In the decade since we moved away from Las Vegas, my FOMO has never been as peak as it was last week watching the Golden Knights win the 2023 Stanley Cup. Had I continued my career as a national freelancer there, I’m sure I would have been in the arena and been able to post selfies with the trophy on Facebook along with others of the media and corporate elite.
Yes, I am jealous. It seemed like a really good time.
None of that, however, changes my fundamental view that Las Vegas should be pioneering an entirely different approach to a city or region’s relationship with pro sports.
Rather than creating or importing teams to play under the banner of the host location the way every other metropolis does, Las Vegas should embrace and exploit its national and international iconography as a sports, gambling, and tourism destination.
Vegas should build stadiums and arenas, for sure. But then the region should become a neutral venue for existing teams to face off. Imagine the constant stream of sold-out games and crazy hotel occupancy if fans from across America flocked in to watch their teams play?
Good teams, bad teams, it wouldn’t matter to Vegas. Season-ticket holders from Seattle or Detroit or mega-fans from Kansas City or Boston would plan weekends around heading out to Vegas for games. There would never be an empty stadium or an off week. And the TV or streaming rights to Saturday Night Baseball/Football/Basketball in Vegas would be boffo.
Las Vegas doesn’t need another pro sports team
Vegas, once the most innovative and creative place in America, is now governed by folks who perpetually want to prove they live in a “real” city. I heard it all the time when I lived there, this sense that a booming population and tremendous national political clout just isn’t enough.
Real cities, supposedly, have pro sports teams to boost civic pride and give everyone something to rally around. It’s also a calling card for some places — think Green Bay, Sacramento, Charlotte or Edmonton — that wouldn’t get much attention if not for their teams’ presence on TV and betting lines.
Vegas needs no such calling card. Vegas cannot sneeze without 17 podcasters and People Magazine craning their necks.
Nevertheless, the city is moving right along without any imagination. The Nevada Legislature just kicked in $380 million to the Oakland A’s $1.5 billion to build a new stadium where one of America’s persistently worst and poorly run baseball teams is expected to play by 2028.
Everyone, except perhaps the fine union folks who make the money building the stadium, will come to regret this.
VGK and the very Vegas curse of beginner’s “luck”
If anyone ought to know the costly, heart-crushing deception of early and fast success, it’s Vegas. Casinos blossom by giving gamblers, especially slot machine players, a taste of triumph and euphoria so players will forevermore chase that high.
So it is with the Golden Knights. They origin story of a wildly overachieving first season in the wake of the 2017 music festival massacre bonded them to the community in a special, beautiful way. Now they’ve won it all a mere six years into its existence, and everyone I know out there is in ecstasy.
Meanwhile, how about those Las Vegas Raiders? Average home attendance ranked 30th out of 32 teams in 2022. A 6-11 record last season. Makes the news with headlines like this peach from The New York Times:
The Disarray and ‘Stone Age’ Dysfunction of the Las Vegas Raiders
Former employees described an N.F.L. franchise bedeviled by executive departures, poor financial management, unpaid electric bills and a raft of firings, payouts and N.D.A.s.
Remind me again what civic good is being accomplished by this? I’m proud of the Raiders for appointing the first Black female president and for its hearty support of Carl Nassib, the first active NFL player to come out as gay until they cut him “for financial reasons” a few months later, according to NBC News.
But imagine if they’d done it my way. A different NFL matchup every weekend at Allegiant Stadium. All the revenue, jobs and city visibility without any of the politics or turmoil.
The Golden Knights triumph doesn’t matter to my argument because I never would have suggested this for pro hockey. The NHL does not have a fan base that travels with their teams the way fans of pro football, basketball, baseball and college football and hoops fans would or do. Also, few people bet on hockey, so bringing hockey fans from elsewhere to Vegas would have no serious impact on handle.
Golden Knights’ success won’t last long
But since we’re now using the Golden Knights as the emblem for why pro sports in Vegas are so good for the city, I must rain on the parade: It won’t last.
Just ask fans of the Florida Miami Marlins or even the Kansas City Oakland A’s. Winning teams come and go. Most seasons of most teams are exercises in endless mediocrity or tantalizing potential unrealized. Yeah, I’m a New York-Detroit fusion fan now (Mets, Jets, Knicks, Lions, Tigers) so maybe I’m bitter.
I just don’t see fallow years being particularly good for Vegas — and I don’t believe Vegas fans will be that devoted when there’s so little glory. They now have an expectation of always being in contention. The attendance and merch sales won’t be quite this robust when it’s August and the baseball team is 15 games out of first. They’ll be doing two-for-one tickets at the discount kiosks and feverishly emailing folks signed up for the last-minute seat-filler sites.
It doesn’t have to be this way. They can have capacity crowds in perpetuity. No other city could do that, but Vegas can.
It comes down to that age-old question, really: Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?
Beats me. But the latter certainly would be more lucrative.
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