It was spring 1982 when this 16 year-old fan heard the worst news imaginable from his parents: “We’re moving to Las Vegas.” Who could’ve imagined that three decades later, the Mets, to a small degree, would follow me here. With the recent announcement of a 2-year extension in Las Vegas, I decided to blog about the Baseball landscape in the desert and hopefully offer some insight many of you may not be aware of.
Baseball debuted here in 1983 with the Las Vegas Stars, the Padres’ affiliate. Since then, Vegas has served as AAA home to the Dodgers, Blue-Jays and, starting in 2013, the Mets.
Simply put, Las Vegas is NOT a sports town. It’s a sports betting town.
Fan support for all sports is apathetic at best. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, led by Jerry Tarkanian, was the hottest ticket in the city. The 18,000 seat Thomas and Mack Center was sold-out every game. However, since the Runnin Rebels became a mediocre team in the mid-90’s interest has waned and attendance dwindled. The Rebels typically now play to a stadium 60% empty. The UNLV football team has been on life support for decades and there are frequent grumblings that the university should just discontinue the program altogether. They play at the Sam Boyd Stadium where you’re lucky to fill 8,000 seats in a 35,000 seat arena. Even college students who are given free tickets don’t attend.
Over the years Vegas has been home to indoor football, indoor soccer and the Continental Basketball Association. All were short lived. In the late 90’s the Las Vegas Thunder were a hugely popular IHL team. However, when their contract expired, Thomas and Mack didn’t renew, forcing the much beloved Hockey franchise to move elsewhere. The fact that minor league baseball has survived—not thrived–is due primarily to the power of the National Pastime.
The list of major leaguers who’ve come through here is impressive. Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, John Kruk, Matt Kemp, Kevin McReynolds, Carlos Baerga, James Loney, Benito Santiago, Ozzie Guillen, Derrek Lee, Eric Gagne and Hall of Famer Robby Alomar all played here. The first HR hit at Cashman Field came off the bat of current Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Yet, minor league baseball remains this city’s best kept secret.
Case in point: In the inaugural season, 1983, the Las Vegas Stars averaged 4878 fans per game. The population of the city back then was just over 500,000.
In 2016, the Las Vegas 51’s averaged 4882 fans per game. The population of Las Vegas is currently 2.2 million.
In other words, while the population has increased over 400 percent, average attendance has remained flat.
There are 16 cities in the Pacific Coast League, many with lower populations than Las Vegas such as El Paso and Omaha. Yet, Vegas remains at or near the bottom in annual attendance year after year. In the last 5 seasons, Vegas has finished 14th, 13th, 16th, 14th and 15th.
The question is why?
Granted, Cashman Field is not in the best of areas. Located 2 miles north of downtown it’s directly across the street from Potter’s Field and a stone’s throw from a homeless shelter and several tent cities. However, the ballpark itself is beautiful. Don Logan and company, I’m sure with help from the Mets, have made attending a game enjoyable. Parking is cheap ($5), ushers, vendors and attendants are pleasant and always courteous. Tickets are very reasonable and food is relatively inexpensive. Between innings there are the usual shenanigans and gimmicks that have existed at minor league games since the dawn of time. I mean, hey, who wouldn’t love to race Cosmo, the 51’s mascot who survived a UFO crash and spent time at Area 51, around the base paths?
The answer is simple.
The casinos which rule this city and control all aspects of life here view every other business as competition. Each dollar you spend at a ballgame is one less dollar you can lose at a Craps table. If you want to go to a movie here you must walk into a casino. If you want to go to a rock concert you must go to a venue on The Strip. And many of you may be surprised to learn we have no lottery here. Think about that for a moment. No lottery in a state that survives solely on gambling. Whenever Powerball climbs to the hundreds of millions, there’s a mass exodus of locals driving to Arizona and California to purchase a ticket.
If you drive around the city you see no billboards promoting the 51’s. You rarely see a commercial on TV, hardly ever hear one on the radio. 51′s games are not televised. On the local news, the sportscaster gives a score. And that’s it. “Out at Cashman tonight, Las Vegas defeated Albuquerque, 7-2.” No highlights. If time permits you’ll get a quick four second snippet of an unnamed player hitting a HR. Maybe. I don’t ever recall hearing or seeing 51’s players involved in the community at all. I’m sure they do but it receives no attention from the media. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen someone wearing a 51’s t-shirt or a 51’s cap. A good friend of mine from Illinois is an avid Baseball fan who lives and dies with the Cubs. He lived in town over a year before even realizing we had a AAA team.
You may have heard that the NHL recently awarded Las Vegas a hockey franchise. This, however, is yet another example of how everything here is based around the casinos. The still unnamed team will play in the T-Mobile Arena which is located dead-center on the Las Vegas Strip. Locals go to The Strip about as often as New Yorkers go to the Statue of Liberty.
How often would you go to Citi Field if it was located on Fifth Ave. in the heart of midtown? And had to drive since Vegas, unlike New York, has no subway system and a bus system that’s a joke. This wont be a Hockey team for locals but rather yet one more tourist attraction, something to do if gamblers need a break from slot machines or were unable to get tickets to Carrot Top.
True, a AAA game is nothing like a major league game. An August showdown between the Mets and Nats is obviously more intense than the 51’s hosting the El Paso Chihuahuas. (Yes, that’s really their name.) Still, it always feels like the game on the field is secondary, almost irrelevant. Michael Conforto gets no more cheers stepping to the plate as does a third string catcher. “Fans” are more enthused when Cosmo launches t-shirts into the crowd than when Brandon Nimmo steps to the plate with the tying and winning runs in scoring position. The biggest crowd is usually on $1 beer night. Fans typically start filing out by the 6th inning no matter what the score is.
I went to a game a couple weeks ago and silly me, I was actually watching the game and yes, keeping score. A little to my left were two guys my age who spent five innings discussing the pros and cons of various golf courses in town. To my right were two twenty-something women who gave up good seats to go sit in the grass beyond the LF wall because the sun was brighter and “we can get a better tan out there.”
A few rows behind me a fella wearing a Dodgers hat, drunk before the end of the National Anthem, yelled and cursed at the pitcher for Salt Lake, former Giant Tim Lincecum. Directly in front of me sat two middle-aged couples. In the bottom of the first, one asked, “Who’s playing?” The answer “The Mets minor league team and…someone else.” “Who should we root for?” The first person shrugged. “I don’t know. How about those guys in blue?”
The very concept of AAA Baseball is unique. Rosters are filled with players rehabbing, longing to get healthy and get back with the parent club. Veterans at the end of their careers are trying to impress someone—anyone–that they still have what it takes for one more shot. Young kids are hungry to achieve their childhood dream and make it to The Show. The one constant is that no one wants to be here.
And in the case of Las Vegas, truer words were never spoken.