The NBA seems to be intent on operating a high wire act while it faces down the worst credibility crisis in American sports since the Chicago Black Sox. With the Tim Donaghy story still fresh in people's minds, it was interesting to see the reports that Harrah's casino has announced plans to build an NBA-ready arena / casino complex -- making it the second pro sports venue construction project to be announced recently. Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman is a part of a separate $8.1 billion project from the Michigan-based REI Group LLC that hopes to put an arena in downtown thanks to tax breaks.
While the NBA has not commented on the situation since the Donaghy betting broke, that doesn't mean that the League is ruling out Vegas as a home for a franchise. Henry Abbott at True Hoop points out:
Two arenas that could hold an NBA team in Las Vegas? These are smart business people making massive financial gambles. You'd have to believe the people paying the bills for all this construction (if both plans really go ahead) believe, based on something, that there's a good chance the NBA is coming to town. I'm not buying that the NHL, boxing, and concerts support two arenas. Maybe in Las Vegas, but it seems unlikely.
On msnbc.com, Sam Smith, the longtime NBA columnist, claims that the Donaghy scandal has killed any chance that the NBA will be back in Vegas for a long time to come. "The NBA is not coming to Las Vegas. Not soon and probably never...Now, [a franchise in Vegas] seems ridiculous, especially in light of the referee gambling scandal that has the NBA’s entire credibility at stake."
I hope Smith is right, but it's clear that with two multi-billion dollar arena projects moving forward, this issue is not going away any time soon. So what gives? The NBA has reacted to the betting scandal by naming of a former federal prosecutor to head a review of its referees and Stern has talked about reviewing process and implementing procedures. Yet its flirtations with Sin City on the side hint at a colder reality that despite Stern's wishes, the League can't say no to Vegas. The 2007 All Star Game served as a coming out party for the NBA and Sin City's intimate relationship. The Vegas Summer league has become the top summer-ball destination for teams and established players looking to work out. USA Basketball has held training sessions and hosted the Fiba Tournament of the Americas there the past two years. Clearly, Vegas is a place in which the NBA has grown comfortable setting up operations.
The League needs to start saying no to Vegas. Publicly. This is a credibility test and Stern's talk about analyzing process and implementing procedures are only a part of what needs to take place to get this long-time NBA fan believing that the League stands for more than the riches that Vegas has to offer.