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September 17, 2014

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Is it finally Las Vegas’ time to get a major pro sports team?

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Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press / AP

Montreal Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush keeps his eyes on the ball as Chicago Fire’s Mike Magee (9) moves in during the first half of a Major League Soccer game Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in Montreal. Findlay Sports and Entertainment is proposing building a stadium and bringing an MLS franchise to Symphony Park in downtown Las Vegas.

Click to enlarge photo

Cary Duckworth & Justin Findlay.

The developers

• Findlay Sports and Entertainment, including Managing Partner Justin Findlay, grandson of Pete Findlay and son of Cliff Findlay. The family has been in the automobile business in Las Vegas since the 1960s and owns 27 dealerships with 1,500 employees and $1.25 billion in sales in 2013.

• The Cordish Companies, an almost 100-year-old Baltimore conglomerate with real estate, gaming, lodging, entertainment management and private equity holdings. Cordish for years has wanted to build an arena, casino-hotel and entertainment district downtown and has been in an exclusive agreement with the city since 2009.

• The city of Las Vegas, which in exchange for funding would own the stadium.

The project

A 24,000-seat, outdoor stadium designed specifically for soccer but adaptable to other field sports, such as rugby and cricket. It is located on several parcels of Symphony Park, a 61-acre development plot owned by the city. The park is mostly empty but home to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

The financing

Early information indicated the stadium would cost about $200 million to build, with 74 percent coming from city-backed bonds. Some city officials, however, said that percentage is closer to 50 percent.

City officials said the bonds would cost the city $8 million a year, which may be offset by revenue from the developers and the project.

Findlay said his team wants to sign a 30-year lease, with an option to buy the stadium at the end of the term.

The timing

Justin Findlay said he wants the stadium to be ready for the 2017 Major League Soccer season.

No stadium. No team. No problem.

That’s the mantra of officials from the Findlay Sports and Entertainment Group, who say that despite no commitment from Major League Soccer and no greenlit plans for a downtown arena, Las Vegas is ready for professional sports.

The Findlay group said that in just three weeks of an online ticketing campaign, more than 1,100 Southern Nevadans reserved about 3,800 seats for proposed Las Vegas soccer team matches.

“We always hear about pro sports teams (coming to Las Vegas) and venues being built but nothing materialized,” Justin Findlay said. “I really felt compelled to chase the vision and this dream. I really believe Las Vegas deserves it.”

But would it work?

Maybe.

16,563 miles

The distance Justin Findlay has traveled to learn about Major League Soccer. He has visited with players and team owners across the country to see what works for them and figure out if, and how, that could be replicated here. His trips also were a sign of goodwill. Team owners make up the MLS Board of Governors, which ultimately will decide which city gets an expansion team. Since November, Findlay has made 10 trips to six cities, as well as Brazil for the World Cup.

Las Vegas residents are all too familiar with the rumors and speculation. It’s the same song and dance: A multimillion-dollar sports stadium is planned for Southern Nevada and would be home to the area’s first major professional sports franchise.

One year, a group plans to bring an NBA team to town. The next, an NHL team is rumored. New proposals have come and gone seemingly every year for the past decade. But, no arena has been built, and no teams have found their way to the desert.

Why? It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Professional teams haven’t relocated here because there isn’t a proper venue in which they can play. But officials won’t finance a stadium without a commitment from a team.

That soon could change. Finally, it appears Las Vegas is positioning itself for major pro sports.

MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group are building a 20,000-seat venue on the Strip. Slated for completion in spring 2016, the $350 million facility could be leased to a basketball or hockey franchise. And unlike other proposals, it is financed without public money.

Moreover, there’s a proposal to build a stadium and bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Symphony Park downtown. That plan has more legs than some of its predecessors. Findlay Sports and Entertainment, headed by a local family with a five-decade track record of business success and community generosity, appears to have a realistic shot at receiving an MLS expansion franchise.

The professional soccer league is expanding from 19 to 24 teams. New York, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta already have received new franchises. Las Vegas is competing with Austin, Texas; Minneapolis; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio and San Diego for the last franchise. The Miami team, headed by soccer icon David Beckham, also could become available if a stadium isn’t approved in South Florida.

Justin Findlay, managing partner of Findlay Sports and Entertainment, has worked for the past eight months learning the soccer industry and making contacts inside the MLS. He has reason to believe our time is now.

“Soccer right now, and MLS in particular, is very successful,” Findlay said. “Especially a model when you are at a downtown stadium like we are creating here.”

But, like all pro sports talk, there’s a significant roadblock: Funding for the $200 million stadium is in question, and a funding plan must be presented to the city council before Sept. 1 or Findlay won’t be able to move forward with negotiations with MLS.

