Once a Sports Desert, Las Vegas Bets Big on Luring Pro Leagues
Author: Kim Bhasin and Randall Williams
February 10, 2024 at 06:41
Fueled by legal sports betting, the Nevada city has poured billions into new stadiums and arenas. As it hosts Super Bowl LVIII, Vegas is ready to show off its latest reinvention.
When Las Vegas hosts its first-ever Super Bowl on Feb. 11, it will mark a kickoff party that few saw coming. For decades, the major US sports leagues shunned Nevada’s most populous city, despite its status as a tourism epicenter. Gambling was taboo, especially after a referee betting scandal in the mid-2000s. And no place on earth embodied that unsavoriness more than Sin City.
“You go back 10 years and we couldn’t say the words ‘Super Bowl,’” says Sean McBurney, regional president at Caesars Entertainment Inc., which owns eight resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. “How sports has embraced Las Vegas has changed dramatically.”
As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to square off against the Kansas City Chiefs for the National Football League championship, players and fans will find a very changed city. Over the past eight years, Las Vegas has been busy collecting sports franchises — first the Golden Knights of the National Hockey League, then the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and the Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association. In November 2023, Major League Baseball’s owners unanimously approved the move of the Oakland Athletics to the valley.
And the world of gambling, once so anathema that the NFL refused to air a television ad for Las Vegas, has become woven directly into the fabric of pro sports. Online sportsbooks like FanDuel Inc. and DraftKings Inc. — which allow bettors to wager on games straight from their phones — have signed big-money sponsorships with major leagues, feeding casual TV viewers a constant stream of gambling analysis and oddsmaking. The bookies that once haunted Old Las Vegas are now in your pocket, leaving the city free to host the games directly.
“We’re trying to build a world-class city in Las Vegas, and sports are now an integral part of that,” says Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who has been an avid cheerleader for the city’s transformation since she assumed office in 2011.
Nearly $7 billion has been committed to turning Las Vegas into a global sports capital in recent years, with investors pumping money into new arenas and stadiums and negotiating deals with leagues. It’s a process that calls to mind the mass migration of franchises to Southern California cities in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of the city’s biggest advocates are the celebrities and athletes that live and party in Vegas. Former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady purchased a stake in the Aces and is looking to own a portion of the Raiders; retired baseball star José Bautista bought a minor league soccer team, the Las Vegas Lights. NBA superstar LeBron James, an equity partner of Boston Red Sox owner Fenway Sports Group, has been vocal about owning an NBA expansion team in the city. “They have everything here,” he said in December after the league’s inaugural In-Season tournament in Las Vegas.
But for some Las Vegas locals, living in a sports boomtown has been something of a mixed bag. The Strip and its surroundings have been covered in construction sites, tangling roadways and annoying residents and visitors alike. In just a few years, the city added more than 100,000 seats at new venues, with more on the way. “Let’s not talk about traffic,” says Goodman, whose final term ends in 2024. “It is a total nightmare.”
The tensions simmering beneath this transition can be seen in the fate of Tropicana Hotel, which opened in 1957. Once a backdrop for Elvis movies and Rat Pack shenanigans, the “Tiffany of the Strip” was also known for its mob ties; a 1970s FBI crackdown on casino skimming netted convictions of several crime figures connected to the property. Now the hotel-casino is set to close in April, to make room for a more wholesome emblem of the new Las Vegas: a $1.5 billion baseball stadium.
Sin City’s latest reinvention would have been impossible if America didn’t suddenly become cool with sports gambling. Since 2018, when the US Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on commercial sports betting, Americans have legally bet more than $220 billion on games, according to the American Gaming Association. The group expects that 26% of US adults — about 68 million people — will wager on the Super Bowl this year, up 35% from last year.
“We did not have a lot of professional sports franchises because of the concern around gambling and betting and the concern around the integrity of the leagues,” says Steve Hill, chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “The other issue was the size of the market. Years ago, we could not support a professional franchise with the population we had.”
In that era, Las Vegas was a fight town. Casinos began funding boxing bouts in the 1950s; this was where Marvin Hagler rocked Thomas Hearns at Caesars Palace in 1985, where Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield at the Thomas & Mack Center in 1999, and where Floyd Mayweather Jr. outmaneuvered Manny Pacquiao over 12 rounds at the MGM Grand in 2015.
Vegas made a natural home for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the city has hosted a third of the UFC’s events since 2001. “We would never have come as far as we have without the platform Las Vegas has provided us,” says Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of the mixed martial arts company. “If we were based in Omaha — I love Omaha — but we wouldn’t have the platform that we have here in Vegas.”
But outside the combat sports, local fans had few options. There’s a Triple-A baseball team called the Aviators, the Gamblers of the US Australian Football League and the Sin City Trojans of the Women’s Football Alliance. The Fabulous Sin City Rollers, a women’s roller derby league, has been around for nearly 20 years.
With the state’s population swelling over the past three decades, the major leagues were destined to look Nevada’s way. Las Vegas’s Clark County grew from 1.4 million residents in 2000 to 2.33 million at the end of 2023, according to the US Census Bureau, and researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas expect that number to keep growing by more than 2% annually for the next several years.
