The idea of Las Vegas as home to an NBA franchise has swirled on and off, with varying degrees of intensity, for more than a decade.
It rose up in February 2007 when the city hosted the league’s all-star game (making it the first city without its own franchise to do so), then resurfaced in 2014 when newly appointed commissioner Adam Silver came out in favor of legalized sports gambling.
When an NHL expansion team was awarded to Las Vegas two years ago, followed quickly by news of the Oakland Raiders’ imminent relocation, it spurred more talk of an NBA franchise eventually arriving.
What seems lost in that conversation is that the city already has an NBA franchise … of sorts.
The Las Vegas Summer League, now in its 14th year, has become a boon for the NBA and the city, drawing TV ratings during a typically slow period on the sports calendar and attracting droves of fans. A record average of 227,000 daily viewers watched on television last year, while attendance reached an all-time high of 127,843 during 11 days at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It might not be a typical hometown team, but in true Vegas fashion, it is an event. And this year for the first time, all 30 NBA teams are participating in the summer league, playing a total of 82 games — the exact number of games each NBA team plays during the regular season — through July 17.
Albert Hall was one of the co-founders of the Las Vegas Summer League 15 years ago (along with noted NBA agent Warren LeGarie), and he has seen it grow from a small, exploratory venture with six participating teams playing 13 games to the monster it is now. And Hall believes the event has developed into something uniquely Vegas.
“It’s almost as if this is Las Vegas’ version of an NBA franchise,” Hall said the day before this year’s edition tipped off. “There’s not a franchise here, but when you have the summer league, everyone in the industry is here. It brings the business of basketball to Las Vegas. Granted, it’s not season-long, but when we first started, we knew Las Vegas is an event town. This format just works for Las Vegas.”
NBA-affiliated summer leagues have come and gone through the years, with Orlando and Salt Lake City among the cities with now-defunct leagues. Las Vegas has outlasted and outperformed them all because of a combination of its location — which has always been attractive to NBA players and personnel — and the support of the community.
Hall estimated that fans from Las Vegas and Southern California — where the summer league focuses its marketing efforts — make up 65 percent of the attendance.
“Locals are huge,” Hall said. “Las Vegas has been a home for us. We love our locals. We’ll have people that will walk in the doors that have been coming since the first year and say, ‘Hey, great to have you; congrats, you guys got 30 teams.’ But it should be us thanking them. If they don’t show up, we’re not here.”
Michael Dagovetz, 18, attended the summer league July 7. The Las Vegas native identifies as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan but cited the opportunity to see young talent from all the teams as the main reason he attended for the second straight year.
“I really want to see all the young players that got drafted,” Dagovetz said. “That’s what makes the summer league interesting. I can see players that got drafted this year, and I even want to see some of the young players that got drafted last year.”
Alan and Diane Elmore have been attending the Vegas summer league for years, and before that, they were regulars at the Rocky Mountain Revue, a summer league put on by the Utah Jazz. Although they’d love to have an NBA team based in Las Vegas, they can see why the Vegas summer league is such a popular alternative.
“It’s affordable, so people can bring their kids,” Diane Elmore said. “Not everybody has tons of money, and the other games are expensive. It’s also a great location. People who come here can do Las Vegas at night and then come [to the summer league] during the day. Las Vegas is a great venue to host it.”
NBA SUMMER LEAGUE Through July 17, times vary, $35-$500. Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, 702-739-3267, unlvtickets.com.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.