Like many, I mourn the recent passing of Muhammad Ali. I think it’s true that hero worship is most in bloom during our formative years, and as a child of the early/mid1970s Ali ranked high in my pantheon of cultural superstars, a list that included Neil Armstrong, Evel Knievel, Louis Leakey, Bobby Orr, Bill Russell and Carl Yastrzemski (well, I was born and raised in Boston after allall...).
Of course, there were reams of press devoted to Ali and his impact on just about everything he touched—civil rights, the Vietnam War, social change, the Supreme Court and, oh yeah, boxing. Sure, popular boxing matches have drawn crowds throughout history, especially ones featuring talented or transcendent fighters, but in my mind it was Ali and his series of mid-1970s fights (Rumble in the Jungle, Thrilla in Manila) that turned matches into spectaculars and must-see cultural events. For this reason, I thought Ali had a lot of fights in Las Vegas, which back in the 1960s and 1970s was still the place to hold a major prize fight. Sadly, he had only seven Las Vegas-based fights, most of them unmemorable affairs and the last two losses to Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes that more or less spelled the end to his career.
But good or bad Ali fights aside, that was the major sports scene in Las Vegas during the 1970s and, indeed, for all of its history. Shunned by the major professional sport leagues because of its association with casinos and gaming, Las Vegas made hay with large-scale one-off events like boxing matches and rodeos. The town also prospered by offering its unique combination of sports books and hospitality amenities as an ancillary destination for fans who wanted to view major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness.
In the meantime, some professional sports leagues, such as the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA), embraced casino inclusion to the point of actually playing games at casino properties, which occurred without a hint of corruption; hopefully ending for good speculation that modern gaming leads to point shaving and other issues that arose when all betting was controlled by organized crime.
Thanks to all this, and other non-gaming issues such as population growth and infrastructure improvements, some sports leagues are now willing to look at Las Vegas as a home for future franchise. The first to strike was the National Hockey League (NHL), which recently named Las Vegas as the home site for its 31st franchise, which will begin play in the 2017-2018 season. “Today marks a milestone for Nevada and for the casino gaming industry at large,” Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said at the time of the NHL to Las Vegas announcement. “The placement of the first major professional sports franchise in Las Vegas reflects a rapidly evolving view of gaming as an important, mainstream segment of the broader economy that supports 1.7 million jobs and serves as a community partner in 40 states.”
The NHL may not be alone in Las Vegas for long. National Basketball Association (NBA) Chairman Adam Silver mentioned that the NBA would be “keeping an eye” on the Las Vegas-based NHL team.
For all this progress, establishing a franchise in Las Vegas still appears to be a non-starter for the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which still object to games being played in the same jurisdiction where sports betting is allowed. Will the economic success of an NHL or maybe even an NBA team in Las Vegas change their outlook? Only time will tell.
But at least for now it appears the playing field for major league sports in Las Vegas is starting to level out. Hopefully, some of these teams will have Ali’s success and panache.