As the Vegas Golden Knights started their first season in 2017, few expected the magic that would ensue and catapult them to the Stanley Cup Final in the inaugural season.
The doubts were so massive that before the season began, multiple articles ran expressing the feelings a hockey team in the desert could not succeed. Those feelings stem partly because the NHL’s expansion into southern U.S. markets often raises eyebrows, but also because the major professional sports leagues shunned Las Vegas because of its strong economic ties to gambling and the potential integrity concerns that came with it.
Even Gary Bettman, the National Hockey League commissioner who helped bring Las Vegas the Golden Knights, was at one point wary of the sports betting component of the city. But it was Bettman and Golden Knights owner Bill Foley who lit the tinder that has turned Las Vegas into perhaps the hottest market in sports.
With 2.3 million people, it was the largest US market without a professional sports team. Between the residential population and the 43 million annual visitors, a professional team was a no brainer. It just took someone willing to take a “reputational risk,” said Kerry Bubolz, president of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“It’s like a lot of things, whether it’s in business or life in general, certain people are more comfortable going second or third versus taking the broader part of the risk,” Bubolz said. “That’s where I give Gary and Bill credit. They took the financial, league and reputational risk that others weren’t prepared to do.”
The team’s push to the Stanley Cup Final helped put Las Vegas on the sports map perhaps quicker than if the expansion team remained a cellar dweller like many first-year teams, Bubolz said. Regardless, he believes the city would have ultimately made its mark on the sports world.
However, even as the NFL’s Raiders were preparing to make the move from Oakland to Las Vegas, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell was still hesitant about cozying up to the idea of legalized sports betting in the U.S., an industry that largely calls Las Vegas home.
“Society in general has a little bit of a change with respect to gambling in general,” Goodell said at the 2017 NFL annual meeting. “We’ve seen that. I think we still strongly oppose legalized sports gambling. The integrity of our game is number one. We will not compromise on that.”
He continued, “But I also believe Las Vegas is not the same city it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. It’s a much more diverse city. It has become an entertainment mecca. It is the fastest-growing city in the country. So I think when you look at what Las Vegas is today and what it was a decade or two ago, I think it’s a much different city.”
Fast-forward five years and 35 states have legalized sports betting since the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018. Since the ruling, the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. have all partnered with sportsbooks and broadcasts are riddled with sports betting advertisements.
The change in attitudes have also opened up the doors to Las Vegas with the NHL, NFL and Women’s National Basketball Association already in town and rumors swirling about Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) setting their sights on the city. While the excitement around Las Vegas sports might seem sudden, it is anything but.
“It exposes the hypocrisy of the pro sports industry for the last couple decades that they were so scared,” said Brett Lashbrook, founder and CEO of the Las Vegas Lights, the minor league soccer team. “Once the snowball started rolling a few years ago, it started gaining more and more traction. We’re not at saturation. We’re where we should be for the size of the market. We’re in line with other cities of our size, just 20 to 30 years late.”
A Sports Haven
The sports world has always kept an eye on Las Vegas – whether it is the years of boxing, the historic success of the UNLV men’s basketball team, the races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway or the UFC.
There’s also the stalwart team of the valley, Minor League Baseball’s Las Vegas Aviators, which started play in 1983 as the Las Vegas Stars at Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas. After a name change to the Las Vegas 51s in 2001, the team made its most recent name change in 2019 with a move to the $150 million Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin.
“I always believed it’s a real sports town, it matters here,” said Don Logan, president and COO of the Aviators. “Gambling and sports go hand-in-hand, but it’s taken how many years for all the major sports leagues to embrace it? They finally realized how much money is in it and they want their fair share. It was an inherit part of the community, but we’re a mono-dimensional community. Nobody likes to admit it, we’re totally driven by the gaming and resort industry.”
Now, sports is quickly becoming a more visible piece of the city’s economic landscape.
As the Golden Knights and Raiders set up shop, so too did the Lights, a team that plays in the level below the MLS. Then MGM bought the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars and moved them to Las Vegas in 2018. Raiders owner Mark Davis bought the team in 2021.
In 2020, the Golden Knights purchased the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage with plans to move them to Henderson as the Silver Knights to a new arena, the $84 million Dollar Loan Center. In 2021, Foley and Las Vegas-based short-term loan company Dollar Loan Center founder and CEO Chuck Brennan announced the Indoor Football League’s Vegas Knight Hawks, which also play at the new arena in Henderson.
