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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Bid for NBA Contest in Jam

7 June 2005

With the shot clock on its bid ticking closer to zero, recent developments indicate Las Vegas' push to land the National Basketball Association's next available All-Star Weekend is anything but a slam dunk.

If the NBA selects the city for its midseason showcase in February 2007, plans call for most events to occur at the Thomas & Mack Center, an 18,500-seat arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

But the availability of the city's largest indoor arena has become a potential stumbling block because multiple lease holders have opposed the NBA's demand to control the arena's 30 luxury suites to better fete its franchise owners, VIPs and key business partners over All-Star Weekend.

Daren Libonati, facility director of the Thomas & Mack, said Monday that up to one-third of the building's box owners seem opposed to giving up their boxes, with another third still undecided. And unless an accord is reached soon, the city could be forced to delay or withdraw its nearly three-month-long pursuit of a sporting spectacle that would bring nearly $110 million in projected visitor spending and domestic media exposure to the Las Vegas Valley.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, is directing the city's All-Star pursuit. He downplayed the severity of the luxury box dispute but admitted the issue must be resolved before the city can submit its All-Star bid to the NBA, ideally by the end of this week.

"Part of the bid requirements from the NBA is that they have to have access to all of the suites," Ralenkotter said. "I think we're going to get there; we'll be able to put together a package for all of the suite holders."

One local executive, who asked not to be named, said Monday he is not so optimistic. So far the NBA and authority's offer for his corporate suite included four lower-tier and four balcony-level ticket packages for All-Star events. That doesn't equate to his company's 16-seat suite, and he's unwilling to turn away half of his usual seat holders.

"I can't send a client to a balcony seat," the executive said. "But give me 16 lower-level tickets and we'll call it even."

Representatives of a second suite holder echoed similar sentiments Monday, adding the eight-ticket offer, which Libonati indicated was the same to each suite holder, did not offset their company's past commitment to spend more than $100,000 per year for a box at Thomas & Mack.

Libonati said contract agreements prevent Thomas & Mack from evicting suite holders for All-Star Weekend, or any other public event, should a suite holder wish to attend.

Incentives, he said, are the only recourse for meeting the NBA's stated demand of 100 percent control of the suites.

Other local businesses reached Monday were more supportive of the city's All-Star push, even if it means losing access to their suites.

A Boyd Gaming Corp. spokesman said his company will surrender its two suites because All-Star weekend would "benefit the town." Ditto for The Howard Hughes Corp., whose Executive Vice President Kevin Orrock said, "Companies that own boxes are generally big community boosters, and this is the ideal opportunity to demonstrate community support."

Harry DeNardi, president of Cashman Equipment Co., said his company still is sorting out the NBA's offer, though he recently advised Chief Executive Officer MaryKaye Cashman to give up the box, as well.

"I told her, `If you don't give it up, they won't be coming here anyway so what's the difference?' " DeNardi said.

Stephens Media Group, parent company of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, leases a box at Thomas & Mack but has not yet taken a position on the NBA's offer.

"I would hope that we're not going to have a snag over this. That would be a real shame," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who's been involved in the city's All-Star bid. "We have a great opportunity to really go to the next level as far as sports in Las Vegas is concerned. I hope that rational people would be able to resolve this to everybody's benefit."

Separately, gaming regulators will on Wednesday discuss a statewide ban to prevent wagering on All-Star-related events, another NBA-imposed condition for bringing its All-Star events here.

Despite that obvious anti-casino step, Ralenkotter said the league's preferred local convention venue for other All-Star activities is Mandalay Bay, whose 1.5 million-square-foot convention center and 12,000-seat arena would place the NBA's All-Star Jam Session, an interactive fan event, down the hall from one of the world's largest casinos.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has long balked at associating professional basketball with gaming, particularly Las Vegas' legalized sports books. Shortly after he succeeded former NBA boss Larry O'Brien, Stern in March 1984 denied the Utah Jazz permission to play a portion of its 1984-85 "home" schedule at the Thomas & Mack unless the Nevada Gaming Commission prevented sports book action on local Jazz games.

In an effort to expand the team's following, the Jazz played 11 games in Las Vegas under a similar sports book ban in 1983-84. At season's end, the franchise returned to Salt Lake City full time because of Nevada's sports book complications, as well as vastly improved Utah fan base support.

More recently, Stern's objection to sports books resurfaced in early 2001 when Goodman headed an unsuccessful bid to bring the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies here. The team instead moved to Memphis, Tenn., which is again competing with Las Vegas, this time to host All-Star weekend in 2007 or 2008.

Still, the league's Las Vegas plan is not unparalleled. The NBA owns a women's professional basketball league called the WNBA, and its reigning eastern conference champion plays its home schedule inside a 10,000-seat arena at Mohegan Sun, a tribal casino in Uncasville, Conn. Even that team's name, the Connecticut Sun, refers to the popular Northeastern gaming venue.

Like the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, Mohegan Sun Arena can be accessed without entering the adjoining casino area, allowing young fans and gaming-averse adults to bypass tables and slots altogether; unlike Mandalay Bay, Mohegan Sun has no on-site sports book.

NBA spokesman Tim Frank on Monday said the league would not comment on specifics of Las Vegas' bid, or any other city's, until the site selection process is complete.

Stern has twice told the Review-Journal a league committee would name the 2007 All-Star host by the end of this year's playoffs. The NBA Finals begin Thursday in San Antonio and could end as soon as June 16 but no later than June 23. A second league source said Monday an announcement could come early next week.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board will on Wednesday discuss the NBA's request to prohibit bets on the league's 2007 All-Star game, should the event be in Las Vegas. If the board recommends the statewide ban, which is widely expected, it would be subject to Nevada Gaming Commission approval.

Goodman on Monday reiterated his belief that Nevada casino operators would not object to a statewide ban on All-Star-related wagers because the event is not traditionally a big draw for bettors.

"The (casino) owners have already agreed," Goodman said. "I called each one personally ... and everybody said they're on board."