The Cordish Cos., of Baltimore, has been contracted with Las Vegas since 2009 to build a stadium in Symphony Park, home to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and Discovery Children’s Museum. Not much progress has been made, though, despite the city spending millions on the deal. The project finally seemed to inch forward this summer when Findlay got on board.

The major obstacle is money. The stadium deal would require a significant amount of public funding from bonds, which would be repaid through a sales tax district. Tax collected on tickets for events at the stadium or food sold there would help pay off the bonds.

So far, city officials, Findlay and Cordish have been at an impasse. Three public hearings to discuss financing were canceled because the sides still were going back and forth.

Why doesn't Las Vegas have a team now?

The lack of a proper stadium is part of the problem, but not the only factor. Among the others:

Pricing

Season ticket price per game: Projected $17

Average ticket price: $55

Headcount: The soccer fan base

Las Vegas population: 2 million

Stadium capacity: Projected 20,000-24,000

Average attendance: Projected 19,000

• Gambling. Professional sports leagues traditionally have shied away from Las Vegas because of our sports books. The NFL has long snubbed its nose at our city for fear of fixed games, athletes gambling and fuzzy betting lines. Even if no actual funny business took place, the policing and PR needed to win over skeptics could get expensive.

• Entertainment. Las Vegas is the Entertainment Capital of the World. There are dozens of shows, concerts and events to choose from any night of the year. Would people opt out of those in favor of a catching a game?

• Population. We’re a big city, and a growing city, but we still are puny compared with most sports television markets. And TV contracts are what make franchises big money.

• Scheduling. Ours is a 24-hour city with a huge number of hospitality workers, many of whom work nontraditional schedules. Since locals would make up the bulk of a team’s fan base, owners have worried potential fans would be tied up working and unable to attend games.

But that doesn’t mean big names haven’t eyed the city for possible sports teams.

Getting our hopes up

When the Montreal Expos left Canada in 2004, Las Vegas was on the short list of possible home cities before the franchise went to Washington, D.C.

The NBA played its all-star game in Las Vegas in 2007. Then-Mayor Oscar Goodman thought it would launch talks to land a team here, but the weekend was a disaster with arrests and violent crime on the Strip. Locals wanted nothing to do with the NBA full time.

In 2007, a group hoping to bring hockey to Las Vegas made a presentation to the NHL’s Executive Committee, to no avail. More recently, Las Vegas has been rumored as a destination for the Phoenix Coyotes, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said Las Vegas isn’t part of his league’s plans.

Developer Chris Milam tried two years ago to build a stadium in Henderson, promising to bring the NBA’s Sacramento Kings or baseball’s Oakland A’s. But Milam became a prime example of the failures pro sports have faced in Las Vegas. He was accused of lying to officials about the viability of his project so he could buy cheap public land to sell to other developers for profit.

What has changed

The Great Recession is over, and Las Vegas’ economy is improving. That means more money is becoming available for development projects, and investors aren’t as scared to take a leap.

Gambling is migrating worldwide, giving increasingly less credence to concerns about betting.

At the same time, tourism is on the rise, and visitors are spending more while they’re here, meaning they might have the appetite and pocketbook to catch a sporting event.

“If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” Findlay said. “But I don’t want to look back and not have tried.”

The goal: Get the Hispanic community on board

Stefany Aguirre’s eyes grew wide when the topic of a possible Major League Soccer franchise in Las Vegas came up as she shopped for new cleats.

“Is a team really going to come here?” she asked. “When I lived in L.A., I went to games all the time, and it would be great to have a pro team here.”

Aguirre, 18, was buying gear at the Las Vegas Soccer Store on East Charleston Boulevard, and her reaction was exactly what potential owners of a local MLS team want to hear.

A third of Clark County is Hispanic, the vast majority of Mexican descent, and the success of an MLS team will rely in large part on that typically soccer-mad demographic showing its support.

“We expect a third of the stadium to be Hispanic, just like the city,” developer Justin Findlay said. “Soccer is already important to them. They know soccer. They love soccer. It’s their first sport, and it’s just a matter of converting them to Major League Soccer and putting a team on the field that really performs to the level needed to get their respect. Also, it’s getting out into the community.”

MLS sees the Hispanic market as vitally important and the addition of Univision a key part of its most recent television rights deal. At 34 percent, MLS has the highest percentage of Hispanic viewers among all of the major U.S. sports leagues, followed by the NBA at 12 percent. Stadium attendance figures show that about a quarter of the fans who attend MLS games are Hispanic.

MLS has come a long way since its 1996 launch, in Las Vegas and nationwide.