Speculation about the NHL began in 1991, when Las Vegas hosted an outdoor hockey game outside Caesars Palace. In 2016, the league awarded an expansion team to the billionaire chairman of Fidelity National Financial, Bill Foley, who paid a $500 million fee for the Golden Knights. Its home, the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, was funded entirely by MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group. That year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declared Las Vegas “a city that was ready for major league sports.”
The arrival of the NFL signaled an escalation of the city’s sporting ambitions. Originally, Las Vegas wasn’t on the list of potential homes for the Oakland Raiders, as owner Mark Davis sought deals in San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles in pursuit of a new stadium. But local officials gave owner Davis a lucrative deal: The team spent $1.2 billion to build the 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium, while Clark County chipped in the remaining $750 million via hotel room taxes.
Stanford economist Roger Noll called that arrangement — then a record amount of public funding for a football stadium — the worst deal for a city that he’d ever seen. (The record-large subsidy has since been eclipsed by the Tennessee Titans, who are collecting $1.26 billion in taxpayer funds to build a stadium in Nashville.) But this week, as Allegiant hosts its first Super Bowl, local boosters point to $500 million in economic impact for the area, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Nicki Ewell, senior director of NFL events, says that Allegiant has earned a place in its Super Bowl rotation, with its robust hospitality scene and proximity to the amenity-laden Strip.
“We spare no expense when it comes to making sure our plans are optimized,” says Ewell.
The big game also cements Las Vegas’s standing as a host for sporting mega-events like golf tournaments and Formula One races, a high-stakes pursuit fueled by more than just ticket sales.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, the kingdom is spending billions on the LIV Golf league, now in merger talks with the PGA Tour, to diversify its economy away from oil. Teams in the Roshn Saudi League have spent hundreds of millions on international soccer stars and Formula 1 has a long-term arrangement with the government to race annually in Jeddah. In the US, Miami is scrambling to finish a billion-dollar complex for its soccer club Inter Miami before superstar Lionel Messi retires, and the city hosted the first Miami Grand Prix race in 2022.
Las Vegas kept pace with its own Grand Prix in November 2023, the city’s biggest sporting event to date, with more than 300,000 attendees over four days. The sight of F1 cars howling down the Strip at 200 miles per hour made for a quintessentially Las Vegas kind of spectacle, but it was one that brought headaches, too. Construction afflicted the city for months as workers converted active roads into a 3.9-mile race track; restaurants complained about lost business and residents struggled to get through bottlenecks.
Despite the challenges, race executives and tourism officials say the effort paid off with an economic impact of $1.2 billion. The city’s hospitality industry sponsored hundreds of events and built temporary grandstands for the occasion. “That was something that really appealed to local stakeholders,” says Las Vegas Grand Prix CEO Renee Wilm. “We’re coming out of Covid to ignite the international tourists to come to Las Vegas.”
One particularly dazzling addition to the Strip is poised to be a key part of the city’s sporting infrastructure. That’s the 10-story orb known as Sphere, a 17,500-seat event space behind the Venetian resort that opened in September. The $2.3 billion entertainment venue’s LED-covered facade can light up with a whimsical smiley face, the surface of Mars or an ad for a new Lexus. While concerts by U2 have been filling the space, Sphere has fight promoters salivating: UFC CEO Dana White says he has booked it for bouts in September, promising the “greatest live combat sports show anybody’s ever seen.”
So far, Las Vegas’s casinos couldn’t be happier about the town’s makeover. “Sports and the business that sports bring has been wildly successful for us,” says MGM CEO Bill Hornbuckle.
There are still two vacancies that Vegas wants filled as soon as possible: MLB and the NBA. The deal for the A’s has yet to be finalized. But in June, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo signed a $380 million public financing package, with funds from transferable tax credits and county bonds, after months of negotiations between the league, team, state and county. The process was hotly contested by local officials, with disputes over both the taxpayer money and location of the future ballpark.
For Goodman, demolishing the Tropicana to make room for America’s Pastime isn’t ideal. “For me to take down a hotel to build a baseball stadium in the heart of the strip and to compete with all the other venues we have here, I’m not really excited about it,” the mayor says. “There were plenty of other sites which would’ve been more appropriate.”
But Oakland A’s owner John Fisher disagrees. “All I can say is when we first arrived at the Tropicana site after looking at a lot of different locations, this site made me smile in a way that just got me to think if we could build a ballpark on this incredible corner, what a lasting legacy this will be to the community, the team and all of our fans,” he says.
Meanwhile, the anticipation for a potential NBA club, with a price that could be as high as $4 billion, is skyrocketing as the league lays the groundwork. The NBA now hosts both its Summer League and In-Season Tournament in Las Vegas, and Team USA basketball trains in the area too. MGM, which owns T-Mobile Arena and many other nearby venues, is ready to offer up the home of the Golden Knights. “With minimal investment and a keen focus, an NBA team could easily be accommodated here,” says Hornbuckle.
But first, the city’s hotels must accommodate the 450,000 tourists that the Las Vegas Super Bowl Committee estimates is heading to town. Davis, the Raiders owner, notes that it’s quite a turnabout from eight years ago, when the NFL was so anti-Vegas that the league canceled a fantasy football convention.
“They’re talking about the NBA and MLB coming,” says Davis. “What I’ll say about Nevada is the first word out of people’s mouths is not ‘no.’”