The history of Las Vegas has been marked by a relentless churn 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 play here in 2017. The Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association started in 2018, and the National Football League’s Raiders arrived from Oakland in 2020. Last year, Major League Baseball’s Athletics were given the go-ahead to make the same Oakland-to-Las Vegas move, and the National Basketball Association is expected to add a team in the coming years.
Las Vegas’s transformation into a pro sports town reflects not just the leagues’ interest in the city and their general embrace of sports betting, but also the power of the region’s primary economic driver, tourism. No other major city in the United States is as reliant on a single industry, and a broad coalition led by the top resort operators helped win lucrative subsidies to build new stadiums, with the thought that out-of-town visitors would follow.
Those efforts will be on display on 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 provides is a platform for people with great ideas to come in and make them real,” said Steve Hill, the president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the man most responsible for helping to entice the teams to the city. “We’re a destination that is trying to say yes.”
Not everyone has embraced that strategy, however. In Las Vegas, the decision to set aside public money for privately held teams has amplified scrutiny of the state’s funding of critical social services, most notably 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 financially assist the A’s in building a stadium. Mr. Lombardo’s office did not respond to a request for comment about 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-person Clark County Commission to vote against funding for Allegiant Stadium. “If they really wanted to diversify the economy, does sports add a component? Yes. But they didn’t need public tax dollars to do it.”
Fighting the region’s economic engine is tough sledding, though. Lawmakers have tried to diversify the economy for years, yet Las Vegas remains hooked on tourism. Almost 41 million people visited in 2023.
Economists almost universally say publicly funded stadiums don’t pay for themselves. Mr. Hill acknowledges the skepticism, but insists that Las Vegas is different because most of the subsidies are financed by hotel taxes paid by out-of-towners.
“A lot of places build stadiums for community-development reasons, and God bless them, but it’s not really an economic benefit,” Mr. Hill said in his office filled with mementos from groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings. “But here, we get so many people who come to Las Vegas because of the events that are in 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, arriving at the start of an era of unparalleled construction and later became active in the Chamber of Commerce and industry groups devoted to feeding the city’s breakneck growth. He also raised money for Brian Sandoval, who was elected governor in 2010 and tapped Mr. Hill to run the economic development office.
After getting Apple, Tesla and other companies to move to northern Nevada, Mr. Hill was assigned in 2015 to help 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 the county’s and state’s 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 win support for $380 million in public subsidies 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 has been to balance the 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, the chief executive of MGM Resorts International. “He knew all the right cast of characters.”
Mr. Hill runs both the convention authority and the stadium authority, prompting criticism that he wields so much power that he can push through deals that favor the business community at the expense of residents.
“There’s not 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 that were cheerleading for this football stadium are the same people that have been involved in actually making it happen.”
Mr. Hill denies the criticism and said he has recused himself from dealing with funding requests when there are potential conflicts of interest. By Mr. Hill’s reckoning, the subsidies spent on Allegiant Stadium were money well spent. About half the fans attending games, concerts and other events at the stadium were from outside Las Vegas, nearly twice the original projection of 27 percent. Most of them paid hotel taxes and ate out, rented cars and gambled at casinos, he said.
But J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said dollars spent at stadiums would otherwise be spent elsewhere in the city, and that most of the profits from 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 spike.
“People get the causality backward,” Mr. Bradbury said. “People say they’re a big-league city because they have a team. No, they were a big city before, and that’s why the team went there.”
Then there’s the issue 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 with 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 country in class size and spending per student, spending on child care and quality of the environment, and is near the top in gambling and drug addiction.
Vicki Kreidel, a plaintiff in the suit against funding for the A’s, 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 primarily learned a language other than English first, and need small-group intervention because they are reading below their grade level.
Yet 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 need repairs, which a spokesperson for the district attributed to inadequate funding from the state. There are more than 1,300 teacher vacancies, the district added.
Ariane Prichard, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Bonanza High School, said that because of the shortage of teachers in the district, her average class size was 36 students. She and other members of her department have had to use their prep period to teach an extra section so classes don’t get larger. They are paid for the extra class and then do prep work on their own time.
Last year, Ms. Kreidel, who is president of a local affiliate of the statewide teachers’ union, testified in favor of more funding for public schools during Nevada’s biennial legislative session. A 2023 report by the state’s commission on school funding showed that the state was spending about $4,000 less per student than the recommended level. The Nevada Department of Education hailed the passage of the state’s largest education budget in May, yet the budget did not close the per-pupil deficiency.
A few weeks later — one day before vetoing a bill that would have provided universal free breakfast and lunch to students — Mr. Lombardo signed into law the $380 million public funding bill for the A’s stadium. Ms. Kreidel called that decision a “knife in the gut.”
She said she had vowed never to step foot inside Allegiant Stadium. Another elementary teacher in the district, LaTasha Olsen, tries to avoid even driving past it.
“It makes me angry every time,” Ms. Olsen said. “I haven’t gone to the stadium. I don’t want to go to the stadium. Nope.”
She 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.”