Nevada’s sports industry has received a major boost in the past few years with the addition of major sports teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and Raider’s football team. Unfortunately, that momentum came to an abrupt halt with the start of COVID-19 restrictions that effectively halted live sport events across the nation. As Nevada teams learn to navigate keeping attendees safe while hosting a live event, the future of spectator sports will necessarily change. Recently, Nevada sport executives met via a virtual roundtable to discuss the future of this burgeoning industry.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
Has Nevada “Arrived” as a Sports Destination?
Kerry Bubloz: I don’t know what arrived means. I believe it all has to work together for a common mission. I spend more of my time thinking about how that works and how that looks. We certainly have more visibility for our state, there’s no doubt about that. We’re more visible today than we were three, five or 10 years ago. Keep in mind, there was already a significant visibility because of the Vegas brand itself but, because of the sports side of it, people are thinking about Las Vegas in a different way, which is a real positive. But, I don’t know that we’ve “arrived” yet because there’s so much more on our horizon that has been paused. Think about the Raiders and the Raider’s Stadium, the NCAA and Final Four in our future, a Superbowl in our future. Think about the draft that has been moved to next Spring. Those are all very visible events that, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to take advantage of yet. So, I think “arriving” is probably a little further down the road. Those [events] will certainly bring a different level of attention than we’ve had as a community.
How has Covid-19 Affected Sports?
Amanda Levens: For all coaches at the college level, prioritizing the health and safety of our student athletes right now is [our challenge]. Also, the mental and emotional health of them during this is such a huge thing. They are so limited socially in what they’ve been able to do, in terms of being able to train at universities, they really have to limit their interaction outside of the people being tested on a weekly basis. At the same time, we’re preparing for a season, but the uncertainty of it is in the back of everybody’s mind. We told our team it’s better to be ready for an opportunity that doesn’t come than not to be ready for one that does.
Brett Lashbrook: Professional sports is often a discretionary spend and, with what is happening, when things are cut, discretionary is first. That is my biggest challenge right now, on the sponsor side, and season ticket side, those are our key revenue streams that keep this whole thing afloat. We have to start thinking outside of the box and provide more value. We can’t just offer x, y, and z product and expect corporate partners to jump in and just pick one of three options. We’ve got to really over deliver for these folks because they’re struggling just as much as everyone else is.
Matt McGovern: COVID has taken a big smash to our business. We were booked with events throughout the country, every single weekend, except for July 4, all the way to October. All of those events we had pre-planned and put together were rescheduled for July, August, September and October and are now being rescheduled [again]. We’re based mostly in small regional casinos throughout the country and their demand is as high as it’s ever been. They don’t have to do promotions or a lot of marketing. Their margins are super high from the demand of gaming business. My concern is, when we go back to business, the new normal is they don’t have to give that extra to their customer. That’s a big concern. We’re getting creative with new investment strategies in other industries to make money in the meantime. From a fight perspective, keeping fighters safe [is a challenge]. I make money off of ticket sales and sponsorships. There have been some fight promotions that have gone back to business with no fans because they have the TV revenue that supports it. For my business, we do about 30 shows a year and it’s all based off of ticket sales. We hustle, we make a good living, but we want to get creative and go back after it at the first chance we get. So, any city we can get the opportunity, we’re going to go back after it right away.
Eric Edelstein: We are live entertainment experiences. Our revenue is generated by bringing as many people as possible to a place and we’re going to have to start slow to do that. My biggest hope is that we’re going to be given an opportunity to start slow so that we can start to build the public’s trust. We can safely return groups of fans to our stadiums in small bits and then increase that as we continue to learn more.
