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Volume 22 No. 35
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Forum: Don’t sleep on Las Vegas as a No. 1 sports city

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.