“Soccer is huge in this community,” said Jaime Hernandez, a Los Angeles transplant who owns the Las Vegas Soccer Store. “There are tons of teams and leagues for kids and adults. When the Galaxy came to L.A., Hispanics in Los Angeles got on board right away, and I think the same will happen here. When we have exhibition games here, like a couple years ago with Santos Laguna versus Real Madrid, (Sam Boyd Stadium) was packed.”

Alvaro Puentes, of 1460 AM ESPN Deportes, said callers to the station have been interested in the bid for an MLS team, and the Hispanic community would get behind a local team.

“I think people will be very excited, and of course it will help if the team is competitive,” Puentes said. “Now is a good time with the MLS improving and interest high after the World Cup. The one thing I would suggest is bringing in some well-known Mexican players that the fans can get behind.”

Many local Hispanic soccer aficionados say they would like to see a couple of top players on the squad. Even better if they are Mexican. They kick about the names of rising star Raul Jimenez, of Club America, or fading veteran Rafael Marquez, of Italian club Verona. A player from Las Vegas, like former U.S. National Team player Herculez Gomez, also would draw interest, many fans said.

“Hispanics love soccer, and a pro team here would be great for the community and the kids in the leagues,” Hernandez said. “The families would love it. What is there to do here? There’s the casinos and the Strip. Then there’s the lake, and that’s drying up.”

Four reasons MLS could succeed here

1. A local is proposing it. Previous stadium proposals and attempts to lure professional sports teams to Las Vegas came from outsiders looking to capitalize on our community. Plans were designed more for tourists, not locals.

Justin Findlay is a Las Vegas native. He understands our city and has its best interests in mind. The Findlay family is a Southern Nevada success, having made millions in the car industry since the 1960s. And they already sponsor a large number of community and sports events, from youth leagues to UNLV basketball.

“This is where I live and plan on living forever,” Findlay said.

If they can’t bring a team to town, you have to wonder if anyone can.

2. Las Vegans like soccer. Las Vegas ranked 13th nationally with a 2.8 market rating for World Cup viewership this summer, ahead of more-populated Philadelphia (2.6) and other cities in contention for an MLS expansion team. Austin, Texas, had a 2.7 rating, and Sacramento had a 2.6 rating. Ratings correspond to the percentage of American homes tuned into television.

Between ESPN and Univision’s Spanish broadcast, more than 26.5 million viewers nationally watched the final between Germany and Argentina. Soccer is becoming more mainstream.

3. Soccer is affordable. Some MLS ticket prices average less than $30 a game if bought as part of a season ticket plan. That’s about $20 cheaper on average than tickets for the NBA or NHL, according to abcticket.com.

Soccer ownership also is cheaper. Acquiring an MLS team typically costs $40 million to $100 million, much of that being a franchise fee. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared with, say, the $2 billion price tag for the Los Angeles Clippers.

4. Symphony Park is an ideal setting. The downtown location being eyed for a proposed stadium is perfect for soccer and follows the trend of MLS teams in Portland, Seattle and other cities thriving in downtown settings. Project Neon, the massive traffic construction project, will redo streets and highways leading into downtown, meaning easy access to Symphony Park on game days. The stadium also would be in walking distance of hotels on the Fremont Street corridor to accommodate visiting fans.

Four reasons MLS might fail here

1. Our population is transient. Franchises in similarly sized markets, such as Portland, have thrived because locals are passionate supporters. With so many new residents in Las Vegas, people interested in soccer likely already have allegiances to teams from their hometown cities.

(That’s OK, according to Findlay. He says to continue following your teams. Just follow his, too).

2. It’s really hot here. The heart of the MLS season is in summer when it is 100-plus degrees in Las Vegas. Stadium plans call for a roofed facility with air conditioning flowing up into the seats, but neutralizing the desert heat is impossible outside the stadium. Part of the pageantry of an MLS game day is the extras — the march to the match and pregame tailgating. Limiting those experiences would limit a franchise’s potential to succeed.

3. Soccer is still catching on. Although soccer is the world’s most popular sport, it remains a second-class sport in the United States. Sure, Americans are becoming fans, especially during World Cup years, but some locals, like a good portion of Americans, won’t be interested in low-scoring games.

4. Our existing teams sometimes struggle. When UNLV basketball — our city’s unquestioned favorite team — has a mediocre season, the Rebels struggle to fill the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center. Even when they win, sellouts are rare. There have been only nine since the Jerry Tarkanian coaching era ended in 1992.

It would take a few seasons for an expansion MLS team, or a relocated NBA or NHL franchise, for that matter, to establish itself. Chances are, at least in the beginning, games would be played in front of sparse crowds.

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