Rollins Stallworth: The biggest issue we are dealing with is trying to get a little bit of stability in terms of trying to make a decision on when sports are going to start and how can they start. We came up with a decision as a board to push everything back. [There are] upset coaches and parents throughout the region who want sports started tomorrow, regardless to what the situation is outside. We have to get our kids in school and get them in safely before we can do anything else and make sure that environment is going to be safe, clean and sterile for them. We are working under the guidance and restrictions of the Governor’s protocols and guidelines. At this particular time, it looks like we’re going to stay in this phase for an extended period of time. If that continues, we’re going to stay as we are now and there won’t be a lot of sports. We’re just waiting to see how things go. It seems like it changed into a roller coaster ride on a daily and weekly basis around here. At this particular time, until something changes drastically, we’re going to start high school sports in the state on January 2, 2021.
Meir Cohen: I always remember we are in the relationship business. Even though we don’t have sports right now, we have to be engaged and part of the community on a regular basis. Eventually, when everything is coming back, the relationships that we are keeping with the community, players and fans is going to lead for them to trust us when the time is right. At the end of the day, my strength is my grass roots relationship with a lot of people in the community. Although we are competitors, this is a family entertainment business we’re in. We always need to share and support the sport. I have a lot of faith in our city, that this is actually going to continue to grow our sports.
Is Player Morale an Issue?
Lindy La Rocque: I was hired two days before COVID hit. I still have not met, in person, six of my 15 players. That has been a challenge. I’m a first-time head coach as well, so there’s no playbook for this. However, we’re trying to do our very best every day for the young people that we have the responsibility to mentor, develop and grow. We’ve done more virtual things than I ever have in my life. We’re very competitive people, I think everyone here (in this roundtable) is, and we’ve had to redefine our victories and wins. From a player’s standpoint, there’s a big psychological impact. If you try to put yourself in their shoes, as an 18 to 23-year-old, you are stripped away from your friends, even your family. It is a very isolating time. We just try to act with a lot of love and care and then I’m over here trying to set a new standard in expectations.
Don Logan: We’re affiliated with the Oakland Athletics and we were all together in Mesa when this hit. In our game, we’ve got 60 players between the A’s and their practice team. They’re all in the Bay Area, trying to play a season outside the bubble. Baseball is taking a lot of criticism for that. But, they really are helping people understand that, if you have protocols in place, you follow them and they work (which it certainly seems like they work), if everybody is smart and goes about their business properly, it’s a good thing. Lindy said it really well, you have to redefine the victory. The victory now is everybody being smart, safe and figuring out the way this thing is going to affect you personally. Everybody’s different. You see players opting out now that don’t want to play. It’s a very challenging time, and communication is the key, keeping the lines open and being available to talk. For me, that’s pretty much all I do.
Edelstein: We did, through regular testing, have a couple of positives. [This pandemic] got very real for the team as we did have those positives and contact tracing and all that went on. At this point, all those positives have returned and are asymptomatic, so everybody’s back. It was probably a good thing because the reality got brought into the locker room very specifically and we’ve had some good dialogue with the players since. They now understand, but it did take a scare to really get the entire team on the same page of how serious we have to take all this.
What are the Longer-Lasting Effects of the Pandemic?
Edelstein: There’s absolutely going to be lasting effects, but I do think we’ll sit arm to arm next to somebody we don’t know. But, some of the behaviors we’ve learned, [such as] heightened hygiene, is hopefully going to carry forward. Maybe do a little less when you’ve got a temperature of 102 degrees. Be a little more aware of how your behaviors can affect other people. Hopefully, it can bring about a more empathetic world where we understand how our choices and behaviors impact other people.
Dorothy Kendrick: The things we took for granted in the past, we’re going to gravitate to more often now than ever. We’re not going to take things for granted anymore and that’s the big quantum leap we have to make to move forward and in order for us to adapt to what’s going on.
Lashbrook: I don’t think any of us are going anywhere. We obviously have to adjust our business models. I think everyone’s fiscal year this year has taken a significant hit. But, we’re all smart businesspeople, and if this goes into 2021, we can adjust accordingly. We are a small to medium sized business and we have to be nimble. We’ve got enough awareness of what’s going to happen, essentially, in 2021 that we can plan accordingly.
What are the Challenges for Sports Moving Forward?
