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Viva Las Vegas: Why the US major leagues are going ‘all-in’ on Sin City

With an influx of teams, leagues and events, the entertainment mecca of Las Vegas is fast becoming a go-to sports destination. At a time when gambling on sport is rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance, more and more properties want a piece of the action.

14 April 2022 Rory Jones

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‘What happens here, only happens here’, reads the new slogan of the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world.

Introduced two years ago to replace Las Vegas’ iconic former motto – ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ – the city’s mantra is emblematic of its evolution; a transformation not just into something more than a travel destination, but into a thriving hub for professional sport.

With huge annual visitor numbers – more than 40 million each year prior to the Covid-19 pandemic – swelling a metro area population of 2.3 million, there can be no denying that Las Vegas remains a tourism mecca, one which boasts more guest accommodation than any other US city and accounts for more than half of the world’s 20 largest hotels. But despite its international acclaim and reputation as the North American capital of betting and entertainment, the city was for decades an enigma when it came to sport.

Though having long been home to regular sporting fare in the form of championship boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), elite golf, Nascar and college basketball, Las Vegas was, until not so long ago, the largest US TV market without a major sports franchise. In recent years, however, an ever-growing roster of leagues, teams and organisations have pitched camp in the Nevada desert, drawn by one of the fastest-growing cities in North America.

The National Hockey League’s (NHL) Vegas Golden Knights were first to arrive in 2017, followed soon after by the Las Vegas Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the National Football League’s (NFL) Las Vegas Raiders. Now, there are murmurings of a possible Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team and a potential move for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Oakland Athletics, while the return of Formula One was confirmed in late March.

How do we be different, but also be Vegas?

Kerry Bubolz, President, Vegas Golden Knights

The latest chapter in Las Vegas’ developing love affair with major league sport can be traced back to the arrival of the Golden Knights, who broke the ice five years ago and quickly capitalised on their new surroundings. Indeed, as president and chief operating officer Kerry Bubolz testifies, the team’s vision in establishing a successful ice hockey franchise in the desert, one that would also encapsulate the city’s identity, was clear from the start.

“Because this was the first team, there was a lot of community pride in finally being able to call a team their own,” he tells SportsPro. “When we got here six years ago, we knew that the hockey piece of this equation was only one part. We were going to have to reimagine what the fan experience looked like, so we spent a lot of time and effort and energy thinking, ‘how do we be different, but also be Vegas?’”

Any doubts over whether a sports team could survive in Las Vegas have surely been buried by the Golden Knights’ first five years, which, in Bubolz’s words, have been a “home run” both on and off the ice. An appearance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals put the exclamation mark on a rookie season to remember for a franchise that has made the NHL playoffs in each season it has played.

Buoyed by that early success, Bubolz insists that Golden Knights fans continue to help create one of the best home-ice advantages in the league, while he also notes Las Vegas’ appeal as a free agency destination for NHL players. “While for other sports organisations it takes decades to build that depth of a fanbase, we’ve been able to do it in a five-year period,” he says.

Soon to follow the Golden Knights were one of the NFL’s most storied and popular franchises, the Raiders. When the Silver and Black relocated to the ‘Silver State’ from the Bay Area of California in 2020, a new 65,000-seater home awaited their arrival in Allegiant Stadium. The US$1.9 billion venue finally opened its doors for the 2021 NFL season, when it welcomed fans for the first time following the pandemic.

The Raiders played in a full Allegiant Stadium for the first time in 2021

For Lisa Motley, the senior director of sports marketing and special events at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), the addition of the state-of-the-art stadium, along with other newly constructed or renovated venues, has opened up extra opportunities for major event hosting. “They open the door for Las Vegas to host high-profile events that otherwise wouldn’t take place here,” she notes.

Motley’s words are borne out by Las Vegas’ burgeoning event portfolio. Earlier this year, Allegiant Stadium hosted the NFL’s Pro Bowl, with the same venue set to be on full display again in 2024 when it stages the first Super Bowl ever to be played in Las Vegas. Elsewhere, the nearby T-Mobile Arena, home to the Golden Knights and a regular setting for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events, staged the NHL All-Star Game in February. The city is also slated to host this April’s NFL Draft, in addition to the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2025.

In some ways, says Motley, the city is better equipped for such sporting events than any other US hub, with more than 150,000 hotel rooms and 14 million square feet of meeting and event space. Indeed, the LVCVA has itself been running an advertising campaign since last year that dubs Las Vegas the ‘Greatest Arena on Earth’.

