In the last six years, Las Vegas has gone from a desert of professional sports teams and events to an oasis, something many thought was unfathomable. The NHL Stanley Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights, the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, and defending WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces have captured this city and transformed it, both on and off the field of play.
Now an organization from the third of the four major sports is looking to call Las Vegas home. The Oakland Athletics have an agreement to relocate the MLB franchise to Southern Nevada.
In addition, the Super Bowl will be held at the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium in 2024. Formula 1 selected Las Vegas to be its third city in the U.S. and will hold the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November. NASCAR makes two stops in Vegas annually, and the PGA Tour one. The NBA Summer League has called this city home for nearly two decades.
The UFC holds its marquee contests here and has its headquarters located 10 minutes from the Strip. The NHL Awards were held in Las Vegas from 2009 to 2020. College basketball has the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference tournaments. Major League Soccer is also poking around Vegas.
Past events include NHL and WNBA All-Star games, the NFL’s Pro Bowl, boxing, MMA, and WWE events.
It’s a far cry from 23 years ago when most professional sports avoided Las Vegas, concerned its athletes would be corrupted by legalized sports betting, gambling, and other vices that gave the town the nickname Sin City.
Oscar Goodman’s Gamble
When flamboyant lawyer Oscar Goodman, whose client list included mobster Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, was elected mayor of Las Vegas in 1999, he had a goal to bring a professional sports team to the desert. The town had shown they would support basketball, making Jerry Tarkanian’s University of Nevada Las Vegas Running Rebels a fixture for years.
Goodman met with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York City and pitched his idea. It did not go well. Stern reportedly told Goodman, “over his dead body would he ever allow an NBA franchise to come to Las Vegas as long as there was betting on sports events.”
Undeterred, Goodman continued lobbying Stern and got an assist from the owners of the Sacramento Kings.
George Maloof and his family owned the NBA team from 1998 to 2013. Though they were based in Sacramento, Maloof always had an interest in Las Vegas. His family owned the Fiesta Casino in North Las Vegas and sold it to build the Palms Casino Resort.
It was George’s son, George Jr., who proposed that the NBA All-Star Game be held in Las Vegas. He, along with Goodman, worked with Stern and eventually got the commissioner to agree to hold the February event for the first time in a non-NBA city.
The 2007 All-Star Game was held at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the game was viewed as a success. The average resale ticket price set a record at $2,546. The NBA held several events for area youths and the community, and it was generally well-received.
Unfortunately, undesirables descended on the city and caused enough mayhem to give the event a black eye. There were 403 arrests, mostly for prostitution and assault and battery. One of four reported shootings happened outside a strip joint and left a bouncer paralyzed.
The violence made national headlines and seemed to erase any hope Goodman had of getting an NBA team to the city.
“It was a disastrous weekend,” Goodman told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “The game was great, but what took place was that everybody was hot to trot.”
“We had one bad night where we didn’t have enough police force in the right areas,” Maloof told the newspaper. “It happened. It was messy. But we moved on from that. The NBA moved on. The city moved on.”
Some of those who worked in casinos and local businesses reported people walking out of restaurants without paying and not tipping casino service workers. As far as they were concerned, they didn’t care if the NBA ever came back.
Hockey Brings Hope
It took just two years after the All-Star Game for rumors to surface that a professional sports team wanted to relocate to Las Vegas. It wasn’t the NBA, however, but the NHL.
The rumor was that Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to move the bankrupt Arizona Coyotes to Las Vegas. The NHL, however, was set on keeping the team in Phoenix, so the plan never was given any serious consideration.
What did catch the NHL’s eye was the plan Bill Foley and the Maloof family had to establish a team in Las Vegas.
Hockey had always done well in Southern Nevada. The city hosted the first outdoor game in NHL history in 1991 with 14,000 fans attending to watch the L.A. Kings host the Colorado Avalanche outside of Caesars Palace.
