May 31, 2023

Is Las Vegas a baseball city? One version of the question was settled years ago, when native sons Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant won back-to-back NL MVP Awards in 2015 and 2016. Along with Twins slugger Joey Gallo and a variety of other major leaguers, Harper and Bryant, of the Phillies and Rockies, respectively, dropped by to attract scouts just as the growing Southern Nevada region began to attract increasing interest from the sports and entertainment community, including MLB, which held its annual winter meetings there in December 2018 organized.

Another version of that question is now on the table as the Oakland Athletics try to secure a football field and (seemingly more important to take ownership) public funding to import an MLB team and give the city a foothold in three of the four major U.S. men’s sports leagues.

The A’s, after years of trying to negotiate a ballpark 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 Vegas location earlier this week as they search to a deal that local officials can tolerate. Whether the team will be able to negotiate terms acceptable to team owner John Fisher and actually make a move remains to be seen, but the intent to move to Las Vegas is clear.

And if the A’s don’t make it, the city is among the most notable contenders for a future expansion franchise.

“I definitely think it’s a good place,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, if the A’s didn’t go there, I think it would probably be at the top of the list.”

Growing up, Bryant and his fellow Vegas residents took advantage of the same favorable climates that help California, Florida and Arizona produce strong baseball prospects.

“It gets hot in the summer, but for the most part you can play baseball all year round,” said Bryant. “And that just gave us the opportunity to play more baseball than people on the East Coast, in the Midwest. So that was just good for us.”

It is clear that the US sports industry is banking on the Las Vegas region – home to about 2.3 million people and growing – and continues to attract people and sports fans. The A’s would be the third team to make its 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 roomies.

How will Las Vegas adjust its sports interests?

But just as the local population does not equate to 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 battle of the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays trying to make it work in Florida, another hotbed of baseball talent.

Or take Bryson Stott at his word. The sophomore Philadelphia Phillies second baseman hails from Las Vegas, and with his hometown devoid of professional sports teams, he made a quick decision to choose Cleveland’s teams based on his first Little League squad.

“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 bandwagon fan,” Stott said. “So yeah, like all of them — the Cavs, the Browns. I guess I’m more of an Eagles fan now than the Browns, but I still support the Browns. Huge Ohio State fan.

Stott said that was common among his friends and family. And he’s not so sure that adults who are already committed to their fan affiliations will drop them for the A’s.

“You kind of get a choice. And once you get into your 20s or 30s, you’re not just going to transition, because you could be going to someone’s game right now,” he said. “So I mean, I personally think it’s going to take a generation or two before it’s really a fandom.”

Stott also distinguished between the Vegas-born expansion franchise, the Golden Knights, and the team that moved to the city, the Raiders.

“Personally, I don’t see it being as good as everyone thinks it’s going to be,” he said of A’s possible move. “Just living there and seeing the Raiders a little bit — I mean, the Raiders, they’re like 70% fans of the away team.”

Citing a phenomenon in Las Vegas and with recently relocated NFL teams in Los Angeles, Stott saw slow adoption by local fans, even as the stadiums filled with opposing colors.

However, the NFL has a very different operating model than baseball. The company is more centralized, both in terms of revenue and games. Football matches take place once a week, always on or around a weekend, and in the fall or winter. For the Raiders, that means the allure of Las Vegas can serve as a buffer, drawing in opportunistic visiting fans while building local ties.

For the A’s – who will be playing all week, in the desert, in the summer, and possibly in a remote Triple-A park early on – Vegas won’t have the same advantage.

A difficult model to follow: the NHL’s Golden Knights

If they move to Las Vegas, the A’s will have to do more to capture the attention of the locals, something hockey’s Golden Knights have done with great success since their debut in 2017.

“I’ve been to a few Knights games and they’re a lot of fun,” said Bryant. “They are doing a good job. They really embrace the whole Vegas shows thing and make it a fun atmosphere.

Stott said the Golden Knights tapped into a populace that largely lacked strong opinions about hockey teams. They also encountered the moment when a mass shooter killed 60 and injured hundreds at a local music festival less than two weeks prior to their inaugural match. The team dedicated pregame ceremonies to the victims and survivors, providing an outlet for a grieving town that wanted community. Stott said the Knights showed “that a professional sports team really cares.”

“I think they just gathered around the city, and the city gathered around them,” he said. “And they played very well. That also helps.”

Really really good. Taking full advantage of their expansion draft, the Golden Knights blitzed the league, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season – another boost the beleaguered A’s are unlikely to have.

Bryant was more optimistic than Stott about the A’s chances in Las Vegas, saying his hometown “is becoming a pretty good sports town”.

“You feel for the fans in Oakland who lost the Raiders and now the A’s,” he said, “but I think it’s a good opportunity for Vegas overall.”

Other MLB players with roots in Las Vegas have expressed similar interest in the city’s growth. Seattle Mariners closer Paul Sewald told the Foul Territory podcast that he might one day be interested in playing the last season of his career in his hometown. Harper, for the record, declined to comment when asked about the A’s and Las Vegas.

Today, he and Stott play in a town that has no questions about its dedication to its sports teams. But no city gets there overnight.

“I always think it’s funny coming back to Philly every year because it’s like 3-year-olds who barely talk say ‘Sixers’ or something,” Stott said. “And I’ve never had that, because I’m from Vegas. I think that’s really cool, and I think Vegas will be like that eventually.”