“Having more hotel rooms than any other US destination allows us do things like hosting both the NFL Pro Bowl and the NHL All-Star Weekend at the same time in 2022, which is a great incentive for fans,” Motley adds. “None of those events could have happened here without the appropriate venue, and we simply didn’t have that before.”

The Vegas effect

In a city hardly known for doing things in half measures, the hype and spectacle of the in-arena presentation at the Golden Knights’ T-Mobile Arena creates an unrivalled experience for fans, according to Bubolz. In particular, the team’s theatrical pre-game shows have garnered widespread plaudits, with on-ice warm-ups taking place against the backdrop of pulsating music and striking visual displays, creating an atmosphere Bubolz compares to that of a rock concert.

“Warm-ups have traditionally been a very casual kind of experience where there was some light music, the players would come out and they would warmup,” he says. “We looked at that and said, look, why does it have to be a warm-up? Why can’t that be part of the show?’” For Bubolz, these unique pre-game experiences are so popular that fans will turn up early to soak up the atmosphere. “We’ve broken down every aspect of the fan experience from when the gates open all the way through the game, and we put on a show,” he continues.

Another newcomer to the Las Vegas market, the National Lacrosse League’s (NLL) currently-unnamed expansion team is also looking to capitalise on playing under the bright lights of the Strip. The team will begin play from the 2022/23 season at Michelob Ultra Arena, which is located inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and is also home to the WNBA’s Aces.

We’ve broken down every aspect of the fan experience from when the gates open all the way through the game, and we put on a show

Kerry Bubolz, President, Vegas Golden Knights

“[Vegas] is very much a destination,” says Mark Fine, the chief executive of Las Vegas Lacrosse, who were announced last June as the NLL’s 15th franchise. “We wanted to play on the Strip, which is why we saw Mandalay Bay as a 9,000-seat arena for lacrosse as our best option. I think there’s opportunity because the lacrosse world in North America is going to see us as a potential destination.

“If there’s any place that you would circle on your calendar, if you’re a fan of a team or fan of the sport, Las Vegas is probably number one. In Canada, the number one vacation destination is Las Vegas. And we have five Canadian teams, that’s an opportunity for us to package things together, have them come to Mandalay Bay, watch our game, experience Las Vegas for a weekend.”

A token of the team’s commitment to providing a full-scale Las Vegas-style spectacle for fans is the hiring of a former executive from the city’s Hakkasan night club to lead the organisation’s game presentation.

“We have to entertain,” Fine affirms. “This is going to be entertainment-first. We have to have a great show and a great experience. And, of course, what goes on in the field – the hits, the high scoring, and the action that takes place – is all part of that experience. But it can’t just be what goes on the field.”

He continues: “There is a ‘Vegas effect’. Some towns are more lukewarm about their sports teams. This is not one of them. This has been an untapped area for so long; that’s why you’re seeing all the interest of different leagues wanting to come in and make Vegas a home.”

The Golden Knights boast one of the NHL’s best home advantages, ranking sixth in the league for attendance.

Local community

Aside from the myriad attractions of the Strip, and the embarrassment of entertainment riches littered across the Clark County region, Las Vegas is home to a local community steadfast in its support of Las Vegas-based teams. Although he acknowledges the city’s appeal for opposing NHL teams and travelling fans, Bubolz says that the Golden Knights’ strategy has and always will be to nurture a local fanbase.

On the potential temptation to market to ‘tourist’ fans rather than the resident population, he states: “It’s not a controllable revenue. The controllable revenues are your local market and that’s why we’ve spent so much time really focused on building the team and the brand here locally.

“If you were to come to a game, yes, we do have people that come in from other markets, and they want to enjoy NHL hockey. But what you would see is the vast majority of the people that are there, they’re from Las Vegas, they live in Las Vegas, and they’ve got Golden Knights gear on just like I do, and they’re there to support and cheer on the Golden Knights.

“So that’s really what we’ve been able to foster over our five years here in the Valley, and its one of the best home-ice advantages in the National Hockey League.”

According to ESPN, the Golden Knights have had the league’s sixth-highest average attendance during the 2021/22 NHL season, with 18,084 fans pouring into games at T-Mobile Arena. That figure was higher than some of the league’s most popular teams. When researching the potential fan market ahead of the Golden Knights’ arrival, Bubolz recalls how the population of ice hockey adherents based in the region was “off the charts”, even if those fans originated from other areas of North America.

