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On pro sports, proceed with caution

To understand the wildly different approaches of two groups seeking to bring major league sports to Las Vegas, you just need to know which one wants to use someone else’s money — your money.

In one corner, you have cheerleaders from Las Vegas City Hall doing backflips over the prospect of spending public dollars on a $200 million downtown stadium to attract a Major League Soccer team the valley might not support. In the other corner, you have businessmen quietly performing due diligence to bring a National Hockey League team to the privately funded, $375 million MGM Resorts International-AEG arena under construction on the Strip.

The soccer plan, rushed to meet an MLS expansion deadline, is under constant tinkering behind closed doors, preventing the kind of scrutiny necessary to determine whether it’s too risky, or whether it’s even viable. The more time passes, the more desperate the dealmaking becomes. The hockey plan is exceptionally cautious and deliberate because the NHL hasn’t even announced an expansion plan. All sides are willing to take as much time as necessary to be sure a Las Vegas NHL team pencils out.

To determine whether the Las Vegas Valley would support an MLS team, the city and the franchise’s prospective owners conducted a ginned-up social media campaign, looked past taxpayer opposition to a publicly funded stadium, ignored the valley’s fair-weather record of supporting teams and essentially declared, “Las Vegas will support a Major League Soccer team because it doesn’t have one!” To determine whether the Las Vegas Valley would support an NHL team, the franchise’s prospective owners have launched a website, lasvegas-hockey.com, to register fans’ contact information in advance of a planned February ticket reservation drive — a drive that, eventually, will ask those fans to put their money where their mouths are and prove they’ll buy tickets.

It’s pretty clear that if too few people declare support for a hockey team, there won’t be a hockey team.

It’s also pretty clear that regardless of whether anyone really wants an MLS team, the city is going to push forward with the stadium plan.

Why? Because all the city staffers and elected officials working on the downtown stadium plan aren’t risking their own money to build the project. You’re paying them to come up with a plan to spend your money on a soccer stadium. And you’re paying the city’s private development partner, The Cordish Cos., to have exclusive development rights to prime downtown real estate it hasn’t developed yet. Mayor Carolyn Goodman insists on making some kind of sports-events center the focus of Cordish’s work, and Cordish, unlike MGM Resorts, has yet to figure out how to finance such a venue without public money on free land — your land.

Yes, Cordish is willing to risk a lot of private money on the project. And, yes, Findlay Sports & Entertainment, with Cordish, is committed to paying the $100 million expansion fee to MLS for a team, if MLS picks Las Vegas over expansion bids from Sacramento, Calif., and Minnesota. But it all falls apart without the city land, without the city infrastructure, without an improvement district to pay for a parking garage, without a park bond and favorable terms to guarantee the developers and the team the revenue it needs to pay players and avoid losses — assuming valley residents actually buy tickets and fill the 24,000-seat stadium through the summer and fall, which is no guarantee.

Politics is driving the soccer stadium plan, which comes before the City Council again this week for potential approval. Business is driving the hockey bid.

Hockey Vision Las Vegas LLC is backed by William Foley, who made his fortune in title insurance and mortgage services, and the Maloof family, who founded the Palms and owned the NBA’s Sacramento Kings from 1998 to 2013. Instead of tying its bid to a government-financed arena, it worked with MGM Resorts, AEG and the NHL to build relationships and a plan that finally has gone public.

“The door is open. Now we have to walk through the door,” Foley told the Review-Journal last week. “We want to demonstrate to the NHL that there is a lot of interest in Las Vegas.

“If we can deliver the right product on the ice, people will support it.

“The NHL is very interested in Las Vegas,” said Foley, who meets with league officials this week. “They want to make sure that if it comes to Las Vegas, it would be supported by locals, not just out-of-towners.”

Note Foley’s conditional language. He and the league are not going to move forward with reckless abandon. They both have too much to lose. Which leads me to believe they have a very good chance of succeeding.

The city’s MLS bid might be dead already. The Toronto Sun reported last week that Las Vegas “isn’t being discussed as a legitimate candidate among MLS circles.”

But who cares when you’re spending other people’s money?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.

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