When it comes to Vegas, cachet trumps stigma
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.”
Yes, the Raiders are coming, along with the National Hockey League, and maybe even a Major League Baseball team some day.