Superbowl 58: How Las Vegas Fell in Love with Big Team Sports

For decades, the idea of ​​bringing major league teams to Sin City seemed taboo

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Top team sports are now on regular offer in the gambling capital of Las Vegas, Photo: BBC
Top team sports are now on regular offer in the gambling capital of Las Vegas, Photo: BBC

"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have seen myself sitting here at the Super Bowl. You really have become America's sports town."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn't the only one who couldn't imagine Las Vegas becoming the new stronghold of American team sports.

For decades, the idea of ​​bringing major league teams to Sin City seemed taboo.

In 2003, the NFL even decided that a television ad for Las Vegas - under the slogan: "what happens here, stays here" - was too distasteful to air during the Super Bowl broadcast.

But the biggest game in American sports will take place on the Strip for the first time on Sunday and, fittingly, it took a big business player to make a big bet to jumpstart this city's latest transformation.

A hockey team based in the desert has always sounded like a crazy idea.

Las Vegas then suffered a seismic tragedy just a few days before the first game of the new team.

But the community and players came together against all odds and showed how team sports can survive and even thrive in Las Vegas.

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The sport first arrived in Las Vegas in the 1950s, when boxing was recognized as another form of entertainment that would complement gambling and attract more gamblers to casinos.

A series of world-class matches helped make Las Vegas the boxing capital of the world in the 1960s, and they later reinforced that image. WWE and UFC when their matches arrived in town.

Las Vegas hosted annual golf and tennis tournaments, along with various motorsports events, but team sports had trouble catching on.

Several minor league football teams have tried and failed.

With names like Cowboys and Outlaws, they evoked a time when mobsters turned Las Vegas from a wilderness town into an oasis of glamor and gambling.

But playing in inadequate venues miles from the Strip resulted in poor attendance and didn't last more than a few years before it was abandoned and moved elsewhere.

Although the major sports leagues held the occasional exhibition match in Las Vegas, for many years the city's only sports success story was tennis star Andre Agassi, whose family moved there eight years before he was born, in 1962.

Agassi's father - who boxed for Iran in the Olympics before moving to the United States and taking a job at Vegas' Tropicana casino as a waiter - was typical of the many "transplants" that make up the local community, moving for work in the entertainment industry and working unconventional hours.

That busy schedule and variable pay package make it difficult to find the time and money to follow your favorite sports team.

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In 1962, Las Vegas had a population of about 110.000.

When Agassi won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 1992, he had about 800.000.

In 2014, that number jumped to 2,2 million.

The Texas-born businessman sensed that something had changed and that an opportunity had presented itself.

He was willing to put everything into bringing a major league sports team to Las Vegas.

Sports betting has long been legal in the state of Nevada, but Las Vegas's historic reputation for corruption and organized crime has the four major sports leagues - football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey - worried about how it will affect the perception of their integrity. match.

They also weren't convinced that the Las Vegas market was big enough to support a professional team.

Billionaire Bill Foley thought so, and in December 2014, the National Hockey League (NHL) gave him permission to organize a season ticket campaign for a potential Vegas franchise and test his hunch.

The goal was to get 10.000 fans to invest money in seats from which they would watch the future team.

Within 36 hours, Foley was halfway to the total.

After two months, he surpassed her.

In June 2016, Las Vegas beat out competition from Quebec for the expansion team's license, and Foley paid $500 million for the privilege.

At the time, Las Vegas was the largest US market without a major league sports team, and yet the Arizona Coyotes, who had been struggling financially for years in neighboring Phoenix, Arizona, were hardly a particularly sound advertisement for an NHL team. in a city surrounded by sand.

Kerry Bubolz was named president of the Vegas Golden Knights in October 2016, a month before the new team's name was announced.

"There was an element of establishing an expansion NHL team in a desert environment: 'Well, that doesn't make any sense, there's hardly any ice there,'" he tells BBC Sport.

That may have been true, but it quickly became apparent that the population of Las Vegas had more fans from different ice hockey cradles than expected.

While they root for the home team whenever they're in town, they root for the Golden Knights the rest of the season.

There were also plenty of residents who just wanted to root for a Las Vegas team - regardless of the sport.

"Our main priority was how to go out and engage the community in a very direct, very authentic way," says Bubolc.

"We've always said that community is a contact sport, just like hockey is."

They made such a splash that the Golden Knights had to limit the number of season tickets to 14.000 in the 17.367-seat arena.

Foley's prediction that the team would reach the playoffs in three years and win the Stanley Cup in six only fueled the frenzy.

But as anticipation grew ahead of their first game in October 2017, tragedy struck the city.

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On October 22.000, 91 country music fans were enjoying the final day of the Route XNUMX Harvest festival when a lone gunman opened fire on the crowd from the Mandalay Bay Hotel across the Strip.

