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‘There’s no problem here’: Aces’ $100K sponsorships push forward as WNBA investigates

Updated June 18, 2024 - 9:29 am

The Las Vegas Convention Center’s 4.6 million-square-foot facility is often heralded as one of the busiest hubs imaginable.

But Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority president and CEO Steve Hill seemed to be the only one in his office Sunday. It makes sense he’s staying busy, given the recent stir he caused in the WNBA.

It’s been a month since Hill entered the Aces’ locker room at Michelob Ultra Arena on May 17 and unveiled a $100,000 sponsorship offer to each of the team’s 12 players. The deals aren’t done as of Monday and players have yet to receive any funds. The WNBA also opened an investigation into the Aces the day after the announcement to see what role, if any, the team played in the proposal.

The probe gained more legs last week. The WNBA hired an outside law firm to conduct it: Kobre and Kim LLP. The group specializes in internal investigations, often centered around allegations of misconduct and fraud.

Hill has been contacted by the firm and plans to speak with it this week. The WNBA has yet to return a request for comment on the investigation.

“I’m happy to talk to Steve (Kobre), explain what happened and why,” Hill said. “There’s no problem here.”

Here’s everything else that’s happening with the sponsorships and the WNBA’s investigation:

Where things stand

Hill says that he thinks Aces players’ agents didn’t receive official contracts until sometime last week.

He is not involved in that process. The LVCVA has in-house legal counsel that is working with an outside firm to broker those deals.

Still, he doesn’t want to wait until the WNBA’s investigation has concluded to “get people paid.” Hill said a “handful” of players have signed their contracts. He hopes the rest of the team will by the end of the week.

One wrinkle occurred Sunday when the Aces waived veteran Emma Cannon. Hill said Cannon will still receive a decent payout. The $100,000 deals are for a four-month WNBA season, meaning players are receiving about $25,000 a month. The Aces’ first game was May 14 against the Phoenix Mercury.

“We’ve been talking with her agent,” Hill says. “(The announcement video) has gone viral. That’s been worth it all by itself. And we’ve used her likeness. We owe her that money, right?”

Hill doesn’t believe tying the sponsorship payouts to the length of the WNBA season should be a problem for the league’s investigation. The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits third parties from paying players for “basketball services.”

“I think everybody should understand that it’s about Las Vegas,” Hill said. “They need to be a part of the Las Vegas Aces in order to participate. So no, I don’t see any issues with that.”

The WNBA investigation

The WNBA’s investigation into Aces became known during the team’s 89-82 home win over the Los Angeles Sparks on May 18.

Coach Becky Hammon has maintained the team didn’t arrange the sponsorships. The Aces were previously investigated by the WNBA for allegedly circumventing the salary cap by making under-the-table payments to players in February 2023. A simultaneous probe examined the team’s handling of former player Dearica Hamby, who was traded to the Sparks while pregnant.

Hammon was suspended two games and the WNBA rescinded the Aces’ 2025 first-round draft pick four months later after the league found the team violated rules regarding impermissible player benefits and workplace policies.

“I get one concern — I assume it’s part of the investigation — is whether or not the Aces brought this concept in any way, shape or form to us, right?” Hill said. “‘Hey, you know, trade you for something’ or, ‘Hey, would you do me a favor?’ No, none of that happened.”

Hill said the Aces were the ones that informed the LVCVA they didn’t want to hear about the proceedings with players.

The organization did reach out to the team’s chief strategy officer, Blair Hardiek, the night before the sponsorships were unveiled. The LVCVA said it wanted to get its digital team in front of the players for an announcement. The Aces set it up despite not knowing what was coming, according to Hill.

The subsequent video, featuring Hill and other LVCVA board members, has more than two million views on X.

Hill said he wanted players’ sponsorships to span the entire season. He also wanted to “capture the momentum and the excitement that’s going on with college women’s basketball leading into the WNBA season.”

“We want to put players, particularly those who aren’t in a position to afford everything, to be able to go experience what Las Vegas has to offer,” Hill said.

The beginning

The idea for the sponsorships first came from Matt Matzen, chief marketing officer of the public relations and marketing firm R&R Partners.

The company coined the iconic “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” slogan the LVCVA first used in 2003.

Matzen talked to his team about the concept April 24. He ended up having perfect timing. Hill was told by one of his associates the following day the LVCVA needed “the next story” after helping the city host the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix in November and Super Bowl 58 in February.

Hill met with R&R about Matzen’s idea by May 2. He liked it right away.

Rob Dondero, the lead on LVCVA’s account with R&R, reached out to the Aces about sponsoring players around May 3, Hill said.

The team said it couldn’t be involved, but the LVCVA would need to reach an agreement with the club to use its name and logo.

Dondero spent at least two weeks negotiating with the Aces. The two sides reached a deal worth $250,000, Hill said. He added it’s no different than any other team sponsorship.

“(The Aces) own the team name and the team logo,” Hill said. “We’re going to use the name and the logo. We have to pay them to be able to do that.”

Ironing out details

Dondero finalized negotiations with the Aces around May 15. He didn’t start to reach out to agents for the player sponsorships until that process was done, Hill said.

That didn’t give Dondero much time to make deals with the agents before the announcement. But he was able to negotiate letters of intent by 10 p.m. on May 16, the day before Hill’s locker-room visit.

“The letter of intent said deliverables would be the ability to use the video that we made in the locker room, a team photo, and then mutually agreeable name, image, image, likeness usage and mutually agreeable public appearances or public moments,” Hill said. “We wanted to make sure that each of the players and the agents agreed with those concepts, and then, you know, we’d work out the specifics with each one of them.”

Hill said the LVCVA reached out to Danette Leighton, the CEO of Billie Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundation, for advice on how to proceed while Dondero was negotiating.

“It’s not simple, and so we took some time to try and figure this out from a number of different angles,” Hill said.

Hill believes all that effort was worth it.

The words “Be extraordinary. Do the right thing,” are emblazoned in a giant font on an accent wall in the LVCVA’s administrative office.

Hill’s desk directly faces the message. It reminds him of what he hopes to accomplish once the Aces’ sponsorship deals are complete.

“The values that we have on our wall really do drive what we do,” Hill said. “And we try to stand out.”

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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