Bubolz: I really believe our state had great momentum in changing the narrative that Nevada is just a stay and play getaway. We were making real momentum that this is a great place to live and raise a family. What has happened with the external environment, and with COVID, is all of that momentum has been lost. It all dials back to everything we’re talking about in terms of the economy and the economic impact. That momentum has been lost and put on hold. How do we restart that momentum again? Ultimately it leads to the bigger picture of attracting more businesses to our state to diversify our economy. Unfortunately, because that momentum is lost, it’s going to take more time to get back to that same place where we can really start to move forward in diversifying our economy. Obviously, we’re seeing again why that’s such an important bigger picture objective for our communities. We’re already number one in the country in the unemployment rate. That’s not a great place to be if you are in the business that we are in. Those are the challenges that I’m thinking about as we go forward, on top of everything else that’s been outlined.
Logan: The Knights’ arrival here was the beginning of a transcendence of sports in the state, certainly in Las Vegas, and even the region. The Raiders came on the heels of that and the Aces came on the heels of that. All of a sudden, we had major league sports here, we never had that before, and this was the number one event town in the world for years and years. It went from an event town into a regular attendance oriented major league sports town with minor league sports and, of course, college sports. It’s sorting itself out. It was transcending, but now everything’s got to be put oh hold. The NFL, they’re the 10,000-pound gorilla in the sports world and having the NFL here is a really big deal. Having the Superbowl or the Final Four here is a really big deal. All of those things are on hold, but they’re still going to happen. This probably allows us some time to sit back and make thoughtful decisions about how to go forward and tweak the mindset of the community a little bit. Remember, we’ve got 40 plus million visitors a year that come to Las Vegas. This is a different market than anywhere else in the country, probably in the world, and we’re going to learn from this. We’re going to get better and, eventually, we will arrive. I don’t know that we’re going to have all the major sports franchises participate out of the market but, in time, we’re going to figure it all out.
Paul Stowell: I would say that Nevada is continually evolving into a sports destination. I think that the evolvement comes from the population growth. As cities get larger, obviously you have a population to draw from, you have more corporate sponsors. So, I think Nevada is continually evolving into a sports destination for all professional sports. I know that there’s talk about bringing in an NBA team to Las Vegas. We have NCAA that comes to T- Mobile Arena. From a corporate sponsor standpoint, we get excited about our involvement with the Knights, the Aviators and as the founding partner at T-Mobile Arena and MGM Garden Arena. It provides, not only a statewide, but a national and global platform for corporate sponsors like City National to promote their brand with first-class sport franchises. Nevada will continue to evolve and, one day, we will be on par with many other major cities as a sports destination.
Cohen: There’s a lot of people that came to Vegas from so many great cities, Chicago, Boston, L.A. and New York. A lot of us that come are passionate about sports. Now that we have the next generation, our kids were born here, we’re looking to support our local team. People may have grown up as a Flyers or Bruins fan, but their kids are all going to be Golden Knights fans. This is something that has already arrived. We have the people that are super proud of our city. Vegas has something really special, it’s inviting and sports is one thing that unites the community, especially when we have teams to support now. We’re all engaged with it and the community is hungry to go back to some type of normality and sports represents a big part of that. Once COVID is behind us, they’re all going to be back to the arenas and stadiums. As a destination, entertainment town maybe the tourists will be coming a little bit later but, with a good core of local people that really support it, the growth is going to continue.
Kendrick: I agree with that. We stand in solidarity with all sports and coming together as a local community. We latch on to things we want to see grow and develop within our state. To have that positive mindset and to exuberate that into our teams or programs can amount to various things. It can allow us to grow in the direction of Nevada as a sports capital.
La Rocque: I was born and raised here. I remember as a kid, none of your organizations existed really. Outside of the Rebels, you had to adopt who your “local” [team] was. Once the Golden Knights came, I think I was the first person to purchase a shirt and cheer my head off, especially in that inaugural season. To see everything you guys are doing and how sports has just taken off in town, it’s extra special from a young kid that grew up here that didn’t have [professional sports] to now be so proud. It is a great place to live and grow up.