Is Las Vegas a baseball town? One version of the matter was settled years ago, when native sons Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant won the NL MVP Awards twice in a row in 2015 and 2016. Along with Twins slugger Joey Gallo and a variety of other major leagues, Harper and Bryant, the Phillies and the Rockies, respectively, came to attract scouts just as the growing Southern Nevada region began to attract more and more interest from the community sports and entertainment, including MLB, which held its annual winter meetings there in December 2018.
A different version of that question is now on the table, as the Oakland Athletics attempt to find a stadium site and (apparently more important to ownership) public funding to import an MLB team and give the city a foothold in three of the four major American men’s sports leagues.
The A’s, after years of trying to negotiate a stadium project that would have required massive public infrastructure spending in Oakland, announced a pivot to Las Vegas in April and then a smaller pivot to another location in Vegas earlier. this week as they seek a deal that local officials can accept. It remains to be seen whether the team will be able to secure favorable terms from team owner John Fisher and pull off a successful move, but the intent to move to Las Vegas is clear.
And if the A’s don’t, the city ranks among the most notable contenders for a future expansion franchise.
“I really think it’s a good place,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, if the A’s weren’t going there, I think it would probably be at the top of the list.”
Growing up, Bryant and his fellow Vegas natives benefited from the same conducive climates that help California, Florida and Arizona produce heavy crops of baseball prospects.
“It’s hot in the summer, but most of the time you can play baseball all year round,” Bryant said. “And it just gave us a chance to play more baseball than people on the East Coast, in the Midwest. So it was just good for us.
Clearly, the American sports industry is betting on the Las Vegas area – home to an estimated 2.3 million people and growing – continues to attract people and sports fans. The A’s would be the third team to make their Vegas debut since 2017, joining the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights and the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, the baseball team’s former Oakland Stadium roommates.
How will Las Vegas adjust its sporting interests?
But just as the local population does not match the size of the media market, producing players and producing the critical mass for a successful fan base are not driven by the same forces. Take a look at the struggles of the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays trying to make it work in Florida, another hotbed of baseball talent.
Or take Bryson Stott’s word for it. The second-year Philadelphia Phillies second baseman is a native of Las Vegas, and with his hometown devoid of professional sports teams, he made the quick decision to root for Cleveland teams based on his Little League first team.
“I have an older brother who said if you like a bunch of random teams, you’re a bandwagon. [fan], and I never wanted to be a fan of the bandwagon,” Stott said. “So yeah, like all of them – the Cavs, the Browns. I think I’m more of an Eagles fan now than a Browns fan, but I’m still a Browns fan. Huge Ohio State fan.
Stott said it was common practice among his friends and family. And it’s not so sure that adults already committed to their fan affiliations will drop them to cheer on the A’s.
“You kind of have a choice. And once you hit your 20s or 30s, you’re not just going to change because now you might go to somebody’s game,” he said. “So I mean, I personally think it’s going to take a generation or two before it’s really like fandom.”
Stott also made a distinction between the Vegas-born expansion franchise, the Golden Knights, and the team that moved to town, the Raiders.
“I personally don’t think it’s as good as everyone thinks it is,” he said of A’s potential relocation. “Just living there and seeing the Raiders – I mean, the Raiders are like 70% away team fans.”
Citing a phenomenon seen in Las Vegas and with recently relocated NFL teams from Los Angeles, Stott saw slow adoption by local fans even as stadiums filled with opposing colors.
The NFL, however, has a very different operating model than baseball. The activity is more centralized, both in terms of income and in terms of games. Football matches are held once a week, always on or near a weekend, and in fall or winter. For the Raiders, that means the lure of Las Vegas can act as a buffer, drawing in opportunistic visitors as they build local connections.
For the A’s – who will be playing all week, in the desert, in the summer and possibly in a faraway Triple-A park at the start – Vegas won’t have the same advantage.
A tough model to follow: the NHL’s Golden Knights
If they move to Las Vegas, the A’s will have to do more to get local attention, something hockey’s Golden Knights have done with success since their debut in 2017.
“I’ve been to a few Knights games and they’re really fun,” Bryant said. “They are doing a good job. They really embrace the whole Vegas show thing and make it a fun atmosphere.
Stott said the Golden Knights tapped into a population that largely had no strong opinions about hockey teams. They also met the moment a mass shooter killed 60 people and injured hundreds at a local music festival less than two weeks before their inaugural match. The team dedicated pre-game ceremonies to victims and survivors and provided an outlet for a grieving city that wanted community. Stott said the Knights showed “that a professional sports team actually cares.”
“I think they kind of rallied around the city, and the city rallied around them,” he said. “And they played very well. It also helps.
Really, really good. The Golden Knights took full advantage of their expansion draft and bombed the league, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season – another boost the beleaguered A’s are unlikely to get.
Bryant was more optimistic than Stott about the A’s chances in Las Vegas, saying his hometown is “turning into a really good sports town.”
“You feel for the Oakland fans who lost the Raiders and now the A’s,” he said, “but I think it’s a good opportunity for Vegas in general.”
Other MLB players with Las Vegas roots have shown similar interest in the city’s growth. Seattle Mariners closest Paul Sewald told the Foul Territory podcast he might be interested in playing the final season of his career in his hometown one day. Harper, for the record, declined to comment when asked about the A’s and Las Vegas.
These days, he and Stott play in a city that has no questions to answer about its dedication to its sports teams. But no city gets there overnight.
“I still think it’s kind of funny to come back to Philadelphia every year because it’s like barely talking 3-year-olds say ‘Sixers’ or something,” Stott said. “And I never had that, being from Vegas. I think that’s really cool, and I think Vegas will end up being like that.