Super Bowl 58: How Las Vegas fell in love with big sport

Super Bowl 58: How Las Vegas fell in love with big sport
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A composite image of an American football, a baseball, a basketball and an ice hockey puck flying round a roulette table

Super Bowl 58: San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs

Venue: Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas Date: Sunday 11 February Start: 23:30 GMT (15:30 PST)

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“Ten years ago, I would not have seen myself sitting here for a Super Bowl. You really have become Sports Town USA.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was not the only one who did not envisage Las Vegas becoming the new frontier of American sports.

For decades, the idea of bringing major league teams to Sin City seemed taboo. In 2003, the NFL even decided that a television commercial for Vegas – tagline ‘what happens here, stays here’ – was too unsavoury to run during the Super Bowl coverage.

But the biggest game in American sport will be held on the Strip for the first time this Sunday and aptly, it took a big bet from a high roller to spark the city’s latest transformation.

An ice hockey team, based in the desert, was always a long shot. Vegas then suffered a seismic tragedy just days before the new team’s first game.

But the community and the players rallied together to defy the odds and show that team sport can survive and even thrive, in Vegas.

The Allegiant Stadium seen from above with the Las Vegas skyline beyond

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Sport first came to Vegas in the 1950s, with boxing identified as another form of entertainment to supplement gambling and lure more punters into its casinos.

A string of world championship boxing matches helped Vegas become the fight capital of the world in the 1960s, with the image later enhanced by WWE and UFC contests coming to town.

Vegas has played host to annual golf and tennis competitions, along with various motorsport events, but team sports struggled to get established.

Several minor league American football teams tried and failed. With names like the Cowboys and the Outlaws, they harked back to when mobsters transformed Las Vegas from a frontier town into a glitz-and-gambling oasis.

But playing at unsuitable venues miles from the Strip, all had poor attendances and lasted no more than a handful of years before folding or relocating.

Although the major leagues held occasional exhibition events in Vegas, for a long time the city’s only sporting 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 at the Olympics before moving to the United States and taking a job at Las Vegas’ Tropicana casino as a waiter – was typical of the many ‘transplants’ that make up the local community, relocating for jobs in the entertainment industry and working unconventional hours.

That heavy schedule and variable pay packet makes it difficult to find the time and money to follow a sports team.

The Agassi family, with a young Andre, pose in front of a tree while holding tennis racquets

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In 1962, the Vegas population was about 110,000. When Agassi won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 1992 it was about 800,000. By 2014, it had shot up to 2.2 million.

A Texas-born businessman sensed something had changed and an opportunity had arisen. He was ready for go all-in on bringing a major league team to Vegas.

Sports betting has long been legal in the state of Nevada, but Las Vegas’ historic reputation for corruption and organised crime, made the four major leagues – American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey – wary of how the integrity of their matches might be affected or perceived.

They were also unconvinced the Vegas market was big enough to support a professional team.

Billionaire Bill Foley felt it was, and in December 2014 the NHL granted him permission to stage a season-ticket drive for a potential Las Vegas franchise and test his hunch. The target was to get 10,000 fans to stake money on a seat from which to watch a future team.

Within 36 hours Foley was halfway to the total. After two months he had surpassed it.

In June 2016, Vegas beat competition from Quebec to be awarded an expansion team, with Foley paying a $500m (£397m) fee for the privilege.

At this point, Vegas was the largest US market not to have a major league team, yet the Arizona Coyotes, who had been struggling financially for years in Phoenix in the neighbouring state of Arizona, was hardly a ringing endorsement for having 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 team’s own name was revealed.

“Launching an NHL expansion team in a desert environment, there was an element of ‘well, that makes no sense, there’s barely any ice there’,” he tells BBC Sport.

That may have been so, but it became apparent that Vegas’ population included more fans from ice hockey’s heartlands markets than expected. While they would back their hometown team when they were in town, they followed the Golden Knights the rest of the season.

There were also plenty of residents who just wanted to get behind a Vegas team – no matter the sport.

“Our main priority was how we’d get out and engage the community in a very direct, very authentic way,” says Bubolz. “We’ve always said that community is a contact sport, just like hockey.”

Such was their impact that the Golden Knights had to cap their season-ticket members at 14,000, in an arena which has 17,367 seats.

Foley’s prediction that the team would reach the play-offs in three years and win the Stanley Cup in six fuelled the hype.

But as anticipation grew before their first game in October 2017, tragedy struck.

Crime scene tape shuts a road outside Mandalay Bay hotel

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On 1 October, 22,000 country music fans were enjoying the final day of the Route 91 Harvest festival when a lone gunman opened fire on the crowd from the Mandalay Bay hotel, on the other side of the Strip.

