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Volume 22 No. 23

Opinion

Lawrence Epstein knows Las Vegas. Yes, the lifelong resident and UFC chief operating officer may be biased. But he’s a pragmatist and a realist. In a series of conversations I had with him in his hometown, he outlined a brash, bold vision for Las Vegas, and it starts with the Raiders coming to town in 2020.

“In 10 years, the Raiders will be the biggest brand in the NFL,” he said. “Bigger than the Dallas Cowboys.” Pushed if he actually believes that, he rattled off attributes necessary for the team’s success: a devoted fan base, a global tourist mecca, international visibility, state-of-the-art and centralized infrastructure, and solid corporate support.

But Epstein didn’t stop there — he espoused a far bigger vision. “Las Vegas has reinvented hotels, gaming, nightclubs and restaurants. Sports is next,” he said, before adding confidently, “Las Vegas has the opportunity to become the global center for sports.”

After spending time in the city over the past few weeks for various meetings, I agree about the “opportunity.” It’s easy to buy into the promise of the market, and an energy emanates from the sports community. While it may be only the 40th-largest media market in the U.S. with a metro population just over 2 million, it’s a sports economy on the rise. There is the success of the Golden Knights, the strong early business around the Raiders, the established UFC, as well as USL Lights, WNBA Aces, NBA Summer League, two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup races, the Rugby Sevens and many other events. 

But there is more. It has a constant flow of tourists — city officials estimate 42 million visitors annually. There are plenty of beds for heads and more to come, as three massive new complexes are in development: Circa Resort & Casino will add 777 rooms; The Drew 4,000 rooms and Resorts World Las Vegas promises more than 3,400 rooms. 

There is strong infrastructure: There is the centrally located T-Mobile Arena; Las Vegas Stadium is going up with lightning speed and built just off Las Vegas Boulevard; there is MSG Sphere; and a much-touted baseball park for the Class AAA Aviators under construction in Summerlin. This equals 15 venues developed in the region in fewer than five years with a total capacity of more than 350,000. Think of all the options that exist. 

There are team developments outside the city, with the Knights’ training facility in Summerlin and the Raiders developing 55 acres for a headquarters/training facility in Henderson, which also could include mixed-use development. Vegas has one of the hottest housing markets in the country and residents have purchasing power when they find an attractive option. Case in point: the Golden Knights have one of the highest average ticket prices in the NHL.

The region has smartly built a foundation hosting events of all shapes and sizes and can now layer on pro sports with the Golden Knights and the Raiders. Most importantly, its community leadership is aligned with grand aspirations, and city leaders believe they are just getting started. There is the NFL draft in 2020, and you hear plans for a Final Four, conference championship games, the College Football Playoff, an NBA franchise and, of course, the penultimate dream of a Super Bowl, which many believe could be the greatest event ever in a city full of historical occasions. 

I left Las Vegas convinced of a changing narrative around the city — it’s a real, live sports community, far more than just gaming. I’ve seen sports momentum in cities. Look at what Atlanta has done; keep an eye on Los Angeles and Nashville. But no city has more going for it than Las Vegas. What could hold it back? Well, the size and depth of the corporate base could pose a challenge and leaders have to be on the same page and build methodically.  But the pieces are there.  I initally flinched when Scott Butera, MGM Resorts president of interactive gaming, told me, “Las Vegas will be the No. 1 sports city in the world.” But I don’t flinch anymore. When you take it all in, you see there’s not much standing in the way of that goal.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

As columnists and researchers, we’re not above throwing rocks at major sports properties and big brands that invest in sports. Similarly, we’re not afraid to give credit when and where it is due.

Recently, the International Olympic Committee showed it is one organization where acknowledgement seems warranted. That’s due to our familiarity with the Olympic and Paralympic movements and willingness to write about issues like host-city bidding, adaptive inclusion, sponsors and Rule 40.

Still, despite the fact columnists traditionally shy away from “good news,” we felt compelled to note improvements the IOC is making under President Thomas Bach. With the decision made to simultaneously award the Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) Games, the IOC has taken numerous steps to enhance various levels of Olympism.

The catalyst for change was the recent withdrawal of multiple candidate cities for the 2026 Winter Games. That caused us to interview Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s executive director of Olympic Games. What Dubi told us was not only forthcoming but worth sharing.