Also in 2021, the National Lacrosse League awarded a new team to Las Vegas with an ownership group that includes NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, golfer Dustin Johnson and Alibaba co-founder and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai. The Las Vegas Desert Dogs will play at the Michelob Ultra Arena inside Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the Aces also play.
While the rush of new teams doesn’t carry the prestige of the major five professional leagues, it certainly raises the overall sports profile of the city, Lashbrook said, uttering the familiar “a rising tide lifts all boats” aphorism.
At one point, the Lights were in the top-three attendance of the United Soccer League, while the Aviators topped Minor League Baseball and the Golden Knights were at 104 percent capacity at home games. Not too much has changed, said Aces COO and CFO Matt Delsen, who sees the excitement around all the city’s teams.
“The fans in Las Vegas are excited and I think there has been great support spread out amongst the teams. You do see shared fans which is fantastic to see,” Delsen said. “It’s really encouraging that fans are so excited about all that teams that are present. I’m very bullish on the future of sports in Las Vegas.”
Not Just Teams
With leagues lowering their guard against Las Vegas, special events are starting to flood the market as well.
This year, the city hosted the NFL Draft, after missing it in 2020 because of COVID. The New York Times reported the draft likely surpassed the $133 million in economic impact Nashville reportedly drew in 2019.
In 2024, Las Vegas will host Super Bowl LVIII, which the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority estimates will generate a $500 million economic impact on the region.
Next year, Formula 1, one of the world’s largest sports will return to Las Vegas for the first time since the early 1980s. The race will take some of the fastest cars on Earth around a track that includes a lengthy straight-away down the Strip, past the Bellagio fountains.
Liberty Media Corp., which owns Formula 1, is pegging the race as a flagship race for at least three years. The race, which will be held in November, is expected to bring up to 170,000 people to Las Vegas and represent an economic impact of $500 million.
While the professional leagues kept Las Vegas at arm’s reach, the NCAA kept its distance even greater. But this year, that floodgate also opened. There were 10 different NCAA men’s and women’s basketball conference tournaments in the city, including the Pac-12. The Pac-12 Football Championship Game is also held at Allegiant Stadium.
Too Many Choices?
Between all the events and new teams, it might be easy to believe the stands are increasingly empty. But the Light’s Lashbrook said the ecosystem is really no different than before and teams are not necessarily competing against each other, but the plethora of other entertainment options in Las Vegas.
“From a very specific, hyper-focused way of looking at it, the more sports options in town, the harder it is,” Lashbrook said. “But, it’s such a small incremental for 2.3 million people. We’re competing against weather, music, festivals, bars, everything around the country. Families have other things going on, but there will always be a role for sports in America. Like apple pie and Chevrolet, families go to sporting events.”
Lashbrook, Delsen and Bubolz all said the teams all hit different demographics and price points. For the Golden Knights and Silver Knights, in particular, the ticket price differential might be $100 per ticket.
At the Aces games, the entire upper bowl is $10 per ticket with an aim toward young families.
“The more teams there are, the more laser focused you need to be on the differentiations,” Lashbrook said. “It’s the time of year, the price point, the part of town. For me, I look at the growing competition and I don’t see any other super affordable, centrally located, family friendly option that is a sport that so many people grew up with in their blood.
“As amazing as the ballpark is in Summerlin, you can play as many games as you want and people on the east side of the city aren’t driving all the way over there,” Lashbrook added. “In so many different ways, we’re all attracting different crowds.”
MLB Coming to Town?
Major League Baseball has long been tied to the Las Vegas market, but perhaps none more so than in the past year as the Oakland Athletics flirt with the potential of moving markets.
The A’s are in a public battle with the city of Oakland over funding for a potential new stadium site in the Bay Area. While that spat continues, A’s management continues to check into Las Vegas for possible stadium locations.
According to May media reports, team President Dave Kaval was in town meeting with area stakeholders as the organization whittled its potential locations down to two, both in the Strip corridor.
While public financing, reportedly, is not off the table, the team has also floated the idea of a $1 billion domed stadium at the center of a mixed-use development, a major trend in new professional sports stadium projects.
The potential relocation largely hinges on the proposed $12 billion development in Oakland, which requires the removal of the land’s port designation. As of press time, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission was expected to consider the designation at its June 30 meeting. The team would then also need a new agreement with Oakland.
So what happens to the Aviators if the A’s, the team’s major league parent club, moves to town? Potentially nothing, according to Logan.
