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MGM Resorts revealed as buyer of WNBA franchise for Las Vegas

Updated October 17, 2017 - 5:36 pm

MGM Resorts has purchased the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars and will move the franchise to Las Vegas, the Review-Journal has learned.

The revelation ends days of speculation about who was behind the purchase, which was first reported by The Associated Press on Thursday.

“Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said Tuesday morning. “We are a friends and family entertainment option. The WNBA is a women’s professional basketball league, but we are in the entertainment business.

“There is tremendous synergy between who we are and what the Las Vegas market offers, particularly in the hands of the MGM team. This is a match made in heaven between the MGM and the WNBA.”

The move, which officials said has been in the works for several months, was approved by the WNBA and NBA Board of Governors.

MGM Resorts already has made a splash in the league by hiring former NBA star and New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer as the Las Vegas team’s coach and president of basketball operations.

The WNBA franchise will play its home games at Mandalay Bay Events Center, with the 2018 season expected to begin in May. Lilian Tomovich, Chief Experience & Marketing Officer for MGM Resorts, said the venue was a better fit than MGM’s other options in the same vicinity, the Grand Garden Arena and T-Mobile Arena.

“Mandalay Bay is a smaller, more intimate arena with about 12,000 seats,” Tomovich said, adding the configuration has not yet been been finalized. “We feel it’s the absolute right size arena for the fans to have that intimate experience to come watch basketball.”

Tomovich believes it is a great time for the company to enter a hot sports market like Las Vegas and basektball made sense for MGM Resorts.

“We’re very optimistic about the success of this franchise,” she said. “Obviously MGM Resorts has always been focused on entertainment, both sports and live entertainment. We’ve had a very long, successful relationship with the NBA, starting with the summer league and of course, preseason exhibition games. Bringing a WNBA team here to Las Vegas just seemed like a natural evolution for us.”

Welcome in Las Vegas

The announement was well received in the city’s thriving women’s basketball community.

“I think it’s great,” UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier said. “Vegas is on fire right now. Any pro team is great for the city.

“I think it’s good for us. It’s more exposure. The Lady Rebels have done a really good job of making women’s basketball attractive in this town. The high schools have gotten better and better. I feel like girls basketball has gotten better here. I’m psyched about this.”

Olivier believes the team will need to win on the court to suceed at the box office.

“You have to be successful,” she said. “This town is about winners. You better win and be good people and be involved in the community. Our town is so tight right now.”

Centennial High School girls basketball Karen Weitz, whose program was ranked No. 3 nationally last season, plans on buying season tickets.

“It’s great for city,” Weitz said. “I just think with the WNBA coming, it’s just fantastic for girls basketball and hopefully that will have a trickle-down effect into our community as far as involvement with girls and continuing to build our city up as far as not just our team being a contender nation-wide, but other teams.

“Hopefully another (benefit) would be to get more pull to get more kids at UNLV. Hopefully Kathy Olivier can go out and maybe get some All-Americans and have a shot at some bigger-time recruits being that we have a WNBA team here.”

Sheryl Krmpotich, the longtime Bishop Gorman coach, had two former players — Ashley Gayle and Aaryn Ellenberg — compete in the WNBA.

“I think it’s amazing,” Krmpotich said. “It’s about time that we finally have a women’s team here, professionally. …

“Because there’s so many women’s basketball programs that are up and coming, it’s a great tool to see what it’s going to be like at a further stage down the line.”

The team becomes the second WNBA franchise owned by and playing in a casino. The Connecticut Sun is owned by Mohegan Sun casino and plays in the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Paving way for NBA?

It’s possible the casino giant’s purchase of a WNBA franchise could serve as a trial balloon for a possible future NBA team in Las Vegas.

MGM CEO Jim Murren told the Review-Journal in an October 2016 interview that he was actively pursuing an NBA team he could move to Las Vegas to join the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights as anchor tenants at T-Mobile Arena.

“We certainly value and cherish our longstanding relationship with the NBA,” Tomovich said. “We look forward to other opportunities down the road, but there’s nothing at the moment to discuss.”

The WNBA’s entrance in the market is the latest in a wave of professional sports announcements in Las Vegas.

— This month, the NHL became the first of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues to locate a team in the city when the Golden Knights began their inaugural season.

— The NFL in March approved the move of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas upon completion of a new stadium, which is expected in time for the 2020 season.

— NASCAR announced in May that the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was getting a second Monster Cup race set for next fall.

— The United Soccer League team will begin play at Cashman Field in 2018.

— And last week, the Las Vegas 51s announced plans to construct a Triple-A ballpark in Summerlin.

Las Vegas won’t be getting a marquee WNBA franchise, though there are positive signs for the future.

The Stars have finished with the league’s worst record in each of the last three seasons, including an 8-26 mark this year. The last playoff appearance came in 2014 and the franchise hasn’t posted a winning record since the 2012 season.

Kelsey Plum was selected by San Antonio with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft and averaged 8.5 points per game in her first season with the Stars. The franchise has the best odds at securing the top pick in the 2018 draft in the draft lottery, which was postponed last month and has yet to be rescheduled.

San Antonio’s best season was 2008 when it was swept in the WNBA Finals. It was one of the league’s original franchises in 1997 when it was founded as the Utah Starzz.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-277-8028. Follow @adamhilllvrj on Twitter.

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