The history of Las Vegas is marked by a relentless flow of hotels, casinos, theaters and restaurants. But only recently did the city’s landscape include major professional sports teams.
The National Hockey League’s Golden Knights 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 Athletics was 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 city reflects not only the interest of the city’s leagues and their general embrace of sports betting, but also the strength of the region’s main economic driver, tourism. No other major city in the United States is so dependent on a single industry, and a broad coalition led by the top resort operators helped secure lucrative subsidies to build new stadiums, thinking that out-of-town visitors would to follow.
These efforts will be on display Sunday when Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders and built partly with public money, hosts Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
“Our role here and what Vegas offers is a platform for people with great ideas to come in and make them a reality,” said Steve Hill, the president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the man most responsible for helping entice the teams. to the city. “We are a destination trying to say yes.”
However, not everyone has embraced that strategy. In Las Vegas, the decision to set aside public money for private teams has strengthened scrutiny of state funding of crucial social services, especially for 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 help the A’s financially 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 want to diversify the economy, does sports add a component? Yes. But they didn’t need tax money for that.”
Combating the region’s economic engine, however, is a tough job. Lawmakers have been trying to diversify the economy for years, but Las Vegas remains hooked on tourism. Nearly 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 emphasizes that Las Vegas is different because most subsidies are funded by hotel taxes paid by people from outside the city.
“In a lot of places, stadiums are built for community development reasons, and God bless them, but it’s not really an economic benefit,” Mr. Hill said in his office filled with memories of groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings. “But here we get so many people coming to Las Vegas because of the events at the stadium.”
Mr. Hill has spent the past decade leading efforts to diversify an economy prone to booms and busts. He came to Las Vegas in 1987 to run a cement business. He spearheaded an era of unprecedented construction and later became active in the Chamber of Commerce and industry groups dedicated to fueling the city’s breakneck growth. He also raised money for Brian Sandoval, who was elected governor in 2010 and tapped Mr. Hill to lead the economic development agency.
After pushing Apple, Tesla and other companies to move to northern Nevada, Mr. Hill was tasked in 2015 to help boost tourism in southern Nevada by trying to expand the convention center and add a stadium to build to attract a football team to Las Vegas. He got the county and state power brokers to provide $750 million to help the Raiders build Allegiant Stadium. And as president of the Convention and Visitors Authority since 2018, he has attracted a Formula 1 race and helped build support for $380 million in government grants for the ballpark 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 background,” said Bill Hornbuckle, CEO of MGM Resorts International. “He knew the right cast of characters.”
Mr. Hill heads both the congressional authority and the stadium authority, prompting criticism that he has so much power that he can push through deals that benefit businesses at the expense of residents.
“There aren’t really 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 were involved in its actual construction.”
Mr Hill denies the criticism and says he has withdrawn from considering funding requests where there are potential conflicts of interest. In Mr. Hill’s opinion, the subsidies spent on Allegiant Stadium were money well spent. About half of the fans attending games, concerts and other events at the stadium came from outside Las Vegas, almost double the original projection of 27 percent. Most of them paid hotel taxes and went out to eat, rent cars and gamble in casinos, he said.
But J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said dollars spent in stadiums would otherwise be spent elsewhere in the city, and that most of the profits from stadiums often went to the teams that rented them. Some visitors also avoid Las Vegas when football games and other major events are taking place in the city because the price of hotel rooms is often high.
“People are seeing causality backwards,” Mr Bradbury said. “People say they are a big city because they have a team. No, they used to be a big city and that’s why the team went there.”
Then there’s the question of what else the county and state could do with the money raised from various taxes. For years, the region’s schools, which are funded by sales and property taxes, and other social services have not kept up with the growth of the tourism industry. Nevada ranks near the bottom 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 challenging 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 require small group intervention because they read below their grade level.
Still, Ms. Kreidel said that relatively few elementary schools in the Clark County School District had reading centers like the one at her school. Teachers described a lack of resources to support their students and facilities that are outdated and in need of repair, which a district spokesperson attributed to insufficient state funding. There are more than 1,300 teacher vacancies, the district said.
Ariane Prichard, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Bonanza High School, said that because of the district’s teacher shortage, her average class size was 36 students. She and other members of her department have had to use their preparation period to teach an extra unit so that class sizes do not increase. They get paid for the extra lesson and then do prep work on their own time.
Last year, Ms. Kreidel, president of a local branch of the statewide teachers union, testified in Nevada’s biennial legislative session in favor of increased funding for public schools. A 2023 report from the state School Finance Commission found the state spent about $4,000 less per student than the recommended level. The Nevada Department of Education applauded the passage of the state’s largest education budget in May, but the budget failed to eliminate the per-student deficit.
A few weeks later — a day before he vetoed a bill that would have provided students with universal free breakfast and lunch — Mr. Lombardo signed into law $380 million in public funding for Stadium A. Ms. Kreidel called that decision a “knife in the gut.”
She said she vowed never to step foot in Allegiant Stadium. Another elementary school teacher in the neighborhood, LaTasha Olsen, even tries to drive past it.
“It makes me angry every time,” Ms. Olsen said. ‘I didn’t go to the stadium. I don’t want to go to the stadium. No.”
She added: “It just shows that we don’t care. We are not concerned with teachers. We don’t care about our students. We care about our tourism.”