12/01/2006 1:00AM

Time is ripe for Vegas pro sports team

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The issue of whether the Las Vegas valley would support a professional sports team was answered a week ago. No, it had nothing to do with the NBA All-Star game, which will be held here later this season.

It did have something to do with basketball, though. College basketball. On Nov. 25, two Division I basketball games were played on the same night. It created what I consider a unique litmus test of the sports fans here in Las Vegas and the potential draw from out-of-town fans for local sporting events.

At the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV, the Runnin’ Rebels beat the University of San Francisco, 96-88. The announced crowd in attendance was 8,096.

Over at the Orleans Arena, the Las Vegas Invitational pitted two top 10 powerhouses in defending national champion Florida versus Kansas. Kansas upset Florida before a standing-room-only crowd of 8,500.

That adds up to a combined attendance of nearly 16,600 fans in two sporting venues. I would think in today’s NBA or NHL, they would rejoice with a regular attendance figure anywhere close to that.

The beauty of the two crowds was they were generated from two different fan pools. The folks watching UNLV were mostly locals, while at least half the crowd at the Orleans Arena were from out of town.

Now, that is how I conceptualize a local pro sports team would be marketed. About two-thirds of the home crowd would be from the Las Vegas valley and maybe a third would be tourists and visitors supporting the road team.

The pro league that I visualize coming here first would be the NHL. It would have the most to gain, and the least to lose.

Just last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman issued a veiled threat that if the Pittsburgh Penguins do not get a new arena, the team might be forced to move. An arena deal in Pittsburgh is tied into a potential new gaming license for Isle of Capri Casinos Inc.

Isle of Capri has promised to foot the entire bill for a $290 million arena if the company is awarded a gaming license in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins’ lease at 45-year-old Mellon Arena expires in June 2007. Without a new arena deal in place, the Penguins, as Bettman hinted, will probably move.

The city of Las Vegas has been used as leverage before by nearly every pro team seeking a new arena, stadium, or a better lease deal. But someday soon, I envision a league pulling the trigger, especially if its back is against the wall. The NHL might just be that league.

TV ratings for hockey in the U.S. are negligible. And if Bettman wants to jump start his league, what bigger splash to make than to move a team to Las Vegas?

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies.”