The Long Read: Welcome to Las Vegas, a sure bet for major league sport

SportsPro's Michael Long returns from a trip to Las Vegas, where major league sport is set to become the next big attraction.

The Long Read: Welcome to Las Vegas, a sure bet for major league sport

It is a curious thing - inexplicable even - that major league sport has yet to go big in Las Vegas. When you consider what each of the four big beasts of US sport are - entertainment brands, show businesses, seasoned experts in self-aggrandisement and razzmatazz - and when you consider what Las Vegas is - a tourism mecca, a show business, full of seasoned experts in self-aggrandisement and razzmatazz - the fact that they have never truly got together seems, well, mystifying.

Perhaps it’s a pride thing: a shared ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ mentality. Perhaps it’s all that talk of vice and the mob and the integrity concerns that come with a multi-billion dollar betting industry. Or maybe it’s simply the prospect of too many tired gambling puns.

Whatever the reason, the truth is Las Vegas is ripe for major league sport. Even if, with a population of around two million, it’s a relatively small media market by US standards, southern Nevada’s testosterone-fuelled, gaudy totem of American capitalism and big league sport are a perfect fit.

Just ask the National Hockey League (NHL). Its newest franchise, the Golden Knights, officially opened for business on 1st March, becoming the first major league team to set up shop in the marketplace. And if their president, Kerry Bubolz, is right in his conviction, it will matter little that ice hockey might not ever be the hottest ticket in town.

Las Vegas is, according to Bubolz, a sporting gold rush waiting to happen: a magnet for big-shots and high-rollers, not to mention millions of spendthrift out-of-town visitors and convention travellers each year. You know, the kind of place where banknotes are willingly fed one after another into the slots of flashy automatons with barely a second’s thought.

“There is more disposable income in this market of over two million people, which had no professional sports team, than any other US market in the NHL,” Bubolz says. “This is actually one of the most underserved sports marketplaces in the entire country.”

Even before the Golden Knights arrived in the desert, the notion that Las Vegas might actually be a viable market for major league sport was gaining traction. Now, there is a sense that Las Vegas is entering a new phase of maturity, with gambling on sport gaining more mainstream acceptance and any stigma surrounding the city softening by the day. The T-Mobile Arena, a joint venture between AEG and the casino resort developer MGM International, now offers a world class sporting stage in the heart of The Strip, and more and more sports properties want a piece of the action.

This week, Speedway Motorsports, owner of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, announced plans to bring a second triple-header Nascar weekend to the track from next year, and the UFC nailed its flag firmly to the T-Mobile mast. Earlier this month, a dedicated eSports arena opened in the city’s downtown area - which is itself, incidentally, the subject of a wider regeneration effort - while few would bet against the National Football League's (NFL) want-away Oakland Raiders joining the party in the near future.

The Raiders won’t mean anything to the locals who live here. All the tickets will go to the casinos and their high rollers.

After recently plugging a US$650 million funding hole with a loan from Bank of America, the Raiders are inching closer to getting the green light. Their move to a proposed US$1.9 billion domed stadium, to be built on land close to The Strip, could well be ratified at an NFL owners meeting later this month.

To get an idea of what’s in the move for the city of Las Vegas, I met last week with Steve Hill, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development who doubles as chairman of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority. Unsurprisingly, Hill is excited by the impending arrival of the Raiders, not least as he believes having the NFL circus in town will finally put Las Vegas on the global sporting map and bring yet more tourism revenue to a city that already welcomes a scarcely believable 43 million visitors a year.

In addition to the prestige that comes with hosting an NFL team, Hill hopes the stadium will generate considerable economic activity - as much as US$620 million annually, according to official figures - as well as thousands of new jobs in southern Nevada. That is the primary reason for why the state legislature saw fit to pump a record US$750 million of public money into the project. 

That figure - more than any public contribution for a stadium project in American history - has understandably been set upon by local media and residents alike. But their grumblings are not born solely of the usual 'public financing for sports stadiums is bad' sentiment. Never mind that Las Vegas already has an embarassment of entertainment offerings and, presumably, better things to spend its money on, the chief bone of contention for locals concerns the fact that this particular project was, up until January, spearheaded by Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who has made his fortune selling impossible dreams to the masses. Why, they argue, would one of the richest men in the world need a public handout?

In any case, Adelson’s involvement in the project is over after he withdrew his investment, walking away from the deal in a huff at the start of the year. The conversation - and the stadium plan - has since moved on, yet local sentiment remains the same. Recent polls have found only mediocre support for the Raiders’ impending arrival, and just as Angelenos didn’t exactly welcome the St Louis Rams to LA with open arms last year, most locals could care less about the NFL coming to town.

“The Raiders won’t mean anything to the locals who live here,” one taxi driver, a resident of Vegas for 31 years, told me last week. “All the tickets will go to the casinos and their high rollers.”

Such cynicism will ring truest for those Las Vegans who are well aware of who - and what - runs their town. It is laced, too, with the realisation that the Raiders stadium project is, in essence, no different to any of the other sparkling mega-resorts that cling to The Strip, vying for that ready flow of untold visitor dollars.

Even if the state is trumpeting the stadium as an economic boon, locals sense that this is a development that will be built by wealthy outsiders who will use it to schmooze their fellow out-of-towners. But Las Vegans are used to having the odds stacked against them in this way. Those I spoke to recalled how only a paltry proportion of the tickets to Floyd Mayweather’s fight with Manny Pacquiao, staged at the MGM Grand in 2015, made it into the hands of the public at face value. Others noted how, in 2007, many local basketball fans were priced out of an NBA All-Star Game that saw tickets sell for an average of US$2,500. A Super Bowl in Vegas? Don’t even mention it.

Yet anecdotal testimonies of this kind are likely to fall on deaf ears. So long as the punters keep rolling in, so long as sporting fandom remains a transactional relationship, the NHL will feel like it has hit the jackpot and the NFL, too, will know it’s on to a winner.

For that reason, you could argue, Las Vegas and the major leagues are the perfect match.