01/04/2002 1:00AM

Cashing in on gaming's best-known name

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Las Vegas is the most recognizable name associated with gaming. The city is representative of the gaming industry and has been the epicenter of its unparalleled growth.

Now gaming's Good Housekeeping seal of approval could be up for sale.

Citing the need for additional revenue, the Las Vegas City Council at a Wednesday meeting directed its staff to study the possibility of allowing Internet gambling sites to use of the city's name and seal - for a price.

This is not the first time the council has visited the possibility.

In 2000, owners of a gaming website, Vegasone.com, proposed using the city's brand in exchange for a share of the site's profits. Mayor Oscar Goodman thought it would be a great way to cash in on the city's name. Then, however, the city leaders decided against any Internet deal because of concerns about the legality of online gaming and about how such a partnership would reflect on Las Vegas.

Recently, the Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman, Dennis Neilander, expressed concern about the Internet's ability to prohibit access by children and compulsive gamblers, and said allowing a website to use the Las Vegas name and seal could cause scandal and harm the city's reputation.

With Internet gaming now rivaling annual earnings of legal "brick and mortar" casinos throughout America, Goodman wants the city to be on the forefront of the industry. Online wagering reached more than $2 billion last year and is expected to grow into a $10 billion business within the next five years. There are an estimated 1,500 Internet gaming sites that have tapped into the American market.

The council at the Wednesday meeting voted 6-1 to study the issue of lending the city's name and seal to Internet gambling sites. Las Vegas Councilwoman Lynette Boggs McDonald - the only member of the council to vote against looking into the issue - contends that the city is venturing into illegal territory.

"The bottom-line principle for me is that this is illegal in the U.S., and I personally will not be a party to directing our staff to pursue illegal activities," she said.

Goodman cited the windfall the city is conceivably sitting on. He believes that it is "imperative to explore the potential of raising billions of dollars" in revenue. He added, "We [the council] would be derelict not to explore it."

Although the U.S. Department of Justice has ruled that Internet gaming is illegal, that position is being challenged in federal appeals court. And, in its most recent session, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill allowing the state's gaming commission to establish regulations for Internet gaming, paving the way for Nevada gaming companies to ready themselves for what seems to be the inevitable.

Local gaming attorney Tony Cabot, who is an Internet gaming expert, said that Internet gaming is growing too fast to be ignored. Nevada gaming companies are on the Internet. MGM Mirage recently was granted a license by the Isle of Man, off the coast of Great Britain, to operate an Internet-based casino.

Goodman admits that any deal to license the city's name or seal to an Internet site needs the support of Nevada's gaming industry. And with the climate toward Internet gaming in the state warming, the Las Vegas seal of approval may be coming to an Internet site near you.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Radio Show.