12/16/2004 12:00AM

City a major player again in MLB stakes

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One of Mayor Oscar Goodman's political platforms has always been, "Las Vegas is a major-league city and needs a professional sports team."

For the longest time, that was one of the longest shots on the board, as the major sports leagues - the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the one that used to play hockey - took very public stances that they didn't want to be associated with the gambling mecca.

But as casinos have become more widespread and our society has increased its acceptance of gambling as a recreational activity, Las Vegas hasn't been dismissed as easily as an option, especially with the city's population rapidly growing.

Earlier this year, Las Vegas was a very visible candidate in the relocation of the Montreal Expos. Goodman has said that an unnamed baseball official told him Vegas finished second to Washington D.C., with Portland, Ore., Norfolk, Va., and Monterrey, Mexico, being the also-rans.

On the heels of that, the owners of the Florida Marlins - one of four baseball teams that have been rumored to be relocation candidates in the not-so-distant future - had a confidential meeting with Goodman in his Las Vegas office. It wasn't confidential for long, however, as Goodman was dying to let the world know how legitimate a venue Vegas has become.

Goodman's profile received a boost in the next two days with the publication of very positive articles in Sports Illustrated and Esquire magazines. Spurred by that momentum, Goodman went to the major league owners' meetings last week in Anaheim, Calif., to have more discussions with owners and baseball officials.

Then came Tuesday night's news that Washington D.C. passed a resolution that requires half of its stadium to be privately financed, in clear violation of the relocation agreement with MLB, which has ceased some of the team's operations and offered refunds to those who have paid for season tickets. The deal is up in the air, though D.C. has until Dec. 31 to rectify the situation or risk losing the team.

That puts Vegas back in the picture, either to battle again for the Expos (renamed the Nationals in D.C., though plans to introduce the uniforms have also been put on hold) or for another team.

The prevailing attitude is that it's not a matter of if but when Vegas is able to step up to the plate. In fact, Vegas is in the on-deck circle.

Big-time sports on a smaller scale

Las Vegans, as well as tourists in town, will be able to take in a college basketball doubleheader Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center involving three ranked teams and UNLV, which is expected to contend for the Mountain West Conference title.

In an event billed as the "Las Vegas Showdown," UNLV hosts No. 4 Oklahoma St. in the first game at 7 p.m. There is only local radio station covering that game, KBAD AM-920, but the nightcap between No. 3 Georgia Tech and No. 22 Gonzaga will be shown on ESPN at 9:30 p.m. Pacific.

One of the obstacles in bringing a pro sports team to Las Vegas has always been the concern of whether the games would be on the betting boards or if books would invoke the "UNLV rule," in which games involving the local team were off the board. In February 2001, however, that regulation was overturned by the Gaming Control Board, and ever since then all UNLV and Nevada games have been bet in the state's sports books (without a hint of scandal, it should be noted).

Lines for these two games will be up at many books by Friday afternoon and at all sports books by Saturday morning.

Panthers (+3 1/2) at Falcons

In Vegas, pro football is still the biggest spectator sport, even though games are only watched on TV. So, most of the viewing in the sports books Saturday will be on the three NFL games being offered. I only see one as being bettable. The Steelers-Giants and Redskins-49ers matchups basically have one good team and three that are in a shambles, with point spreads set at just the right numbers. The nightcap is a much better game and offers a nice play on the underdog. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Falcons won, 27-10, to start the Panthers' six-game losing streak. But now the Panthers have won five straight and are back in the wild-card chase. Running back Nick Goings has filled in admirably for Stephen Davis (and the rest of Carolina's injured backs) and helped set up the passing game for Jake Delhomme and Co. They should fare much better vs. the Falcons this time than they did in the first meeting. Meanwhile, the Falcons offense is being hit with the injury bug. Running back T.J. Duckett, who scored four TDs Sunday vs. the Raiders, is out after having arthroscopic knee surgery this week. More importantly, perhaps, is the loss of fullback Justin Griffith, who helped open holes for Duckett and Warrick Dunn. None of the Panthers' wins this year have come against a team that currently has a winning record, but the Falcons only have one such win (Oct. 17 in a non-covering 21-20 win over the Chargers). And in beating those weak teams, the Falcons have only covered the spread in six of their 10 wins. They play a lot of close games, and this should be the same.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units. NFL season record: 31-36-3 for a net loss of 8.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).