Major League Baseball in Las Vegas is one big bluff

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Yesterday Rob Manfred said that he would not rule out Major League Baseball moving to or expanding to Las Vegas. This was news as it has long been thought that baseball would be wary of Vegas because of the sport’s history with gambling. Manfred, to his credit, was realistic about all of that, noting that casinos are all over the place now. He could’ve also noted that casinos advertise with teams and that MLB, via its partnership with daily fantasy companies, is basically in the gambling business itself.

But even if the sport is getting over its hangups with gambling, I am still skeptical that baseball will seriously consider moving to Las Vegas. Not because of gambling, but because of economics. Because it is too small overall, its demographics are uniquely challenging, and its dominant industry — indeed, the industry which gives the city its very reason for existing as we know it — would be the sport’s main competitor and possible adversary in litigation or legislative initiatives.

Las Vegas is glitzy and glamorous, but it’s not big. Indeed it’s only the 40th largest media market in the country, coming in behind such allegedly-not-ready-for-big-league cities like Columbus, Raleigh-Durham, Greenville-Spartansburg, Sacramento, Orlando, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Hartford, Salt Lake City, West Palm Beach, San Antonio and Austin. We have written here many times that Major League Baseball needs to break its dependence on local TV money deals as they’re currently constructed in order to grow in the future, but it’s still the biggest source of revenue for teams. Expanding into the 40th largest TV market when there are multiple bigger markets without teams seems unrealistic.

Then there’s the notion of filling the stadium. While the local population base is not quite as big as other places, backers of sports in Las Vegas like to point to how many tourists are in town at any moment. They’re absolutely right about that, but it’s no gimmie whatsoever that they’ll want to spend three hours a night in a ballpark as opposed to on a casino floor, a fancy dinner or at a show. A lot of Vegas backers say that the casinos will buy luxury suites and give tickets to high rollers, but the companies which own the casinos have even less of an interest in their guests leaving their property to go to a ballpark in the evening than the would-be fans themselves do. Unlike boxing or even football, baseball is not a “destination” sport. People will not, in any serious numbers, travel to Las Vegas for the express purpose of watching baseball games. Attendance depends on local season ticket holders who go to games on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons, not tourists who come in on Friday and Saturday night.

Heck, even if a casino company becomes a partner with Major League Baseball in either a team or a stadium deal which, in theory, will funnel tourists onto a ballpark concourse, the other casino companies would likely oppose it. We’re seeing that right now with football, as the Oakland Raiders are trying to strike a deal with the Sands company to help them build a domed stadium. MGM, a competitor, is opposed to the idea and has threatened legal or legislative action to block it. Does Major League Baseball want that kind of hassle? It’s hard to imagine it does.

In the past when this topic came up I cited Las Vegas’ local economic challenges. The city was hit harder by the Great Recession than just about any other place in the nation. That was many years ago, however — in 2010 and 2011 — when foreclosures were still at record highs and jobs were being lost, not added. Thankfully Vegas and Nevada are seeing a big economic rebound, so that’s less of a concern than it was when we last talked about all of this. Still, so much of that growth and so much of Las Vegas’ existing employment base is centered in entertainment and hospitality industries. Those are a lot of people who go to work in the evening, when baseball games are being played, as opposed to going to office jobs during the daytime and looking for something to do at night.

Given all of these challenges I can’t help but wonder why Rob Manfred would throw a bone to Las Vegas as a potential major league city, especially when there are others like Montreal, Charlotte and perhaps Austin-San Antonio which are better options. And when I wonder about all of that, I can’t help but think of Major League Baseball’s history of pitting cities against one another, both current big league cities and would-be relocation and expansion sites, in order to get lucrative incentives or free stadiums for its owners. It used Washington like that for decades. It’s starting to play footsie with Montreal in the same way. Now Las Vegas.

Put more bluntly, when it comes to baseball in Las Vegas, Manfred is bluffing. For which, given the city in question, I’ll give him points for style, but a bluff is still a bluff.