When it comes to Ve­gas, ca­chet trumps stigma

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - HELENE EL­LIOTT

When the idea of the NHL com­ing was still a punch­line to jokes about ice ex­ist­ing here only in drinks, an ex­ploratory ticket drive for a pos­si­ble team rang up 9,000 sea­son-ticket de­posits in a month. Last Septem­ber, three months af­ter the NHL granted its 31st fran­chise to a group led by busi­nessper­son Bill Fo­ley, the new Las Ve­gas team de­cided to cap sea­son tick­ets at 16,000 to leave some seats for sin­gle-game pur­chases at glitzy T-Mo­bile Arena. The NBA sum­mer league, a sleepy, six-team event in its 2004 de­but here, drew 24 teams to Thomas & Mack Cen­ter and Cox Pavil­ion this month and set sin­gle-game, tour­na­ment and cham­pi­onship-game at­ten­dance records. Thou­sands of fans waited out­side in tripledigit heat to get a glimpse of fu­ture stars while a who’s who of mar­quee play­ers sat court­side. Among them was LeBron James, ap­par­ently as in­trigued as ev­ery­one else by dy­namic Lak­ers rookie Lonzo Ball. A few miles from those crowds, a va­cant lot awaited con­struc­tion of a domed sta­dium that will house the NFL’s Oak­land Raiders and Ne­vada Las Ve­gas’ foot­ball team by 2020. Once viewed with cau­tion be­cause of its ties to gam­bling, Las Ve­gas is be­com­ing a mecca for pro­fes­sional sports leagues and or­ga­ni­za­tions to set up shop. The tra­di­tional lo­cal menu of col­lege bas­ket­ball and box­ing is ex­pand­ing rapidly, and this week the city coun­cil ap­proved a lease agree­ment for a United Soc­cer League ex­pan­sion team to play in 2018 at Cash­man Field, home of the triple-A Las Ve­gas 51s base­ball team. What hap­pens in Ve­gas won’t stay in Ve­gas any­more: It will have an ef­fect around North Amer­ica and be­yond. “Las Ve­gas has rein­vented ho­tels, it has rein­vented en­ter­tain­ment. It’s rein­vented restau­rants, it’s rein­vented con­ven­tions, it’s rein­vented the night­club in­dus­try, it’s rein­vented re­tail,” said Ike Lawrence Ep­stein, se­nior ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of UFC. “I think the next thing Las Ve­gas is go­ing to rein­vent is sports.” First, it had to rein­vent its im­age. “Ve­gas his­tor­i­cally has had a stigma at­tached to it vis-a-vis pro­fes­sional sports leagues. And I can’t say for sure whether that stigma is en­tirely gone or whether it con­tin­ues to ex­ist in some mea­sure,” NHL deputy com­mis­sioner Bill Daly said. “We ul­ti­mately felt ... that the ca­chet kind of out­weighs the stigma. I think we view it as a grow­ing, vi­brant, fun city and that peo­ple are, I think, hun­gry for pro­fes­sional sports be­cause they never re­ally had a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence it on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.” UFC re­cently opened its new head­quar­ters in south­west Las Ve­gas, cre­at­ing a daz­zling Per­for­mance In­sti­tute for ath­letes and of­fice space for ex­ec­u­tives. Its enor­mous red logo is vis­i­ble from the 215 Belt­way; its ex­is­tence is some­thing Ep­stein never could have en­vi­sioned as a kid. Soon they can say they live in an NFL city. The Raiders’ ar­rival will be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment, putting Las Ve­gas on the na­tional stage ev­ery week in­stead of just for prize fights or UFC events. NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell shares that vi­sion. “We’re ex­cited about Las Ve­gas be­cause of the city that it is and the city that it has in­ten­tions to be­come,” he said in March af­ter own­ers ap­proved the Raiders’ move from Oak­land. Base­ball com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred re­cently said that if re­lo­cat­ing an ex­ist­ing team were to be dis­cussed, “Las Ve­gas would be on the list.” De­spite over­all de­clin­ing at­ten­dance and TV rat­ings for NASCAR events, Las Ve­gas Mo­tor Speedway was awarded a sec­ond NASCAR Cup Se­ries event in 2018 and will stage two triple-header week­ends. And though NBA deputy com­mis­sioner Mark Ta­tum said his league has no plans to ex­pand or move a team here, bas­ket­ball is al­ready a fix­ture. The NBA, which staged its 2007 All-Star game at Thomas & Mack, held board of gov­er­nors’ and player de­vel­op­ment meet­ings dur­ing the sum­mer league. USA Bas­ket­ball has used Las Ve­gas as a base for pre-Olympic train­ing and other events, and four col­lege bas­ket­ball con­fer­ence tour­na­ments were held there last spring. “Las Ve­gas is a fan­tas­tic mar­ket,” Ta­tum said. “It’s a mar­ket that, given the suc­cess of our sum­mer league, peo­ple here are avid sports fans and there is a com­mu­nity that I have no doubt will sup­port pro­fes­sional sports fran­chises here.” Pro­fes­sional Bull Rid­ers, whose head­quar­ters are in Colorado, has booked dates in Las Ve­gas for its an­nual world fi­nals and Last Cow­boy Stand­ing events for decades to come, ac­cord­ing to its chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Sean Glea­son. He said he ex­pects the ar­rival of NHL and NFL teams to en­hance the city’s pro­file. With a grow­ing metro area pop­u­la­tion that’s al­ready a lit­tle more than 2 mil­lion, there’s room for many sports to have a juicy slice of the mar­ket. “The NFL is a huge brand. It’s very pop­u­lar. It will bring more vis­i­bil­ity to Las Ve­gas and I see op­por­tu­nity within that,” Kerry Bubolz, pres­i­dent of the Golden Knights, said in an in­ter­view in his of­fice in Sum­mer­lin, Nev. “That op­por­tu­nity, for me, is the na­tional brands, the cor­po­rate spon­sors of the NFL, look­ing at this mar­ket and view­ing it dif­fer­ently than maybe they would have viewed it be­fore, as be­ing just a small mar­ket that’s only en­ter­tain­ment.” When the Golden Knights an­a­lyzed their ticket de­posit data, they found more than 90 per cent were for one to eight seats, in­di­cat­ing de­mand from in­di­vid­u­als rather than cor­po­ra­tions. About 85 per cent were from Las Ve­gas area codes. The NHL is more gate de­pen­dent than other leagues, so that was good news. “It was very, very lo­cal, which we were ex­cited about be­cause that means the depth of your mar­ket is the peo­ple,” Bubolz said. “It’s not a com­pany buy­ing 500 seats. Those don’t last.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Yes, the Raiders are com­ing, along with the Na­tional Hockey League, and maybe even a Ma­jor League Base­ball team some day.

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