Derek Stevens sensed how strong of a sports town Las Vegas could be when he owned the Triple-A baseball team there for four years.
But the cavalcade of visiting fans he’d meet as he strolled the aisles of Cashman Field did little to assure him it could be a strong home town. Many around him were fans of the visiting team on the homestand, tourists with a few days of gambling or recreating in the desert also on the itinerary. His 51s, in effect, were a ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show or a night at Wolfgang Puck.
“I always thought that [Major League] baseball or the NHL would be the first big-league teams in Vegas,” Stevens, the CEO of Circa Resort & Casino, told PlayUSA, “but baseball is maybe a little bit different animal. You’ve got a huge amount of traveling fans, and when I owned it, we were in the Triple-A team for the Blue Jays and for the Dodgers, and when we played the AAA team for the Chicago Cubs, the Iowa Cubs or we played the Triple-A team, it was the Memphis Cardinals for the St. Louis Cardinals. I mean, the volume of baseball fans that came out just to see a AAA game because they were Cardinals fans or Cubs fans was really amazing.
“But again, it comes down to the fact that if you’re going to go take a road trip, Vegas is a very attractive city to take a road trip for it.”
William Hill US CEO Joe Asher grew up in Wilmington, DE, in a family of bettors, mythologizing the landmarks and characters from an old detective show called Vegas. Years later, he lives and works there, and he marvels at the transformation the city has made from the backdrop of a Robert Urich vehicle to not only the epicenter of the American gambling and entertainment industries, but a hub of sports for visitors and locals alike.
“What Vegas has become and how it has grown over the years into this international mecca far beyond gambling, for entertainment, more generally, and now sports town, it’s amazing,” he said. “I think it was like the early 2000s, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors [Authority] wanted to advertise during the Super Bowl, and that ad was rejected. So, kind of, the NFL at the time did not want to be associated with Las Vegas. And so to go from ‘No, you can’t spend the money to advertise in the Super Bowl’ to a team in a beautiful stadium, right behind Mandalay Bay, and to have the Las Vegas Raiders on television is really something amazing.
“It wasn’t that long ago where the only game in town was the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. [Now there are] the Knights and the Raiders, and so many events around sports in this town, [like] UFC and the incredible production that they put on, and of course this town has continued to have great boxing matches. Vegas has really become a big, big sports town.”
And it’s awaiting its next top-tier franchise.
Golden Knights prove that locals will embrace a Las Vegas team
The Vegas Golden Knights went beyond expectations in establishing the metropolitan area of 2.3 million as a place that would embrace a local team. That the team advanced to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Finals in its first year of NHL play certainly helped ignite an affinity, and the myriad futures bets it paid off for fanciful new backers along the way didn’t hurt either.
Knights apparel remains a ubiquitous feature for locals and bartenders alike in the years after the Washington Capitals ruined the fairytale by winning the Stanley Cup in five games. And some are still surprised.
“I will tell you as a guy that has been involved in work for sporting teams dating back into the nineties, I still don’t understand the complete euphoria of it, how quickly they attached and moved forward, but it’s amazing. And it’s great to see,” Brendan Bussmann, director of governmental affairs for Global Market Advisors, told PlayUSA.
A year earlier, the NFL had finally ended years of hypocritical arm’s-length handling of Vegas and its gambling industry in voting to allow the brainstorming of the Raiders’ move from Oakland to settle in a stadium very much resembling a hockey puck near the Strip.
Though fans are not allowed at Las Vegas Raiders’ home games this season as a COVID-19-mitigation protocol, their support locally suggests they are leaning into the embrace the Knights snuggled into four years ago. And in the process, they’ve helped finally push out the stigma that Vegas was just a place where bets were made on games, not played.
“Obviously, you all saw the success of the Golden Knights. [T-Mobile Arena] is sold out every night,” MGM Resorts International CEO William Hornbuckle said. “There’s still 4,000 people on a wait list for season tickets, the private seat licenses for the Raiders. There’s 62,500 seats. They sold all but 4,000 of them because they wanted to keep some seats for the general public. And they sold every seat license that they had.”
Will the Raiders and Knights be joined by other pro teams?
Success begets interest. And Las Vegas, Nevada has both.
Outside of the so-called “big four” of pro leagues — MLB, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL — Las Vegas also fields a WNBA franchise. The area was mentioned as a possible hub city for both the truncated NHL and NBA bubble-barricaded seasons, which were eventually held in Toronto and Edmonton, and Orlando, respectively. It’s also had a lengthy summer fling with the NBA.
Meanwhile, leagues have rapidly adopted sports betting as a marketing tool and revenue stream. This, in turn, helped obliterate the well-worn stigma that a gambling town would be too risky a home port for professional teams, putting players at the mercy of the unscrupulous.
“The issue of integrity … we’ve been doing this for 75 years,” Hornbuckle said of the Nevada gaming industry. “And if you think about, particularly in the last 50, what has happened here in terms of integrity in sports betting, I can’t think of any single [game-integrity problem]. It is a safe environment. We have too much at stake. One of the reasons you want to deal with licensed, large-scale operators [is] we run a $20 billion company when it’s all said and done. We’re not going to risk any of that to a single transaction, flat-out full stop.
