Strip Mining

On Thursday, MLS commissioner Don Garber informed city officials in Las Vegas that they were eliminated from consideration for an expansion franchise in 2017 or 2018. They were until that point in competition for the 24th spot in the league, a spot now contested only by Sacramento and Minneapolis.

This is a refrain that Las Vegas is used to hearing. For decades, Vegas- a metropolitan area currently ranking 30th in US population, and the only one in the top 35 without a professional team- has regularly attempted to obtain one. After all, the big time is what Vegas is all about, and one of the ways a city marks itself on the map as being seriously worthy of capital-A Attention is to get a professional team and ensure that the media comes in constantly, even if only to report on the team. It’s a big reason Jacksonville, Florida is known to many Americans. It’s certainly the only way anyone knows where Green Bay, Wisconsin is. And God help the city that loses those teams and watches the attention slip away. Just ask former NFL town Portsmouth, Ohio, which once in a while reminisces about how so much would be better if only their Spartans hadn’t left for Detroit in 1934 to become the Lions, and since then, half of the city’s population and a shoe factory along with them.

Vegas has the space to accommodate a major-league team. They may not have the current facilities, but that would not be that much of an obstacle. The city is in a state of constant birth, death and rebirth; if space did not exist, it would soon. Just wait for the next time a casino goes under and build there; or lacking that, being in the Nevada desert has its advantages. Money is certainly nearby… and that’s the problem. Vegas is the gambling capital of the entire Western Hemisphere, in competition with Monaco and Macao for global audiences. Major leagues repeatedly shy away from Vegas for fear that the proximity to so much gambling will lead to match-fixing and, along with it, a devaluation of their sport.

In 2004, Vegas attempted to lure the Montreal Expos. They moved to Washington DC instead. In 2006, they attempted to lure the San Diego Chargers. They’re still in San Diego. In 2007, then-Seattle Supersonics owner Clay Bennett made mention that he might move the team to Vegas instead of Oklahoma City. They’re in Oklahoma City now. In 2009, they attempted to lure the Oakland Athletics. They’re still in Oakland, and if they do move, it’s likely to be within the Bay Area. In 2012, they attempted to lure the Sacramento Kings. They’re still in Sacramento. Last year, rumors surfaced about Vegas attempting to lure the Phoenix Coyotes. Those rumors were quickly quashed. Expansion rumor after expansion rumor has put Vegas into the conversation, but every single time, when the music stopped, Vegas was without a chair.

In 2007, Vegas did host the NBA All-Star Game, but as a condition of being awarded the game, Vegas sports books had to agree to refuse to take bets on the game.

This is not to say that Vegas does not get sports. One-off events will involve the city fairly often, actually- among them, the draw for the 1994 World Cup, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. NASCAR holds a Sprint Cup race in Las Vegas. Boxing and MMA actually consider Vegas to be their mecca, with the MGM Grand considered the Yankee Stadium of combat sports, with rodeo holding its championships there as well. Rugby sevens uses Vegas as the American site for its season tour. American Ninja Warrior puts its national finals in Vegas.

Teams are a different story, the college teams at UNLV notwithstanding because they’re not going anywhere unless the college does. Vegas is not entirely without soccer, but their team is in the 4th-tier PDL, the Las Vegas Mobsters. There’s a triple-A baseball team in town, the Las Vegas 51’s, currently an affiliate of the New York Mets.  The current incarnation of arena soccer has set a team in town, the Las Vegas Legends. Upstart football leagues looking to make a name for themselves almost inevitably descend on Vegas. The XFL. The UFL. The CFL. The AFL. The LFL. But those teams usually fold before long. The list of sports teams Las Vegas has seen come and go is long and inglorious, growing longer once every couple years or so.

The ultimate takeaway, if you were to look at it all as a whole, is that Vegas is seen as a place for show, for spectacle, but not a place you want to do your serious, ongoing business. This is what Vegas has been attempting to change about their perception for years, without success. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? They said it themselves.

For the other two gambling capitals, that doesn’t make much of a difference. Monaco is home to AS Monaco, a mainstay in Ligue 1, save for a blip in 2012 and 2013- a blip followed by coming in second in Ligue 1. They’ve not gone without their share of spectacle- the UEFA Super Cup, matching the winners of the Champions League and Europa League, was held in Monaco annually from 1998-2012 before going on the road. And match-fixers lurk all across Europe, waiting for someone to get disgruntled enough about their paycheck to turn to a bookie. But in the major European leagues, that is very unlikely to happen. Not only are authorities more likely to notice irregular betting patterns for big games with more money changing hands, but the players, even if they’re on teams that have no real hope of doing anything but trying to stave off relegation, at least are making enough money that there’s no way they’d risk it for a one-off payment from a match-fixer. The fixers couldn’t offer them enough to make it worth it. Knowing this, savvy fixers go smaller, finding less-consequential games where there’s still a fair amount of betting action but containing teams and players not likely to see any of it anytime soon. In a way, Monaco is protected by its stature- one it keeps by way of Monaco not being a member of FIFA, thus sparing them from any discussion about forcing them into a Monaco league where they would surely starve from lack of competition in the tiny city-state.

Enter the Chinese quasi-city-state of Macao. Sitting just west of Hong Kong, Macao is ranked lower on the Elo Ratings than either Hong Kong or Monaco, the latter of which, again, is not a member of FIFA. The national team has lurched from opening-round disaster to opening-round disaster in every World Cup campaign they’ve participated in since their maiden voyage in Spain 1982. All attempts to enter club sides into continental competition have ended in similar disaster, which may be why they just stopped entering teams after 2002-03. As far as the league goes, three top-flight teams folded (Google Translated from Portuguese) prior to the 2014 season due to lack of funds and/or sponsorship, including Lam Pak, the Macao leader in league titles with nine. The league opted to bring back the two clubs that had been relegated, and intended to promote an additional team from the second tier, only to decide that nobody else in the second tier was worth promoting.

The American idiom for this situation is “dumpster fire”.

There hasn’t been any real word of matches in Macao being targeted by match-fixers, but that may only because Macao is generally too small potatoes to even bother to put league matches up for bets (though it’s not impossible to find), and which even the most degenerate gambler is likely to turn his nose up at. The match-fixers are more busy obtaining the money to bet with in the first place, laundered through the casinos along with money laundered for other illicit purposes, or else running the fixing ring, ignoring the local matches for more lucrative ones abroad.

MLS has yet to be targeted by match-fixers (although their international opponents are another matter, as is semi-pro ball in Canada). And MLS would like to make sure it stays that way.

Which means Las Vegas is out of luck again.


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