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Professional Sports In Las Vegas: Safe Bet Or Shaky Gamble?

By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor

(originally published in MediaPost)

June 23, 2010: Of all the things that are forbidden in pro sports — no spitting in the opposing player's eye, no running with scissors on the base paths, no hitting below the belt (except in MMA) — perhaps the strictest forbidden has been association with and/or links to gambling. There has always been an ultimate price to pay for real or perceived associations to gambling: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson was banned for life from baseball due to his alleged role in the 1919 World Series Black Sox gambling scandal; Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hit leader, in 1989 was banned from baseball due to his ties to gambling as a manager; and Tim Donaghy, a 13-year NBA referee, in 2007 came under fire due to allegations of gambling and spent more than a year in prison.

Except for boxing, which traditionally has seen retired fighters working as spokesmen for casinos (for reasons we won't get into because I value my thumbs), pro sports even frown on retired players from doing marketing for casinos. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, for example, were retired from baseball in 1983 when they were banned by then MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for working as greeters and autograph signers for Atlantic City establishments. (Both were reinstated in 1985 by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.)

But times have changed. On June 23, the NHL will hold its post-season awards ceremony at the Palms Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for the second consecutive year. On July 10, the WNBA will hold its All-Star Game at the Mohegan Sun resort and casino in Connecticut. And Nascar last year moved its post-season awards ceremonies from New York to Las Vegas, where they again will be held this November.

The NHL said it moved the ceremony to Las Vegas last year "in part to raise the profile of this yearly event, attract bigger stars and to cement it as pillar in our event calendar that serves as a call to action for hockey fans everywhere."

The Las Vegas Locomotives are a pro football team with the second year UFL.These decisions are not isolated. The NBA played its 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas, the U.S. national basketball team trained there in 2009 to prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the United Football League held its inaugural title game there last year and the Arena Football League held its 2005 and 2006 ArenaBowl championship games in the city.

And the distinct ties are not limited to one-time events. The WNBA's Connecticut Sun is owned by the Mohegan Sun, and the league's New York Liberty recently signed a marketing deal with the Foxwoods Resort Casino, also in Connecticut, which includes jersey-front sponsorship. Mohegan Sun also has a members-only sports bar located in the new Yankee Stadium (no gambling, but perks that tie back to the main casino).

"I think that many pro leagues and venues have accepted the once forbidden gaming market because these casinos themselves have become more acceptable in the United States," said Robert Tuchman, evp for marketing and sponsorship firm Premiere Global Sports, New York. "It was only a short time ago that you had to go to Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Nowadays there is gambling in so many markets."

"These casinos have a lot of money and sports teams and leagues are the perfect demo for them." — Robert Tuchman, Premiere Global Sports

A larger factor, of course, is the bottom line. "These casinos have a lot of money and sports teams and leagues are the perfect demo for them," said Tuchman.

However, like any marketing or sports sponsorship, aligning with the category must be done with due diligence.

"Personally I don’t think it’s necessarily the best category with which to align, but I also realize that business sometimes leads to such deals," said Sue Rodin, president at Stars and Strategies marketing consultancy firm and president of Women In Sports and Events, both New York. "We’ve crossed a threshold, and it is up to marketers to be careful as to how these affiliations are leveraged and positioned."

Although the city is home to the fledgling second-year UFL's Locomotives, Las Vegas itself has no professional teams at the level of the four major North American team sports. But there are strong ties to mainstream sports, including the Las Vegas 51's AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, regular stops for Nascar, the PGA and the Pro Bull Riders finals and home to the the University of Nevada Las Vegas, which has several NCAA teams. Plans to build a state-of-the-art arena to attract an NBA or NHL team have been proposed by Mayor Oscar Goodman, Harrah's Entertainment and Texas-based IDM. On June 15, the Clark County Commission rejected all plans that were before them, but proponents said they would continue to woe city planners.

"Partnerships with gambling venues is the new world order," said Rodin. And as Tuchman stressed,  "It was only a matter of time before it happened. I think the financial downturn making teams and leagues scramble for revenue opportunities only enhanced the need to sign deals with casinos."

Bring The Chips And Ice: NHL Rolling Into Las Vegas Again

Is The WNBA Taking A Gamble With New York Liberty, Foxwoods Deal?

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