“And so the leagues have now accepted that. They understand it. They understand how the regulatory environment works, and they’re comfortable with it. I don’t think they participate day in and day out … but getting their head around it and participating in it in the context of viewership, entertainment, value, they’re all in.”
So with big-league bona fides among homers and tourists, and professional sports team owners mindful of what their peers have, the question now arises: What major league team will be the next to relocate to Las Vegas?
Bussmann foresees that the area will eventually fill out a complete slate of major professional teams. He expects tourism to remain a major factor in their success. He doesn’t expect gambling to be a big negative factor when leagues make expansion or relocation decisions.
“I think, obviously, time has allowed the leagues to continually move that needle to say, ‘OK, this is OK and it’s acceptable,’” he said of legal sports betting. “But it’s taken time to do that. And I think eventually, you’ll see baseball here and NBA and hopefully MLS as well in that process, because it will work.
“I’ve said from when I moved here in 2004, the NFL and Major League Baseball were the two sporting leagues that I thought would do the best here overall to drive tourism. I mean, imagine the Yankees playing the Vegas Whatevers. How many people from New York are just going to come out for that three-game series, even if they only make it to one or two games?”
What big-league teams could be next to move to Vegas?
The municipality and the league are each quite familiar with what the other offers by now. Various iterations of a now-staple NBA summer league have been held at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center since 2004, with the 2019 installment drawing record crowds to an event featuring every franchise and two European clubs.
Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2019 that the summer league “seems like the next best thing” to a Las Vegas NBA franchise and claimed that neither expansion nor relocation “are on our agenda right now.”
“Invariably, one day it will be again, but all of our attention has been focused on the performance of the 30 existing teams,” he continued, adding, “There’s no doubt there are a number of cities in the United States that could host NBA basketball, but we analogize it to selling equity. I think we would want to make sure at the time we expanded we felt it would help grow the entire league and not just support the NBA in that particular city.”
Then-MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren told KNPR-FM radio in 2016 that he was attempting to relocate an existing team to T-Mobile Arena — where the Knights hold residence — after the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported his claims that Las Vegas would have a team within five years. Murran, who was involved in the San Antonio WNBA franchise’s relocation to Las Vegas, no longer works at MGM but said at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s Las Vegas Perspective event in July that “I’m really proud of all of us for getting sports (to Las Vegas). I expect we’ll have an NBA team here.”
MGM Resort Senior Vice President of Entertainment Operations Mark Prows extended the window another five years or so when speaking at the Global Sports Business Summit at the Las Vegas Convention Center in February of 2019.
“It’s also not something where we’re going to force a square peg into a round hole. We’re going to let it happen organically,” he said.
Shaquille O’Neal, a Hall of Fame center and current television analyst, hinted in his podcast this spring:
“I heard through the grapevine that there are a couple teams for sale and one may be going to Vegas.”
Suns Owner Robert Sarver used Las Vegas and Seattle as wedges in an arena dispute with Phoenix officials just two years ago.
Franchises in Charlotte, New Orleans, and particularly, Memphis are frequently seen as relocation targets, buffeted by the same market forces that COVID-19 exacerbated and that could make expansion a lucrative lifeline for the league.
“The success with the Golden Knights also parlays into what success could be for the NBA here over the course of time,” Bussmann said.
Montreal apparently misses the Expos now. A powerhouse potential ownership group including former executive Dave Dombrowski and pitcher Dave Stewart is targeting Nashville. Charlotte and Portland, OR, are perennial suitors.
Las Vegas is already in the box, however. And there are two prime contenders.
Diamondbacks: The city of Las Vegas entered into a nondisclosure agreement with the Phoenix-based team about the possibility of a move in 2018. Team officials have also courted Vancouver officials.
Athletics: Vegas would be full-on dead to Oakland if it became the new home for its last two wayward big-league teams, but the often-squalid state of its ballpark has raised a Vegas move as recently as 2019, and plans to build a new stadium in the Bay Area remain ambiguous. Coincidentally or not, the Las Vegas Triple-A franchise became an A’s affiliate in 2019.
Jeremy Aguero, of the Applied Analysis firm that teamed with the Las Vegas Stadium Authority on Allegiant Stadium, said at the 2019 Global Sports Business Summit that MLB teams were “sniffing around Las Vegas.” And that they weren’t alone. The key, he and Prows agreed, was Las Vegas proving that it can support two big-league franchises from an attendance and sponsorship standpoint before there’s a third.
The Golden Knights were 12th of 31 teams in attendance in 2018-19 — averaging 100.5% per-game capacity — and although the Raiders haven’t had the chance to use the turnstiles yet, they had reportedly sold every seat in the 65,000-seat stadium for every regular-season game by May.
So Las Vegas sports fans wait.
“We are on everybody’s radar in Major League Baseball and every other major sport that’s out there,” Aguero said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s complicated, but we’re on the radar.”