USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree previews the upcoming race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
USA TODAY Sports
LAS VEGAS – Sin City. Sex City.
This neon oasis in the desert is continuing a steady progression from hosting legal gambling on professional sports to welcoming professional sports in the city, an idea that for decades was anathema to the suits in big-league boardrooms.
Of course, Las Vegas has been linked to sports for decades, largely as a venue for heavyweight boxing championship matches, star-spangled events that attracted thousands. And, as the epicenter of American sports gambling, the city pulls in thousands even for big events scheduled elsewhere, as evidenced by swarms of gamblers, hangers-on and professional partyers who show up for Super Bowl and March Madness weekends.
But the landscape, and the town’s possible future as a sports capital, changed dramatically last year with the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights of the National Hockey League. The expansion team, the first Vegas-based team of the “big four” of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the NHL, has succeeded beyond even the most ridiculous fantasies ownership and the league might have imagined.
The Knights have forgotten they are an expansion team. After a Friday night loss to Ottawa, Vegas has an astonishing record of 41-18-5, second in the Western Conference, and is eyeing a strong playoff run.
The Knights sold 12,500 season tickets and could have sold many more. Crowds of 17,000-plus are typical at T-Mobile Arena on the Vegas Strip, and most fans have jumped into raucous hockey-fan status with gusto.
Any questions about the viability of a major-league sports franchise based in Vegas have been answered. In full. The fear of shadowy figures associated with gambling seems to be in retreat, and Vegas appears ready to make a quantum leap in perception.
“I’m not sure we knew what to expect, but the team has been a success not only on the ice but in the community,” said Jeremy Handel, the senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the group charged with attracting tourists and convention-goers to Vegas.
The Knights have been big for Vegas not only because they have become a source of community pride but also because their first season has proved that fans of other NHL teams will travel to Vegas to cheer for their teams and, not incidentally, hang around for a few days and play blackjack and feed slot machines.
“People love to get away and to come to Las Vegas,” said Chris Powell, longtime president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway (and, as he describes himself, a new hockey fan). “You go to Knights games – for example, against Pittsburgh, and when the Penguins score, a ton of their fans will be there cheering.”
This is the next best thing to sorcery for Las Vegas and its boosters: devoted sports fans showing up in their town with disposable cash.
All of it is expected to surge to another level in 2020 with the planned arrival of the NFL’s Raiders from Oakland. They will play in a new stadium across Interstate 15 from Las Vegas Boulevard.
The city should crackle anew in that first season.
Handel says he likes to ponder a Vegas sports bonanza in which the Buffalo Bills play the Raiders in town on the same weekend the Buffalo Sabres are visiting the Knights. The craps tables could be overwhelmed.
“Las Vegas has really been a sports town for a long time, but we just didn’t have the experience of having major league professional teams,” Handel said.
Spencer Gallagher, a driver in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, is a Las Vegas native.
“You grow up in this town for 20-odd years hoping and wishing and waiting for any kind of sports team,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, we get the Golden Knights and the floodgates just open. I don’t know who opened the floodgates, but thank you very much.
“We went our whole lives having to pick other sports teams to cheer for. I think it really cements our reputation as a town for everyone to come to and see great events, both sporting and entertainment.”
Powell has watched the Vegas changes from 15 miles north of the Strip as the speedway, which has hosted NASCAR’s top series since 1998, provided early evidence that big-time sports and Las Vegas are viable partners. The Strip’s casinos and shops are targets every race weekend for fans wearing NASCAR caps and shirts. That influence will double this year as LVMS is hosting two NASCAR weekends for the first time.
“Just with our facility alone, we’ve proven that people like to come here and enjoy sporting events and everything else Vegas has to offer,” Powell said. “Maybe some of the big sports leagues have been late to the party, but I think all of it will succeed. None of it has surprised me, and it’s going to be really ramped up with the Raiders. I think the NBA and Major League Baseball will eventually be here.”
Perhaps you can bet on it.