It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in American history. with 58 people killed in one night and more than 800 wounded, although in the meantime more deaths have been attributed to the shooting.

"It was terrible, demoralizing," Bubolc said.

"The first thing we did was make sure our players and the service staff were safe, and then the players - none of them from here - asked, 'What can we do? How can we help?'

"We didn't do a lot of training together, but for three whole days before we traveled to Dallas for our first game, we just went to police stations, to different hospitals. There are no rules to it, no plan - you just do it."

The Golden Knights won their first two games on the road - at Dallas on October 6th and then at Arizona the next day - before returning to Las Vegas for their first home game against Arizona on October 10th.

"We should have celebrated," Bubolc said.

"Instead, we held a ceremony to honor those 58 people who tragically lost their lives and to thank the emergency services that were first on the scene."

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The Golden Knights observed a moment of silence that lasted 58 seconds - one second for each victim - before Canadian defenseman Derrick Engelland, who has lived in Las Vegas for 14 years, gave a moving speech.

It also lasted 58 seconds.

"Like all of you, I'm proud to call Las Vegas my home," he said as the spotlight singled him out on the ice in front of the 18.000-seat crowd.

"I met my wife here. Our children were born here. I know how special this city is.

"To all the brave members of the emergency services who worked tirelessly and courageously throughout this tragedy, I want to say: thank you.

"To the families and friends of the victims, I say that we will do everything in our power to help you and for our city to heal. We in Vegas are strong."

Engelland said after all that he probably never spoke in front of "more than 20 people at a time."

However, it was a team speech that best summed up the emotions of the entire city.

"It was fantastic for a guy who's usually pretty shy and reserved," Bubolc said.

"During the minute of silence, I could hear people breathing. That will forever be etched in my memory, how eerily quiet everything was."

The Golden Knights then scored four goals in the first ten minutes, and the second was a rare goal by England.

"It was a magical moment," Bubolc said.

"For those three hours, people forgot about the mass murder that happened literally on the same street and just enjoyed hockey, even if they had never seen a game before."

The Golden Knights went 5-2 and won eight of the first nine games, regaining some of the excitement the franchise had built before the tragedy.

Since they were founded in Las Vegas rather than relocating to it, they made the Born in Vegas tagline their "attitude DNA," tapping into the pride felt by those who lived in the city before the population boom.

They also gave away free jerseys to all 14.000 season ticket subscribers, causing retail to "skyrocket" as everyone else in town saw the jerseys and wanted to join in, especially as the team continued to win.

"Something really unique and special happened, we bonded very quickly," says Bubolc.

"In an unusual way, tragedy brought us together. In desperation there was a connection, and people fell in love with these players."

At the Golden Knights' final home game of the regular season, they held up a banner that read "Vegas Strong," 58 stars, and the names of the victims.

They also retired the number 58 jersey.

The team not only secured an unexpected appearance in the playoffs, but went on an incredible streak to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost 4-1 to Washington in a best-of-seven series.

At the end of that first season, Engeland won the NHL Leadership Award, and not just for that speech.

He and his wife, Melissa, invited people affected by the shooting to home games throughout the season, meeting and thanking each guest in person.

He said, "Whatever I do in my career, that speech will probably be the biggest moment of my hockey career."

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Two months before Foley invested $500 million in the Knights, Mark Davis announced he wanted to move the NFL's Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas and pledged $500 million for a new stadium.

The league approved the move in March 2017, marking a real turning point.

Of the four major American sports leagues, the NFL has been the fiercest opponent of Las Vegas and gambling.

Speaking in 2012, NFL Commissioner Goodell said that if sports betting were to be allowed nationwide, certain in-game incidents would "give rise to speculation, mistrust and allegations of score-fixing or game-selling."

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, met with Davis in 2015 to explain the impact of sports betting, before submitting a report that Davis later presented to the league to allay any fears.

"Before, the Las Vegas team was kind of taboo because of gambling," says Bubolc.

"But they found that it was actually the safest possible market because of the strict regulation in Nevada."

"There are so many valid systems and experts that if something is going on, they will know immediately. It hasn't even been mentioned since we started playing."

In May 2018, the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, allowing every state to legalize sports betting.

So far, 38 out of 50 states have done so.

In the five years since the Supreme Court decision, $220 billion has been legally invested in betting, generating $3 billion in taxes, while the illegal market has declined from $150 billion to $64 billion a year.

In addition to gambling, other obstacles for Las Vegas teams were the lack of suitable central venues and the distraction of fans from the abundance of other entertainment on offer in the city.

