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Las Vegas welcomes Raiders with open arms, big hopes

Oakland Raiders fan Matt Gutierrez waves a Raiders flag in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign after National Football League owners voted 31-1 to approve the team's application to relocate to Las Vegas during their annual meeting on March 27, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A city famous for its over-the-top reputation is eagerly welcoming an NFL franchise that boasts an equally outsized character and the promise of big-league legitimacy for the desert gambling oasis, which up to now has seen major sporting events just passing through.

Las Vegas is no stranger to big time events catering to all tastes. Champion boxers lace up their gloves at glitzy hotel-casinos on the Strip. Thousands turn out for NASCAR races. The National Finals Rodeo rides into town every year.

With the addition of an NHL expansion franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, and as of this week the Raiders, Las Vegas believes it has arrived as something substantially more than a one-off venue.

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Jubilant state and local officials were quick to welcome the team after the league's relocation approval Monday. Sports fans who had been confined to minor league baseball and an assortment of lower-division hockey teams gathered downtown to celebrate Monday night.

On Tuesday, the state's largest newspaper proclaimed "Touchdown, Vegas!" on its front page.

"We've needed a sports team in this city for a very, very long time," Las Vegas resident Sean Manchanda said. "If football works well in Green Bay and other tier II cities like Jacksonville, even Phoenix, it will work in Vegas. Locals are very much in support."

But with a population base of 2.2 million and nothing but desert on the outskirts, local interests and the Raiders are banking that the city's lifeblood tourism industry will help fill the 65,000 seats of the domed $1.9 billion stadium.

Nevada officials expect 450,000 people a year to travel to Las Vegas with the main purpose of attending an event at the stadium, whether it's a Raiders or UNLV football game, a concert or motorsports event. For the project to meet revenue projections, officials say the facility will need to see an attendance of nearly 2 million people every year.

At least one economist says the math doesn't hold and history proves tourists aren't reliable supporters of sports teams.

"It is completely over the top," said Roger Noll, economics professor emeritus at Stanford University and an expert on the economics of sports. "They are projecting roughly 10 times the number of tourists in attendance per game than any other team in the league."

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Noll offered the Los Angeles Angels as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of relying on tourists to help fill stadium seats. The Angels were acquired by The Walt Disney Co. in 1996 and sold in the early 2000s. Noll said Disney believed tourists visiting its theme parks would also attend a game at the Angels' nearby stadium, but that idea proved to be "a complete failure."

"The counterpart in Vegas would be you stay three nights and we'll get you tickets for the game," Noll said.

Irwin Kishner, an attorney who has played a role in financing stadium projects, had a more optimistic view, describing the agreement as an "excellent event for the city of Las Vegas."

"Las Vegas is one of the most well-travelled tourist destinations in the U.S.," said Kishner, a partner at New York-based Herrick Feinstein LLP. "I don't think it's any stretch of the imagination to get that kind of traffic into that stadium. I think it's a slam dunk."

So do the Raiders, who on Tuesday began allowing fans to place a refundable $100 deposit to secure a personal seat license even though a site has not been picked for a stadium that won't be ready until the 2020 season. Officials are eying a site near the Las Vegas Strip.

Wherever the stadium ends up, a city that was once was treated with disdain by the NFL because of gambling could one day wind up with the jackpot of hosting the Super Bowl, with one local official wistfully hoping the city could host the 2021 Super Bowl since the Roman numerals would match the city's initials — LV.

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No matter that Super Bowl sites are already determined for the next four games, for some sports fans it's the chance to call a team their own.

"It could have been the Browns for all I care. I'm just glad we are getting a team," said Michael Chalmers, a 35-year-old Las Vegas native. "I've never had a team; I was born and raised here."

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