Llamas are a quintessential piece of the Las Vegas Lights Football Club (LVFC). However odd that might sound, two live llamas, Dolly and Dotty, are a staple at LVFC games and events and embody the spirit the management wants to bring to Las Vegas with soccer.
Likewise, a smiley face waits on the inside of their jerseys for when a player scores and flips it over his head to celebrate. The fluorescently colored jerseys are sponsored by Zappos, the same company who introduced the llamas to the team at an early event. Owner Brett Lashbrook was so taken by the animals and the vibe they brought, he told the company to keep them around. So they’ve stuck around.
While many United Soccer League teams are affiliated with Major League Soccer (MLS) organizations, Lashbrook wanted to stay independent, to be able to have fun and, potentially down the line, advance to the top league.
“We want to be fiercely independent,” said Steve Pastorino, the team’s vice president of corporate partnerships. “We don’t want a technical director in some MLS city telling us who our coach will be or which players need to play.”
He went on to add, “That doesn’t fly when we want to do unique things, have a uniform with a crazy design, cool game presentation and having llamas roaming around. We want to put on a show and we want to reflect Las Vegas and did not see a benefit to affiliating with an MLS team; it’s not in our DNA.”
Team management doesn’t think much about a jump to a higher league, yet. They’re using this first year to figure out if soccer works for a full season in Las Vegas, particularly in the heat of a July night.
Las Vegas was the second largest city in the world without a professional soccer team, only behind Detroit. Lashbrook saw a need to change that, so he moved to Las Vegas in 2015 to be closer to his mother and began the process.
Lashbrook was able to finance the United Soccer League (USL) franchise fee, which is rumored to be about $5 million, and hired a staff with experience to help launch a team that could compete with all the entertainment options in Las Vegas.
The USL is a level beneath the MLS, the only league with a player development agreement with the MLS, which the leagues signed in 2013. Prior to the agreement, USL was considered on par or below the North American Soccer League, but is now solidly considered the second tier of U.S. soccer. USL also provides a path for teams to earn a call up to the MLS, a path the team in Orlando, Florida, took, moving from the USL to MLS in 2015 following four seasons in the USL.
Lashbrook joined the Orlando staff as Chief Operating Officer in 2013 following eight years at Major League Soccer, to help take the franchise to the next level, including financing a 20,000-seat stadium. An MLS franchise fee is currently approximately $250 million.
Utilizing Cashman Field was another victory for Lashbrook; a paid-for, 10,000-seat stadium is a rare commodity. LVFC has plans to customize the stadium next year, once the Las Vegas 51s make their move to Summerlin. The team has a 15-year lease at Cashman Field.
“Las Vegas had an X factor, too,” Lashbrook said. “It had great demographics and a stadium but it, very candidly, has been looked over unfairly as a market. You put it all together and it’s a no brainer.”
Soccer fever in Nevada began when Reno was awarded a team, the 1868 Football Club (1868 FC), last season. The team plays in the USL and their first season ended as a success. As the smallest market in the USL, with a metro population of 450,000, the team’s average attendance of 5,500 people at Greater Nevada Field was the largest per capita attendance of any professional soccer team in America, including those in the MLS.
The path for Reno to join the USL was fairly simple as much of the infrastructure was in place. The owner of the Reno Aces, the city’s Triple-A baseball team, Herbert Simon, had taken over his partners in the team and stadium and wanted to bring in more events and revenue to Greater Nevada Field.
Aces President Eric Edelstein was a fan of soccer and began looking into what it would take to bring in a team. With a financially stable Simon dedicated in his ownership — he also owns the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers — and a suitable facility, the USL accepted his franchise fee and application.
“There are a lot of interested parties trying to get to the USL,” said Andy Smith, 1868 FC general manager. “They can be choosy and it takes the right business model and mindset to pull it off.”
A Different Model
The team in Reno had more than a year to launch, first announcing in late 2015 and playing in March 2017. By comparison, LVFC turned around the team in a few short months, introducing the LVFC in July 2017 and playing its first game in February 2018. While the Lights set out to be an independent team and embrace the entertainment aspect of the tourist-centric economy, Reno 1868 felt different from the beginning.
With an affiliation model already set up with the baseball team, an agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Edelstein felt the model of MLS affiliation made sense for 1868. Even before Smith joined the staff in summer of 2016, the franchise had set up an agreement with the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS. The geographic proximity added an extra benefit to the affiliation.
“Being a Triple A ownership group and management staff, they understood how that works and using the experience of a major league franchise was not new to them,” Smith said. “It was easy to use that same model and mindset and financially, there’s a lot of positives.”
