MONEY & BUSINESS: Super Bowl host Las Vegas set for NBA bid, LeBron James aid
Las Vegas is gearing up to score a royal flush of sports franchises — by bringing basketball to Sin City.
The city best known for gambling is just one NBA team short of a full set of major teams having snared franchises from the NHL, NFL, and by 2028, the MLB.
Vegas may create its NBA team with the help of LeBron James, the billionaire player who at 39 is looking to life after he retires.
But it could also be a chance for a Middle Eastern country to grab a portion of American sports by funding an NBA team — the same way that Gulf royals have bought up European soccer teams and poured money into their own golf tournament.
Gaining a basketball team would be the final chapter in a remarkable transformation for a city built on gaming and music.
In recent years the city, and the state of Nevada, have poured billions into turning Sin City into a sporting mecca, gambling that the 37 million people who visited last year might want to catch top-flight athletes in between enjoying musical residencies and playing the slot machines.
Next month Las Vegas will bring the glamor and spectacle of the Super Bowl to Nevada for the first time in a flex of its new power as a sports destination, calling itself “The Greatest Arena on Earth” for the match, with Usher providing the half-time show.
The 330,000 visitors, and $500M, the Super Bowl will deliver to Vegas are just a warm-up for the final hurdle in the city’s race to gain all four franchises.
It will begin in earnest in 2025, when the NBA is expected to formally start an expansion process, creating two new franchises to take the number of teams from 30 to 32.
First, said Kurt Badenhausen, a sports valuations reporter at specialist outlet Sportico, NBC Commissioner Adam Silver has to strike a new television rights deal, most likely this year.
“Then I think you we see the league go full speed ahead on expansion,” Badenhausen told The Post.
“People are already circling, lining up financing and thinking about potential bids.”
Silver himself hinted in November that one of the places for an “expansion” franchise would be Mexico City, calling it an “enormous opportunity,” while a second Canadian franchise has also been mooted, possibly for the west coast city of Vancouver.
The could leave US cities battling over a single franchise, with Vegas likely to be up against Seattle, which lost the SuperSonics in 2008 when they became Oklahoma City Thunder, according to veteran sports executive George Daniel.
“The NBA has made very clear that it wants to take care of Seattle,” said Daniel, who has negotiated deals for a quarter of a century and is currently the CEO of former NBA player’s Kevin Garnett’s grassroots three-on-three league, Big Tickets Sports. “A close 1A would certainly be Las Vegas.”
That is where Sin City politicians could turn for an assist to the biggest name of the modern-day NBA: LeBron James.
James, officially a billionaire since 2022, has made little secret that he would like to follow Michael Jordan’s path of owning a franchise (Jordan sold his controlling stake in the Charlotte Bobcats in 2023) and in October teased building one in Vegas.
“It just makes sense,” James said in October. “I think adding an NBA franchise here would just add to the momentum that’s going on in this town… I think it’s only a matter of time, and I hope I’m part of that time.”
He may not be the only NBA icon with interest: Shaquille O’Neal, who retired in 2011 and has since become a pitchman for multiple brands, has said he would be willing to launch a one-man franchise bid.
“I know Vegas hasn’t been awarded an NBA team yet but if they ever get to a point where they are awarded a team, I would like to be a part of that,” O’Neal, 51, told The Messenger in October. “ I don’t want to partner up with nobody. I want it all for myself.”
James’ business partner, Gerry Cardinale, the founder of RedBird Capital Partners, confirmed his interest, telling Sports Business Journal in December that the firm was looking at a Las Vegas proposal involving James, his business partner Maverick Carter and Fenway Sports Group.
Fenway, in which James and Carter are already investors, owns the Boston Red Sox, the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and English soccer team Liverpool FC, as well as Nascar’s Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team and a series of other sports investments.
Cardinale also floated the possibility of bringing in money from other sources, including the Middle East. Sovereign wealth funds controlled by Gulf royal families, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and member states of the United Arab Emirates, have all put money into European soccer.
He told Sports Business Journal: “Maybe I’m evolved out of existence, and maybe now I’m handing the baton over to a sovereign [wealth fund] or to a lower cost-of-capital provider.”
The motivation for potentially seeking a Middle Eastern royal’s almost unlimited spending lies in the cost of a franchise, which Cardinale estimated to be as much as $6 billion.
The likely cost of a franchise starts with the $2.5 billion fee the NBA will charge the winners, and which is distributed among the existing 30 teams.
Even in Vegas, where gambling venue was $7.9 billion last year, a 7% increase on 2022, that’s serious money, with a venue needing to be built on top — plus hundreds of millions of dollars guaranteed in player salaries.
The city, and state, have already dipped in to public funds to land both the NFL and the MLB.
The Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium — home of the Super Bowl next month — had a public subsidy of $750 million, while Las Vegas and Nevada are set to inject $380 million to bring the MLB Athletics franchise from Oakland in 2028.
And last November, the city closed down the Strip to host its first ever Formula One race.
But previous investments in Vegas sports have paid off.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights joined the NHL as an expansion side in 2017, and immediately went to the finals of the Stanley Cup, which they won in 2023.
In 2018, Vegas welcomed the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.
Last month there was a fresh flurry of speculation that Las Vegas could secure an NBA franchise another way, when billionaire Mark Cuban sold a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks to Vegas gambling billionaire Miriam Adelson, widow of Sheldon Adelson.
Cuban quickly moved to quash speculation, saying the Mavericks were staying in Dallas under his operational control, but the move underlined the potential.
In November the NBA will dip its toe in the Vegas market for the second year in a row, with three high-profile matches in the city: the semi-finals and final of its new In-Season Tournament.
The tournament is modeled on formats like the soccer World Cup, with groups of six teams playing in a round-robin, the top performers then making their way into knock-out rounds, with Las Vegas acting as neutral ground for the final four.
It will also be a chance for James, O’Neal, or a mystery Middle Eastern potentate to assess whether Vegas is a natural home for an NBA franchise.
Bill Robinson, an assistant economics professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the city could be on the edge of a new era.
“We have a great transportation setup — one of the busiest airports in the world,” he said. “There’s hotel rooms, there’s shows, casinos, there’s a million other things to do if I come into town for a game for the weekend.”
As for the NBA, Daniels says one word sums up a franchise bid: “Inevitable.”