The minor-league teams of the Las Vegas Thunder (1993-1999) and the Las Vegas Wranglers (2003-2014) also enjoyed support from the town’s citizens.
In Foley’s mind it was a no-brainer to have a team in Las Vegas. All he had to do was sell the idea to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the other owners.
Foley had the advantage of having an arena already scheduled to be built. MGM and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) paid $375 million for T-Mobile Arena.
Now Foley had to convince the NHL a hockey team could be supported. He never had a doubt.
“People that know me know I don’t fail,” Foley said at an appearance at Sunset Station Casino in 2015. “We’re going to make this work.”
It definitely was a leap of faith on Foley’s part. The NHL was noncommittal to Las Vegas, and Foley did a lot of the ground work as if he had been awarded a team.
He announced a season ticket drive for a team that didn’t yet exist. His goal was 10,000 seats sold. In three months, he had 13,200 and 1,000 commitments from corporations and 735 suite seats.
“To me, that’s a statement,” Foley said at the time. “Our goal was 10,000, and we’re still selling tickets.”
The NHL definitely took notice. They realized sports betting wasn’t an issue. It also helped that the town had a population over 2 million. At the owner’s meeting on June 22, 2016, Las Vegas was named the first expansion franchise since 2000.
Aces Find a Home
Just one year after the Golden Knights arrived, the WNBA moved its worst franchise to Las Vegas. The San Antonio Stars, which was 8-26 in 2017, came to Las Vegas and was renamed the Aces.
The person credited with getting professional basketball to Las Vegas was Jim Murren, then MGM Resorts Internationals chairman and CEO. To
Murren, however, it was always more than just a sports team.
“The team is of utmost importance to MGM,” Murren said after the team arrived. “Not only are we building up sports in Las Vegas, we’re empowering women. To elevate the understanding this is a relevant place and the need to accelerate the excellence of women, I think that’s critical. Diversity is long overdue. Progress has been made but it’s certainly a work in progress.
“Anything we can do to help build up the brands of women in sports and in business, to improve the gap of inequality that exists by gender, is something MGM is very focused on.”
The team was sold to Raiders owner Mark Davis in 2021 for around $2 million. Davis was another proponent of the WNBA, and he began to make sure the team had everything it needed.
The Aces, who won the WNBA Championship in 2022, now have a 64,000-square-foot practice facility, the first such place dedicated solely to a WNBA team. Davis said his investment has grown from $2 million to an approximate $14 million. He even got future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to become a minority owner.
Raiders Not Welcomed by All
The team that made the biggest splash coming to Las Vegas was the former Oakland Raiders. The team had already enjoyed a following in the city, considering its proximity to Oakland and Los Angeles. In 2017, however, the rumors of Vegas getting the Silver and Black were getting louder by the day.
But Las Vegas wasn’t owner Davis’ first choice. The son of the iconic Al Davis had his sights set on either getting a new stadium in Oakland, the team’s home at the time, or going back to Los Angeles.
When neither of those locations materialized, Davis had to go to Plan C, and enlisted the help of one of Nevada’s most powerful casino owners, the late Sheldon Adelson.
It was Adelson who got the highest amount ever, $750 million, in public funding for an NFL stadium. He also pledged $650 million of his own money. Davis, who pledged $500 million, was well on his way of covering the cost of the estimated $1.9 billion to build the stadium.
But Davis had to get the NFL’s approval, and that in some ways was going to be trickier than securing funding. The NFL, two years earlier in 2015, had shut down Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s fantasy football convention because it was being held at the Sands Expo convention center, near the Venetian hotel and casino.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was a staunch opponent of mixing his league and gambling. Getting a team to Southern Nevada was going to need some help from other owners. Fortunately, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stepped in and started lobbying other owners to get the Raiders to Vegas. Part of Jones’ motivation was he didn’t want a third NFL team in Texas. Davis had said he was interested in relocating to San Antonio. Jones pushed for Vegas and got the other owners to go along.
