company, arriving at the beginning of an era of unprecedented construction, and later became active in the Chamber of Commerce and industry groups dedicated to fueling the city’s meteoric growth. He also raised money for Brian Sandoval, who was elected governor in 2010 and tapped Hill to head the economic development office.

After convincing Apple, Tesla and other companies to move to Northern Nevada, Mr. Hill was tasked in 2015 with helping revive tourism in Southern Nevada by trying to expand the convention center and build a stadium to attract a soccer team to Las Vegas. He convinced county and state powerbrokers to provide $750 million to help the Raiders build Allegiant Stadium. And, as chairman of the Convention and Visitors Authority since 2018, he has attracted a Formula One race and helped win support for $380 million in public subsidies for the stadium the A’s want to build. (The Golden Knights used no public money to build their arena.)

One of Mr. Hill’s skills has been balancing Las Vegas’ powerful business interests, particularly resort and casino operators and the culinary workers union.

“Steve was critical because of his background,” said Bill Hornbuckle, chief executive of MGM Resorts International. “He knew all the right characters.”

Mr. Hill runs both the convention and stadium authorities, drawing criticism that he wields so much power that he can push through deals that benefit the business community at the expense of residents.

“There really aren’t the checks and balances that I would like to see when it comes to public policy and Steve Hill and his organization,” said Michael Schaus, a columnist for the Nevada Independent. “The people who were cheerleaders for this football stadium are the same people who were involved in making it happen.”

Mr Hill denies the criticism and says he has refrained from dealing with funding requests due to potential conflicts of interest. By Mr. Hill’s calculations, the subsidies spent on Allegiant Stadium were money well spent. About half of the fans who attended games, concerts and other events at the stadium came from outside Las Vegas, nearly double the original projection of 27%. Most of them paid hotel taxes, ate out, rented cars and gambled at casinos, he said.

But J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said that dollars spent on stadiums would otherwise be spent elsewhere in the city, and that most of the profits from stadiums often go to the teams that rent them. Some visitors avoid Las Vegas even when football games and other large events are taking place in the city because the price of hotel rooms often increases.

“People interpret causality backwards,” Bradbury said. “People say it’s a big league city because it has a team. No, they used to be a big city and that’s why the team went there.”

Then there’s the question of what else the county and state could do with the money raised from various taxes. For years, the region’s schools, funded by sales and property taxes, and other social services have failed to keep pace with the growth of the tourism industry. Nevada ranks last in the country in class size, spending per student, child care spending and environmental quality, and is near the top in gambling and addiction from drugs.

Vicki Kreidel, a plaintiff in the A’s funding lawsuit, teaches reading a 20-minute drive from the Strip at Lomie G. Heard Elementary School, a public school where 100 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. The students she works with have first learned a language other than English and need small group intervention because they read below their grade level.

Yet Ms. Kreidel said reading centers like the one at her school existed in relatively few elementary schools in the Clark County School District. Teachers describe a lack of resources to support their students and facilities that are outdated and in need of repair, which a district spokesperson attributed to inadequate funding from the state. There are more than 1,300 teacher vacancies, the district added.

Ariane Prichard, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Bonanza High School, said that due to the district’s teacher shortage, her average class size was 36 students. She and others in her department had to use the prep period to teach an extra section so the classes wouldn’t get bigger. They get paid for the extra lesson and then do the prep work on their own time.

Last year, Ms. Kreidel, president of a local affiliate of the state teachers union, testified in favor of more funding for public schools during Nevada’s biennial legislative session. A 2023 report from the state commission on school finance showed the state was spending about $4,000 less per student than the recommended level. The Nevada Department of Education welcomed the passage of the state’s largest education budget in May, but the budget did not close the per-pupil deficit.

A few weeks later – one day before vetoing a bill that would have provided free universal breakfast and lunch to students – Lombardo signed the $380 million public funding bill for the A’s stadium into law. Ms. Kreidel called that decision a “knife in the gut.”

He said he vowed never to set foot inside Allegiant Stadium. Another elementary teacher in the district, LaTasha Olsen, also tries to avoid walking past us.

“It makes me mad every time,” Ms. Olsen said. “I didn’t go to the stadium. I don’t want to go to the stadium. No.”

He added: “It just represents that we don’t care. We don’t care about teachers. We don’t care about our students. We care about our tourism.”