As Bubolz explains, the franchise’s strategy was to create a team that would cater to that core following. “We already knew there was a larger percentage of NHL fans already living in the market,” he explains. “Our job was to introduce them to the Golden Knights, and obviously turn them into Golden Knights fans. So that’s really where a lot of our focus was.”

Whereas the youth ice hockey setup prior to the Golden Knights’ inception was “almost non-existent”, according to Bubolz, Las Vegas is now fostering a community of young players following the successes of its NHL team. “Now it’s just exploded in terms of the number of kids playing youth hockey, so those are your future fans, right?” he says. “It’s an ecosystem that we’re developing with a heavy, heavy emphasis [on] local.”

Indeed, when discussing the reception for Las Vegas’ first major sports franchise, Bubolz recalls fans telling him that the team “gave this city a soul”, opening up a new avenue for sports teams to not just exist but thrive within the market. Looking back, he reflects on the time before Las Vegas had a franchise that it could truly call its own.

“Before, it was a very transient city – people came from a lot of other places,” he says. “This was the one thread that wove it all together, that everybody could cheer for, and get behind and get excited about. That just didn’t exist in this market before, so if I had to say what I’m most proud of, it’s that element.

“As you walk around town, and you see people at the grocery store, and at church and all these different places, wearing their Golden Knights gear, it’s a bond that’s brought this community together in a different way. And it’s special, it really is.”

As for the new NLL outfit, Fine anticipates that any fanfare around its arrival will raise the profile of lacrosse in the region. He hopes that the expansion team can leverage the “sexy market” of Las Vegas to promote participation in the sport as it branches out across the US. “Vegas is an area where sport can really grow, as I think ice hockey proved,” he says, adding: “There’s so many people moving here that it’s a natural time to have a pro sports team like us.”

Another decisive factor in promoting lacrosse could also be the organisation’s star-studded ownership group comprising of Wayne Gretzky, widely perceived to be the greatest NHL player of all time, as well as National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Famer and current Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash, and Joseph Tsai, a part owner of the Nets. US golfer Dustin Johnson, Gretzky’s future son-in-law, completes the group which will oversee the franchise’s launch in Las Vegas this year.

When the outfit was unveiled last June, Gretzky was seen throwing a lacrosse pass, rekindling the skills he learned as a child growing up in Canada. It has been said that his participation in the country’s national sport of box lacrosse helped ‘the great one’ become the dominant force that went on to win four Stanley Cup titles.

Offering similar insight on the role of teams in promoting youth participation, Motley adds: “It’s also important to note our professional teams have helped to foster growth in youth sports as well as local careers in sports. Locals who want to pursue careers in the sports world, whether that’s working for a team or a venue, have so many more opportunities here now than they ever have before.”

The future

With leagues and stakeholders keener than ever to forge teams, communities and legacies in Las Vegas, the city’s resident franchises may find themselves welcoming new neighbours in the very near future.

MLS commissioner Don Garber recently confirmed that the soccer league was in talks with prospective investors Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris over creating its 30th franchise in Las Vegas in the coming years. Meanwhile, in a move that would mirror that of their former cohabitants at the Coliseum, the Oakland Athletics could follow in the footsteps of the Raiders, with the baseball team still at odds with Oakland’s city council over proposals for a new stadium. The organisation has submitted offers for five separate plots of land in Las Vegas as it considers other options if a move away from the Bay Area is on the cards.

Should those moves come to fruition, Las Vegas would be able to boast an almost-complete set of major league representatives, putting it on par with cities far greater in size. Even Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, has publicly entertained the idea of venturing to Las Vegas if the league – which has staged its annual Summer League there since 2004 – looks to expand in the coming years.

Notably in late March, Oak View Group, the venue development company behind major projects on both sides of the Atlantic, announced plans for a US$3 billion sports and entertainment district in Las Vegas that will include a US$1 billion, 20,000-seater arena fit for NBA basketball. The project is expected to break ground in 2023, the same year that Formula One will mark its return to Las Vegas with a night race on the city’s streets.

Such developments not only underline Las Vegas‘ sporting maturity, but also its credentials as a viable home for all types of events. As Michael Naft, the Clark County commissioner, told the Las Vegas Review Journal in March: “We’ve proven there’s no better place to experience sports and now everybody recognises that. We’ve seen our ability to coordinate and follow through on multiple events at the same time, I think that’s an enormous appeal.

“I think that the 90s were for families, the early 2000s were the club days, and we are currently evolving into the sports capital of the world.”

This is a feature from the forthcoming issue of SportsPro magazine. To find out more, click here

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