Las Vegas to help fund 51s stadium by spending $80m to call it “Las Vegas Ballpark”

The owners of the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s are going to build a $150 million stadium that won’t be in Las Vegas but will get $80 million from Las Vegas so the stadium will be called “Las Vegas Ballpark.”

You know what, let’s let the Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, both of which are probably kicking themselves now that they didn’t demand naming-rights deals with the city, explain it:

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority acquired naming rights for the stadium in a 20-year, $80 million deal approved by the organization’s board. It will be called Las Vegas Ballpark.

And:

Representatives of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors debated for 1½ hours on whether the $80 million dedicated to stadium naming rights is money well-spent…

Board members Ricki Barlow, a Las Vegas city councilman, and John Lee, the mayor of North Las Vegas, opposed the measure and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who expressed concerns about the public perception of the move, and Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who works for the 51s, abstained. Brown, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, did not participate in the debate.

“This is public money and it comes to us by taxes that were voted on by the Legislature and that Legislature was voted in by residents of my community,” Lee said in the explanation of his vote. “And I don’t think, as their leader, that this is a very good and responsible thing to do.”

Okay, so if you read this site regularly you know that team owners can be awfully clever at finding under-the-table ways of seeking public money for their stadiums and arenas, but this, this is just weird six ways from Sunday. The argument by the tourist authority is that spending $4 million a year on naming rights to a stadium in the nearby suburb of Summerlin is a good investment, because the city is getting its name out there on not just the stadium, but advertising signage and the like. The counterargument would be, oh, lots of things:

  • For Las Vegas to spend a whole bunch of money on enabling the 51s to move out of Las Vegas — in fact, to move out of a stadium owned by the tourist authority — doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense. Sure, the economic impact of a minor-league baseball team isn’t much, but moving it beyond the city limits is a net negative, even if a small one.
  • Sure, the 51s might have been able to sell naming rights regardless, so on one level Las Vegas is just buying the name like anyone else would. But anyone else would almost certainly be paying far, far less: Minor-league naming rights deals typically top out at $1 million a year at most, meaning Vegas is overpaying here by a factor of at least 300%. Or, looked at another way, is sneaking money to the 51s owners — the Howard Hughes Corporation, a major development firm that traces its origins back to one namesake, but sadly not to a far more respected one — by writing “4 NAMING RIGHTS” in the memo field of the check.
  • Even if you grant that Las Vegas needs to buy more publicity — I’m pretty sure most people have heard of the place by now — it’s beyond ironic to do so for a team that already puts your city’s name on the front of its damn jerseys. (The 51s are currently the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets, incidentally, but won’t be by the time the new stadium opens, because the Mets just bought an entire team in Syracuse in order to have a team that’ll agree to be associated with the Mets.) The logic here, presumably, is that non-local TV viewers of 51s games will think, “Time to sit down to watch my team play against Las Vegas. Oh hey, the Las Vegas team plays in a stadium called ‘Las Vegas.’ I haven’t thought about Las Vegas in, oh, three or four seconds before this! I should book a vacation there!”

How the Hughes Corporation managed to pull this off I’m not clear, though to hear tourist authority president Rossi Ralenkotter talk, it was by hinting that the 51s would leave town without a new stadium, while simultaneously hinting that Las Vegas is such a great market for baseball it could get a major-league team if it played its cards right:

Ralenkotter said possibly the biggest benefit to preserving professional baseball in Las Vegas with a new stadium and superior training facilities is that Las Vegas would position itself well when Major League Baseball considers expanding or moving a franchise.

I suppose there is actually the possibility that MLB will look at this deal and think, “Man, sure are a bunch of suckers in Las Vegas. We gotta get in on that action!” Now that’s the kind of publicity you just can’t buy.