“The mindset would be, this place is so nice, sitting out here and it sounds like they’re committed to being in the resort corridor. They want to tap into tourism, so we [could] follow the Knights model and cohabitate. We’re both run by MLB, so we could try to schedule to be home when they’re on the road,” Logan said. “But at this point, it’s just, let’s cross the bridge when we get to it. We have a great thing going. People are turning out in great numbers for a fun night out and I don’t want to get too far down the road.
“One of the other options is, AAA is mobile and we could find a market that would work for AAA baseball. Everything is on the table; no absolute.”
Other Teams Looking to Join the Fray?
Building on the historic success of UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels and the annual NBA Summer League, perhaps the most natural fit for another Las Vegas professional sports franchise is the NBA. With the WNBA in town and multiple arena projects continually talked about, Las Vegas is regularly tied to NBA relocation and expansion rumors.
In regards to Las Vegas and Seattle expansion rumors, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at a press conference prior to the NBA Finals that current expansion talks are not being discussed at the league offices.
However, Silver did say, “Las Vegas has shown itself to be a great pro sports market.”
Beyond MLB and the NBA, a Major League Soccer franchise is also on the list of possible teams to find itself in the area. (Note: Lashbrook declined to discuss any MLS possibilities.)
Between the Lights and Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas residents have shown they love soccer. There have been several high profile matches at the stadium, including the CONCACAF Gold Cup final between the USA and Mexico, and the summer includes at least two major games: Chelsea FC vs. Club America and Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The pitch is set for two billionaires, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, to bring MLS’s 30th franchise to Las Vegas, as the pair entered negotiations with the league this year. That team could end up with a new, soccer-specific venue near the Strip as well. Edens and Sawiris also own the Premier League’s Aston Villa.
Las Vegas would be the smallest market for a MLS team, according to the Washington Post.
“Market size in the future of media will be less important than market engagement,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during a press conference earlier this year, per the Post. “Where is the future growth and opportunity happening, and where do we think MLS can be successful?”
The question then emerges, can a market the size of Las Vegas play home to an enormous ecosystem of minor league, special events and professional leagues?
“It gets harder with the major league teams because of the significance of the revenue that’s required to make them viable,” said Bubolz, who prior to his time with the Golden Knights was an executive with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “The NFL is heavily weighted to media revenues, but the NBA is similar to NHL, which is driven locally. And the same with baseball in terms of number of games, they’re all different in exact percentages but weighted to local revenue.
He added, “To me, that’s where the unknown lies. When you’re talking about an AHL team, you’re talking about a $10 million operating budget versus NBA, you’re probably talking $300 million; baseball in a similar level. It’s the scope of the revenues needed to make them work that creates unknown in saturation.”
The key, Bubolz said, is the quality of the overall operation.
At the WNBA’s Aces, Delsen said the team and league are working to be as innovative as possible to fully realize and establish its value unique proposition among pro sports in its communities. With that in mind, the team is not too concerned about other teams in the market.
“We’re putting our heads down and doing our best to grow our fanbase and brand recognition,” he said.
What About Up North?
While Las Vegas has quickly turned into one of the epicenters of U.S. sports, Reno’s Minor League Baseball team, the Reno Aces, continues its steady residency.
Aces President Eric Edelstein said the rise of Las Vegas sports has shined a new light on Nevada sports as a whole.
“The highlights on SportsCenter, just being part of the national and international conversation at times, from my brief travels abroad, there are a few locations that everyone knows: New York, Orlando and Las Vegas,” Edelstein said. “It added another connectivity point to a community that the vast majority of the world is already aware of. I think it’s good for all the state that pro sports in Las Vegas is taking its rightful place on the global stage.”
While the Aces cruise ahead, the USL Reno 1868 folded following the 2020 season. The 1868’s struggles likely help demonstrate the isolation of Reno from Las Vegas, which Edelstein said has allowed the baseball team to operate in a silo of sorts.
“From a pure business standpoint, I wouldn’t say it’s had any dramatic impact,” he said. “We do have some statewide sponsors and our prices are quite affordable when speaking to VGK or the Raiders, so that’s probably helped our value proposition. But by and large, minor league sports is very much a regional business and the vast majority of our support is from locals.”
While Edelstein does not expect too much minor league spillover from potential major league growth in Las Vegas, he did say an ECHL team – a level below the Silver Knights – could be an optimal addition to the Reno sports landscape.
That would, however, likely necessitate a new ice arena in Reno.
“I do think we’re venue deficient,” he said. “All sports, period, the success emanates from the venue they play in. The community support is automatic, but it’s the quality of the venues that ultimately can take something average to something special.”