As a disclaimer for readers not directly involved with the Olympics, the reason to keep reading is this: The IOC is the largest sporting organization in the world and reaches into more than 200 countries. So, strategic progress by the IOC might rub off on others and ultimately influence global inclusion, diversity, advancement and profitable growth.

We started by asking Dubi about Calgary’s withdrawal from the 2026 bid process after a very negative plebiscite result. We’d watched that situation closely and believed strongly there were larger issues explaining why Calgary’s citizenry rejected hosting the Games at the last minute.

Dubi noted: “If you are not able, as a candidature committee, to come up with a full picture of all elements until a few days before [a plebiscite], it becomes very complicated. Society has evolved to the point where people want to know what’s in it for me, now. And, if you can’t give a full answer on what it will cost, you will not proceed. The same holds if the answers come late.”

This led to a discussion about city-led bids versus private-sector bids because both Paris and L.A. were private. In fact, Paris’ previous failed bids were city-run. Dubi responded it was less about who submits a bid — city or private — and more about the individuals and organizations involved.

“The issue is [finding] a coordinated, ‘in-favor’ group who are integrated in their activities with the [city’s] key organizations. If — like in Calgary and some others — you have some [groups, individuals] who are not aligned, then it sends a message of uncertainty.”

What’s next?

The IOC Executive Board (EB) will meet in Lausanne from March 26-28. The EB is scheduled to receive reports from the organizing committees of the upcoming Olympic Games and various IOC commissions, as well as updates on the activities of the IOC administration.

Our research suggests Dubi is right. During the last decade, all over the world, people’s trust of systems and, importantly, governments has declined.  

Economic impact studies are often produced by agencies offering inflated results and absurd multipliers. Governments at all levels (federal, state/provincial, municipal) act as competitors for resources and agendas. Additionally, strong lobby groups are more effective with negative communications.

The list goes on, which makes the concept of bidding a massive challenge. So how does a city possibly enjoin the support of its citizens? 

“It is quite amazing,” Dubi said, “when three levels of governance are in favor. If the sport federations are in favor and the athletes are in favor … look at London, L.A. and Paris … we see exceptional people jumping in, pulling together and swaying [public] opinion.”

The other key aspect of any bid process is the strength of the “No” side in discussions on whether to proceed with the bid or not. If the “No” side is organized, communicating clearly and able to pose questions the “Yes” side can’t answer, the “Nos” can easily steer public opinion early and create doubt about costs and negative legacies.

Exhibit A is Calgary. So, what’s the IOC doing?

First, they passed a new policy — Olympic Agenda 2020 — establishing a series of reforms making the bidding process more cost-effective and transparent. This document is easily searchable and has already received notable positive acclaim. Of greatest note is how the agenda requires the IOC start city bids much earlier and then remain deeply engaged, helping cities create quality bids supported by their citizenry.

In other words, the IOC now resists waiting on bids and instead partners with cities. Interestingly, Dubi suggested his team is already working future bids with more than 30 interested cities for the 2024 Youth Olympic Winter Games, the 2030 Olympics and the 2032 Olympics.

Such proactivity should increase the number of bids and reduce future “No” plebiscites. Perhaps more holistically, this coordinated approach will help cities drop out earlier, thereby saving taxpayer dollars and reducing the complexity and nastiness associated with a failed bid.

The final important piece of Olympic Agenda 2020 is anticipating how the IOC becomes more open in communicating the true investments and administrative resources the Swiss-based organization makes in each Games. If Dubi is to be believed, it means the IOC is changing its tone to create a more positive outcome for chosen municipalities.

“To invest $1 billion in a city is not a bad thing,” Dubi stressed. And to that suggestion he pointed toward Paris and 2024 where the IOC is investing $1.7 billion, which is a mix of contribution to the local organizing committee and organizational costs directly borne by the IOC.

Perhaps pro leagues and others should take note. It is certainly admirable for league commissioners to give massive sums to private team owners. But is there no value in assisting cities that host teams and championship events?

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s faculty athletic representative to the ACC and NCAA. Norm O’Reilly is Director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and Partner Consultant at T1.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com