But MGM Resorts, one of the city's largest property owners, recognized the appeal of the sport, just as casino owners did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Opened in 2016 just 300 meters from the Strip, T-Mobile Arena was built in a joint venture with MGM and is home to the Golden Knights.

MGM also purchased and relocated a VNBA team for the 2018 season, so now the Las Vegas Aces play at Mikelob Ultra Arena - another MGM property.

"Sports is what people want, really," says Chris Baldizan, MGM's executive vice president of entertainment booking and development.

"When all is said and done, we're here to provide our guests with an incredible experience - and experiences can hardly be more engaging than live sports."

"People want to be able to choose a variety of experiences, and the addition of sports is next level. Las Vegas has always been evolving, that's one of its hallmarks since its inception."

And the Gilded Knights have embraced the challenge of putting on a show that can rival the other world-class entertainment offered along the Strip.

They have become known for building up the tension before a game, most notably through an on-ice video show in which a knight in armor slays a fire-breathing dragon.

Imagine Game of Thrones what luck Disney on ice.

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"The people who live there, it's available to them every day, so if you attend any event, there's an expectation that goes with it," says Bubolc.

"We had to build a fan experience that at least lived up to expectations and we wanted to do it differently than it had been done before. It's still NHL hockey, but it's accompanied by a certain event, a play that's pretty special. She's fun."

There is a similar atmosphere at Alidzhijant Stadium, where all the seats for the Raiders have also been sold out since the covid-19 pandemic.

In Las Vegas, they know how to put on a good show.

Just ask Max Verstappen.

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Formula 1 has returned to Las Vegas on a much grander, more glamorous level since the two Grands Prix were held in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in the eighties.

At first, world champion Verstappen was not charmed, saying the event was "99 plays, 1 percent sport".

Organizing an event on a closed public street was a mammoth feat, but, if we do not count one displaced manhole cover, was considered a great success.

Even Verstappen changed his tune.

After winning the race, he started singing "Viva Las Vegas" in his cockpit and later admitted "it was a lot of fun."

Steve Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), said hosting F1 "was the hardest thing he's ever done," but afterward he was convinced the city could "deliver the best Super Bowl experience the NFL has ever had."

"A lot of people will be able to just get out of their hotel rooms and walk to their place," he adds.

"It allows you to do a lot around the event itself - and you won't get stuck on the way home or have trouble making a dinner reservation like other places. Those things take the Las Vegas experience to a whole new level."

Although the Golden Knights managed to maintain a passionate local fan base, they also attracted visitors on the Strip.

They sell out their arena more than any other NHL team and their popularity is such that fans will pay "non-spectator tickets" to watch the game on a screen in one of the arena's bars.

According to his own extensive research of LVCVA, about a quarter of the American population was previously interested in visiting Las Vegas.

Now that their team is in town, many sports fans are planning Las Vegas as their one season trip.

"The sport changed the brand like no other way," says Hill.

"It can be seen that Las Vegas has matured, that the trust that the leagues and teams have in Las Vegas is expanding. People think that the city has grown up.

"The international marketing for us around the Grand Prix and Super Bowl is something we couldn't even afford to buy.

"Sports has allowed that segment of the population to start thinking about visiting Las Vegas - and we think that once they come, they want to come again."

After hockey and football, baseball is the next major team sport to come to Las Vegas after the Oakland Athletics' move was approved by Major League Baseball (MLB) in November.

They plan to start playing on the Strip starting in the 2028 season.

"At this point, no one can match that," Hill adds.

"As long as we continue to enable people to engage with this and take advantage of what we have here, the future of this city is very bright."

AFP

The Tropicana will soon be demolished to make way for a 33.000-seat stadium, right next to where the shooting took place.

That means Las Vegas will have NHL, NFL and MLB franchises - all within a four-corner radius of the Strip.

Once dismissed, Las Vegas is now gaining support from some of the biggest names in sports.

Tom Brady is a minority owner of the Aces and Raiders, David Beckham is interested in an MLS franchise, while Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James have said they want a stake in Las Vegas land and an NBA franchise.

Speaking at the inaugural NBA Midseason Tournament, which wrapped up in Las Vegas in November, James said, “It's crazy to say this, but Las Vegas is a sports town. With any luck, one day I'll be able to bring my own franchise here.

"Sports are huge here at the moment."

And indeed, Bill Foley may have later said that his bold prediction was a "silly statement," but the Golden Knights did indeed win the Stanley Cup in just six years.

And at their trophy parade along the Strip last June, which drew 20.000 fans, they unfurled a banner Vegas strong from the arena and hung him behind the stage.

"We haven't forgotten," says Bubolc.

"It is an important part of our history.

"We feel like we've been a catalyst for Las Vegas and I'm proud of what's happened on the ice and with our business. Youth hockey has exploded onto the market at this point. That's a pretty cool story."

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