The history of Las Vegas has been marked by an inexorable turnover of hotels, casinos, theaters and restaurants. But only recently has the city’s landscape included major professional sports teams.
The Golden Knights of the National Hockey League were the first to start playing here in 2017. The Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association started in 2018 and the Raiders of the National Football League arrived from Oakland in 2020. Last year, Major League Baseball’s The Athletics were given the green light to make the same move from Oakland to Las Vegas, and the National Basketball Association is expected to add a team in the coming years.
Las Vegas’ transformation into a professional sports town reflects not only the leagues’ interest in the city and their general embrace of sports betting, but also the strength of the area’s main economic driver, tourism. No other major city in the United States relies so much on a single industry, and a broad coalition led by top resort operators helped win lucrative subsidies to build new ballparks, with the thought that out-of-town visitors would follow.
Those efforts will be on display Sunday when Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders and built in part with public money, hosts Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
“Our role here and what Vegas provides is a platform for people with great ideas to come and make them happen,” said Steve Hill, the president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the man most in charge to help entice the teams. in town. “We are a destination that tries to say yes.”
However, not everyone has adopted this strategy. In Las Vegas, the decision to allocate public money to private groups has strengthened scrutiny of state funding of critical social services, notably education in the nation’s fifth-largest public school district, with about 300,000 students.
This week, a group of Nevada teachers sued the state and its governor, Joe Lombardo, challenging the constitutionality of a law passed last year to financially help the A’s build a stadium. Mr. Lombardo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
“It’s really the haves and the have-nots,” said one of the plaintiffs, Christina Giunchigliani, who in 2016 was the only member of the seven-member Clark County Commission to vote against funding for Allegiant Stadium. “If they really wanted to diversify the economy, does sport add a component? Yes. But they didn’t need public tax dollars to do it.”
However, fighting the region’s economic engine is a tough sled. Lawmakers have tried to diversify the economy for years, but Las Vegas remains hooked on tourism. Almost 41 million people visited it in 2023.
Economists almost universally say that publicly funded stadiums don’t pay for themselves. Mr. Hill acknowledges the skepticism, but insists Las Vegas is different because most of the subsidies are funded by hotel taxes paid by out-of-towners.
“A lot of places build stadiums for community development and God bless them, but it’s not really a financial benefit,” Mr. Hill said in his office filled with groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting memorabilia. “But here, we have so many people who come to Las Vegas because of the events that happen at the stadium.”
Mr. Hill has led efforts over the past decade to diversify an economy prone to booms and busts. He came to Las Vegas in 1987 to run a cement company, ushering in an era of unparalleled construction, and later became active in the Chamber of Commerce and industry groups dedicated to fueling the city’s meteoric growth. He also raised money for Brian Sandoval, who was elected governor in 2010 and asked Mr. Hill to run the economic development office.
After getting Apple, Tesla and other companies to move to northern Nevada, Mr. Hill was tasked in 2015 with helping boost tourism in southern Nevada by trying to expand the convention center and build a stadium to attract a football team to Las Vegas. He got county and state power brokers to provide $750 million to help the Raiders build Allegiant Stadium. And, as chairman of the Convention and Visitors Authority since 2018, he has attracted a Formula 1 race and helped win support for $380 million in public subsidies for the stadium the A’s want to build. (The Golden Knights did not use public money to build their arena.)
One of Mr. Hill’s skills was balancing powerful business interests in Las Vegas, especially the resort and casino operators and the culinary workers union.
“Steve was critical because of his past,” said Bill Hornbuckle, chief executive of MGM Resorts International. “He knew all the right cast of characters.”
Mr. Hill runs both the meetings authority and the stadium authority, prompting criticism that he wields so much power that he can push deals that favor the business community at the expense of residents.
“There really aren’t the checks and balances that I would like to see when it comes to public policy and Steve Hill and his organization,” said Michael Schaus, a columnist at The Nevada Independent. “The people who cheered for this football stadium are the same people who helped make it happen.”
Mr Hill denies the criticism and said he has recused himself from dealing with funding requests where there are potential conflicts of interest. In Mr. Hill’s estimation, the subsidies spent on Allegiant Stadium were money well spent. About half of fans attending games, concerts and other events at the stadium came from outside Las Vegas, nearly double the original projection of 27 percent. Most of them paid hotel taxes and ate out, rented cars and gambled in casinos, he said.
But JC Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said the dollars spent on stadiums would be spent elsewhere in the city and that most of the profits from the stadiums often went to the teams that leased them. Some visitors also avoid Las Vegas when football games and other big events are in town because the price of hotel rooms often increases.
“People perceive causality backwards,” Mr Bradbury said. “People say it’s a big league town because it has a team. No, it was a big city before, and that’s why the team went there.”
Then there is the matter of what else the county and state could do with the money raised from various taxes. For years, the area’s schools, which are funded by sales and property taxes, and other social services have not kept pace with the growth of the tourism industry. Nevada ranks nearly last in the nation in class size and per-pupil spending, child care spending and environmental quality, and is near the top in gambling and drug addiction.
Vicki Kreidel, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the A’s funding, teaches reading a 20-minute drive from the Strip at Lomie G. Heard Elementary School, a public magnet school where 100 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. The students she works with first learned a language other than English and need small group intervention because they are reading below their grade level.
However, Ms. Kreidel said reading centers like the one at her school existed in relatively few elementary schools in the Clark County School District. Teachers describe a lack of resources to support their students and facilities that are outdated and in need of repairs, which a district representative attributed to insufficient state funding. There are more than 1,300 teacher vacancies, the district added.
Ariane Prichard, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Bonanza High School, said that due to the lack of teachers in the district, her average class size was 36 students. She and other members of her department had to use their prep period to teach an extra section to keep the classes from getting bigger. They get paid for the extra lesson and then do prep work on their own time.
Last year, Ms. Kreidel, who is president of a local chapter of the statewide teachers union, testified in favor of more funding for public schools during Nevada’s two-year legislative session. A 2023 report by the state’s school finance commission found the state was spending about $4,000 less per student than the recommended level. The Nevada Department of Education welcomed the approval of the state’s largest education budget in May, but the budget did not close the per-pupil shortfall.
A few weeks later — a day before he vetoed a bill that would have provided universal free breakfast and lunch to students — Mr. Lombardo signed into law the $380 million in public funding for Stage A. Ms. Kreidel called the decision “knife in the gut”.
She said she had vowed never to set foot in Allegiant Stadium. Another elementary school teacher in the district, LaTasha Olsen, tries to avoid even driving.
“It makes me angry every time,” Ms. Olsen said. “I haven’t been to the stadium. I don’t want to go to the stadium. No.”
He added: “It just represents that we don’t care. We don’t care about teachers. We don’t care about our students. We care about our tourism.”