Along with not having to hire and pay coaches and worry about on-the-field personnel, the combined ownership of the baseball and soccer teams had an additional benefit to the Reno model.
The two sports share a facility while both are in season, like in Las Vegas, but because business operations are shared, little has to be done to prep the field in terms of sponsorships. The biggest difficulty of shared locker room space will be solved this summer when a $1 million locker room facility for the soccer team is opened.
“We’ve had some growing pains,” Smith said. “The field itself is an easy transition in and out, we don’t have to switch out sponsorship signs, but we do add a few soccer specific things and color schemes. It’s not the same hoops the Las Vegas team has to jump through for this season they’re sharing a field.”
Pastorino said he was immediately excited to join the staff when he learned Lashbrook had already explored a partnership with Zappos extensively. He met with Lashbrook and Zappos leadership on his first day.
“It was a pretty good first day,” Pastorino said. “They got it, they knew what soccer meant and know their brand on our shirt means so much more than other sponsorships in traditional sports. That really set the tone and gave us credibility that Zappos was willing to write a check for a multi-year partnership.”
They were expecting a surge with the 2018 World Cup and were a bit shaken when the United States didn’t qualify for the field, but it’s barely warranted a mention, he said. The success of the Vegas Golden Knights first season has been helpful for the team’s business endeavors and helped prove Las Vegas is a “true sports city.”
“They proved a city can rally around a new team, a new concept,” Pastorino said. “We run into each other all the time, realize we all cheer for Las Vegas on a jersey, and have unique aspects of our audiences that might overlap, or not.”
LVFC made national headlines with their partnership with NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, the world’s largest marijuana marketplace that is owned by the Paiute tribe. It was the first such sponsorship deal for a professional sports team in the United States.
“We love Las Vegas, and we’re not embarrassed to support any business here,” Lashbrook told ESPN. “This is the right time and the right market to do this, and we’re not going to hide. We think this will be part of the destigmatization of this substance and business.”
Pastorino is amused by the lack of a banking sponsor, the top sponsorship category across the USL. They are still seeking the right fit after talking to every bank and credit union in the state. Also missing are a fast food or soda partner, common in sports sponsorships.
“Talks are ongoing, but we’re not forming partnerships just to say we have this famous brand,” Pastorino said. “We want partners that see the vision of the fan base. We’ve made strategic decisions to hold out on deals when we can.”
With the shared business operations in Reno, the soccer team was able to use relations already built with many of the sponsors, while garnering some new sponsors with demographics. Stagnant signs in the ballpark come as a packaged deal, but in-game activations and LED board advertisements are specific to each sport. Spine Nevada is the jersey sponsor for 1868 FC.
“Who comes out to the games is so important,” Smith said. “Baseball tends to skew older, soccer is much younger. Our soccer crowds are 35 percent Hispanic, a size we don’t get at baseball games. So that’s a bit of it, having sponsors coming out and seeing how the games work and who comes [helps them understand].”
Reno increased its sponsorship numbers by about 25 percent against 2017, according to Smith, and the number of season ticket holders also went up. Business prospects weren’t as big of a hurdle as predicted for the Lights, and both teams found success at the gates.
“There was a bit of a learning curve for the business community,” Smith said. “But they quickly became aware people would come out and we had great crowds in year one.”
Lashbrook had high hopes for a professional soccer team in Las Vegas, but the over 8,000 people walking through the Cashman Field gates have been a very pleasant surprise. The first exhibition game, against the Montreal Impact of the MLS, had more than 10,000 attendees.
Pastorino said the team is already in the top five in league attendance, right where management wanted them to be prior to the season, and that’s without really having an organized effort to attract group outings.
LVFC has welcomed fans from 34 states and countries around the world, but just 4 percent of tickets have been sold to people outside of Nevada, a number expected to grow, Pastorino said. Season ticket numbers for the season will fall between 3,000 and 5,000. And, he still sees more potential with the city’s diverse and youthful demographics. He also sees the lower ticket prices — about $20 — as an enticing offer over escalating prices for many of Las Vegas’ other entertainment options, which can still be enjoyed after a game.
“Soccer in America is growing by leaps and bounds,” Lashbrook said. “You can look at 100 metrics, but Major League Soccer averages more fans per game than the NBA and NHL. It’s the number one participation sport, not for the last 10 years, but 30. Those kids have grown up and now have families or are leaders in the business community.
“The sport can grow. There hasn’t been many, or any, unifying events that bring together the working class in North Las Vegas, the soccer mom in Summerlin and the hipster from downtown and does it in a bilingual fashion.”
And, soccer does exactly that for Nevadans.