Not everyone, however, was excited to see Davis bring the team to town. Foley said he was troubled that so much public money was being spent on the team. Foley didn’t ask Las Vegas for a nickel. He paid the $500 million expansion fee himself, and had T-Mobile Arena constructed with private funds.
“I felt like there were a lot better ways to spend $750 million than bringing the Raiders to Las Vegas,” Foley said on a local radio show in 2016. “We could spend it on police, firefighters and teachers and have them all be the best in the country. But I guess we’re going to spend it on the Raiders.”
On March 27, 2017, NFL owners voted 31-1 to approve the Raiders’ move from Oakland to Las Vegas.
The Raiders, who were next to last in value at $1.4 million, watched their valuation jump to $2.1 billion after the news, and by 2022 the team was estimated to be worth $5.1 billion.
Betting Lines Affected
A byproduct of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas has been the action the team is seeing at the sportsbooks. They always got a decent amount of handle, but now Raider bets continue to be a consistent leader on Sundays during NFL season.
John Ewing, who is a public relations analyst for BetMGM, says the Raiders lead Nevada in handle.
“Local teams receive greater support in their home states across the board. The Raiders receive twice as much support from bettors in their home state,” Ewing says. “For example, to win the Super Bowl: In all states, 1.2 percent of bets, 1.1 percent of handle is on the Raiders to win it all. In Nevada, 2.4 percent of bets and 2.3 percent of handle is on the Raiders.”
Jay Kornegay, who is the executive vice president of operations for Superbook Sports, which is in eight states including Nevada, says the Raiders’ bets have exploded in Vegas.
“They haven’t had success but we are still getting an increase in bets on them,” Kornegay says. “And wait until they have success. You are going to see that train get full really quickly. They are a regional team. Their popularity will skyrocket.”
The same holds true for the Golden Knights. Hockey betting was almost an afterthought, with it lagging well behind the NFL, NBA and MLB.
“The Knights still rank fourth among the top four sports, but that gap has certainly closed here (in Vegas),” Kornegay says. “When the Knights won the Cup this year it cost us money, absolutely. But we weren’t worried about it. I know some other operators in this town took a big hit. We took a hit but it wasn’t anything like we were looking at back in 2018 when the Knights were in the finals and had been 500-1 to win.”
Now, with four professional sports teams calling Las Vegas home, the negative connotation of sports and sports betting has been largely erased. Since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was repealed by the Supreme Court in 2018, and sports betting was legalized nationwide, 37 states and Washington, D.C. now have some form of wagering on sports, whether it be retail or online.
Major League Baseball is close to giving its blessing to having the Oakland Athletics move to Las Vegas. MLB has been the one sport affected the most by gambling scandals. One of the biggest involved Pete Rose, who now lives in Las Vegas. The all-time hits leader was banned from the sport for life after it was found he bet on baseball.
The A’s, though, are being welcomed to Southern Nevada with open arms. The state legislature approved $380 million in public funds to build a new stadium, proposed to be on 9 acres of the 31 acres where the Tropicana Hotel now stands.
The NBA, long thought to be the frontrunner to establish a team in Vegas, is the lone holdout, but that appears to be changing.
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke said his company is readying to build a hotel, gaming, and NBA district that would include an arena for a potential NBA team.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said Vegas is a strong candidate for a team when the league decides to expand.
In February, the city will host Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium, something Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher said is a perfect fit.
“What the energy is like, you’ll get here and say it is just because it’s the Super Bowl,” Cowher said recently. “But I would say being here multiple times it’s like this all year long and now you are getting exposed to it. I’m glad the NFL is bringing the biggest game of the year here. It belongs here.”
The growth is something that Kornegay, who has lived in Las Vegas for 35 years, says is still a bit surreal.
“Look at us now,” he says. “We have three of the four major sports here, the Super Bowl coming next year and an F1 race. If you told me that was going to happen 10 years ago I would have thought you were crazy.”