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

“It was terrible, demoralising,” said Bubolz. “First thing we did was make sure our players and front office staff were safe, then the players – none of them were from here – were like ‘what can we do? How can we help?’

“We hadn’t had that many practices together but for three straight days before we went to Dallas for our first game, all we did was go to the police department, go to the different hospitals. There’s no playbook for that, there was no plan – you just do it.”

The Golden Knights won their first two games on the road – at Dallas on 6 October and then in Arizona the following day – before returning to Vegas for their home opener against Arizona on 10 October.

“We were going to have a celebration,” said Bubolz. “Instead we had a ceremony to recognise those 58 that were tragically killed and to thank the first responders.”

Deryk Engelland speaks to fans under a spotlight while on the ice pre-game for Las Vegas Golden Knights

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The Golden Knights held a moment of silence lasting 58 seconds – one for each victim – before Canadian defenseman Deryk Engelland, who had actually lived in Vegas for 14 years, gave a passionate speech. It also lasted exactly 58 seconds.

“Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” he began as a spotlight picked him out on the ice, in front of a capacity 18,000-strong crowd.

“I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is.

“To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you.

“To the families and friends of the victims, we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong.”

Engelland said afterwards that he had probably never spoken to “more than 20 guys at once”. Regardless, it was the team talk that summed up a city’s emotions.

“It was amazing for a guy who’s generally pretty shy in his demeanour,” said Bubolz. “During the moment of silence, I could hear people breathing. That will always be stuck in my mind, how eerie that was.”

The Golden Knights then scored four goals in the first 10 minutes, the second a rare effort from Engelland.

“It was a magical moment,” said Bubolz.

“For those three hours, people stepped away from the mass murder that happened literally down the road and just enjoyed the hockey, even if they’d never been to a game before.”

The Golden Knights ran out 5-2 winners and won eight of their first nine games, restoring some of the excitement the franchise had been building before the tragedy.

Having been founded in Vegas rather than relocating, they had made Vegas Born their “DNA statement”, tapping into the pride felt by those who have been in town since before the population boom.

They also gave free jerseys to all 14,000 season-ticket members, which resulted in retail sales being “off the chart” as everyone else in the city saw the jerseys and wanted to be a part of it, especially as the team kept winning.

“Something really unique and special happened, a bond formed really quickly,” Bubolz says. “In a strange way, the tragedy brought us together. In despair came a connection, and people fell in love with these players.”

At the Golden Knights’ final home game of the regular season, they raised a banner featuring Vegas Strong, 58 stars and the victims’ names. They also retired the number 58 jersey.

The team had not only secured an unlikely appearance in the play-offs but went on to make a remarkable run to the Stanley Cup finals, losing 4-1 to Washington in the best-of-seven series.

At the end of that first season, Engelland won NHL’s leadership award, and not just for his speech. He and his wife Melissa invited people affected by the shooting to home games throughout the season, meeting and thanking each guest.

He said: “No matter what I do in my career, [that speech] is probably going to be the biggest moment of my hockey career.”

Las Vegas fans in fancy dress lean over a barrier and watch the action

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Two months before Foley had staked $500m on the Knights, Mark Davis said he wanted to move the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas and pledged $500m towards a new stadium.

The league approved the move in March 2017, which marked some turnaround. Of the four major US leagues, the NFL had been the staunchest opponent to Vegas and gambling.

Speaking in 2012, NFL commissioner Goodell said that if sports gambling was permitted nationwide, certain game incidents “will fuel speculation, distrust, and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing”.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), met with Davis in 2015 to explain the impact of sports betting, before producing a report which Davis later presented to the league to allay its fears.

“Before, having a Vegas team was kind of taboo because of the gambling,” says Bubolz. “But what they found out is that this is actually the safest market because of the regulations in Nevada.

“There’s so many systems and experts in place that if something’s going on, they know immediately. It’s not even been a topic since we started playing.”

In May 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), allowing each state to legalise sports betting. Thirty-eight of the 50 now have.

In the five years since the Supreme Court decision, $220bn has been wagered legally, generating $3bn in taxes, while the illegal market had dropped from $150bn to $64bn a year.

Besides gambling, other obstacles to Vegas-based teams were a lack of suitable central venues, and fans being distracted by the wealth of other entertainment on offer in the city.

But MGM Resorts, one of the city’s biggest property owners, recognised sport’s pull, just like the casino owners of the 50s and 60s.

Opened in 2016 just 300 metres from the Strip, T-Mobile Arena was built in a joint venture involving MGM and is home to the Golden Knights. MGM also bought and relocated a WNBA team in time for the 2018 season, so the Las Vegas Aces now play at Michelob Ultra Arena – another of MGM’s properties.

“Sport is what people want, right,” says Chris Baldizan, MGM’s executive vice president of Entertainment Booking & Development.

“Ultimately, we’re here to provide an amazing experience for our guests – and experiences don’t get more immersive than live sport.

“People want to pick and choose from different experiences, and the addition of sports is the next iteration. Las Vegas has always evolved, it’s been one of its trademarks seen its inception.”

And the Golden Knights embraced the challenge of putting on a show to rival the other world-class entertainment on offer along the Strip.

They have become renowned for their pre-game build-up, the highlight being a video show projected onto the ice in which an armour-clad knight on skates slays a fire-breathing dragon. Think Game of Thrones meets Disney on Ice.

The words Let Battle Begin are projected onto the ice at a Golden Knights home game

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“The people who live here, it’s available to them every day, so if you attend any event down here, there’s an expectation that goes with that,” says Bubolz.

“We had to build a fan experience that at least met that expectation and we wanted to do it differently to how anybody’s ever done it. It’s still NHL hockey but there’s an event, a show around it that’s pretty special. It’s fun.”

It’s a similar atmosphere at Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders have also had sell-out crowds since the Covid-19 pandemic. They know how to put on a show in Vegas. Just ask Max Verstappen.

Max Verstappen drives in the Las Vegas Grand Prix

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Formula 1 returned to Vegas last year on a far grander, more glamourous scale than when F1 held two Grands Prix on the Caesars Palace car park in the 1980s.

Initially world champion Verstappen wasn’t a fan, saying the event was “99% show, 1% sport”. Staging the event on a street circuit was a mammoth undertaking but, apart from a loose manhole cover, it was considered a big success.

Even Verstappen changed his tune. After winning the race he sang ‘Viva Las Vegas’ in his cockpit and later conceded “it was a lot of fun”.

Steve Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), says that hosting F1 “was the hardest thing we’ve ever done” but after that, he’s confident the city can deliver “the best Super Bowl experience the NFL’s ever had”.

“So many people can go out of their hotel room and walk to their seat,” he adds. “It allows you to do so much else around the event – and you won’t be stuck getting home or booking dinner, like in other places. Those things elevate the experience in Las Vegas.”

While the Golden Knights have maintained a passionate local fanbase, they have also drawn visitors to the Strip. They sell out their arena more than any other NHL team and, such is their popularity, that fans will pay for ‘non-view tickets’, watching the game on a screen in one of the arena’s bars.

According to the LVCVA’s own extensive research, about a quarter of the US population hadn’t previously been interested in visiting Vegas.

Now, when their team is in town, many sports fans plan Las Vegas as the one road trip they will make all season.

“Sport has changed the brand in a way that really couldn’t be done any other way,” Hill says. “There’s a recognition that Las Vegas has matured, that the trust the leagues and the teams have put in Las Vegas emanates. People feel that, the city’s grown up.

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

“Sport has opened up that portion of the population to consider visiting Las Vegas – and we think that once they come, they’ll want to come back.”

After hockey and football, baseball is the next big team sport coming to Vegas as the Athletics’ move from Oakland was approved by MLB in November. They aim to start playing on the Strip from the 2028 season.

“At this point, nobody can catch up,” Hill adds. “As long as we continue to allow people to bolt on to this and take advantage of what’s here, the future of this city is really bright.”

LeBron James at the NBA's In-season tournament

AFP

The Tropicana will be soon be demolished to make way for a 33,000-capacity ballpark, right beside the site of the shooting. That would mean Vegas has NHL, NFL and MLB franchises – all within a four-block radius along the Strip.

Once shunned, Las Vegas is now gaining support from some of sport’s biggest names. Tom Brady is now a minority owner of the Aces and the Raiders, David Beckham is in favour of an MLS franchise, while Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James have said they want to be involved if Vegas lands an NBA franchise.

Speaking at the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, which concluded in Vegas in November, James said: “It’s crazy to say, but Vegas is a sports town. Hopefully I can bring my franchise here some day.

“Sports is gigantic here right now.”

Indeed, Bill Foley might have later said his bold prediction was a “silly statement” but the Golden Knights did actually win the Stanley Cup in just six years. And at their trophy parade along the Strip last June, which attracted 20,000 fans, they brought the Vegas Strong banner out of the arena and hung it behind the stage.

“We haven’t forgotten,” says Bubolz. “It’s an important part of our history.

“We feel like we were the catalyst for Vegas and I have a lot of pride in what’s happened on the ice and with our business. Youth hockey’s just exploding in the market now. It’s a pretty cool story.”

A player celebrates on stage at the Golden Knights victory parade

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By David Ryckman