How Las Vegas, Once a Sports Desert, Became a Super Bowl-Hosting Sports Capital

Before the 2017 NHL season and the debut of the Golden Knights, Las Vegas had no professional sports franchises — in fact, the idea of allowing teams to play in a city where sports betting was legal seemed dicey at best.

This year, the Knights and the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces both won championships. The Raiders are playing their fourth NFL season in Vegas after moving from Oakland, and in February, their home field, Allegiant Stadium, will host the Super Bowl. And this fall, the Strip will become a Formula 1 track for the biggest North American Grand Prix race to date.

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Once a sports desert, Vegas has rebranded itself as a global sports capital, and the person who may be most responsible is Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“Vegas is a place that has always been attractive to those who want to take risks,” he says, referring to decisions like closing down the Strip for three nights for the Grand Prix. (This is also the first time Liberty Media, who owns Formula 1, has actually put on the race instead of hiring a promoter, and built a permanent Paddock Building, which will serve as its headquarters.)

“Now, what you don’t want to do is take on these risks and have a mediocre track record,” Hill says.

Opened in 2020, Allegiant Stadium — which cost $1.9 billion to build, the second most expensive arena in the world — was one such risk that paid off, allowing Vegas to prove it can sell out 62,500-person events on a regular basis. “If [Raiders owner] Mark Davis hadn’t agreed to move the team to Las Vegas and invest in the stadium, we wouldn’t have Formula 1,” says Hill. “It brought the spotlight to Las Vegas, and people realized that we had grown up as a city.” 

The potential for match-fixing was taken so seriously that it took the city 16 years to woo a pro team, even after the State Gaming Commission lifted the ban on gambling on Nevada college sports in 2001.

Allegiant Stadium, the Raiders’ home field, will host Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11.

Allegiant Stadium, the Raiders’ home field, will host Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11. Courtesy of Las Vegas Raiders

For this season, 50 percent of single game tickets and secondary market purchases for Raiders games have come from outside of the state, including 25 percent from California. “The fact that so many tourists come to Las Vegas for these events or for the venues or for the excitement brings money in from out of state, and it grows the economy,” Hill says.

Raiders president Sandra Douglass Morgan, a Vegas native, former chairwoman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and a member of the Nevada Athletic Commission, says the fans arrive from feeder markets, driven by resort and travel packages and the spectacle they get from a Vegas game.

“When people come to a game, they want that overall experience that they can’t even really get at any other NFL stadium,” she says. Raiders games have become known for their halftime shows with such artists as Ice Cube, The Killers, Nelly and John Fogerty.

“We are also experimenting with new technology to change the fan experience, like getting people their food and beverage and back in their seats faster,” Douglass Morgan says. “We also have new club suites that are much lower to the field. Our stadium has to stay fresh and innovative.”

According to Applied Analysis, the economic impact of the F1 race is estimated to be nearly $1.3 billion, with organizers expecting about 105,000 attendees each day of the three-day event. The Super Bowl should dwarf both figures during the party-filled week of the NFL title game, and there are more than 1,600 private jet landings projected. Hill says Vegas will forever change the way the Super Bowl is done because of the amenities and the 150,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of Allegiant Stadium.

Jamie Foxx in an ad for BETMGM. Building a sports empire in a city with legal gambling was a fraught proposition.

Jamie Foxx in an ad for BETMGM. Building a sports empire in a city with legal gambling was a fraught proposition. Courtesy of BetMGM

With its reputation for excess, the city will be under pressure to deliver an extravagant event, particularly when it comes to the half-time show, which will be overseen by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation — as it has been for the past three years. “With the city’s incredible energy and atmosphere, we know Vegas will provide a phenomenal stage for the culmination of the 104th NFL season,” says NFL executive vp club business Peter O’Reilly.

Having professional teams also changed the way people bet on sports in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

BetMGM, which handles all of MGM’s U.S. land-based and online sports betting, tournament poker and online gaming businesses in 26 markets, made history in February operating the first sportsbook on the campus of a stadium hosting the Super Bowl at Glendale, Arizona’s State Farm.

A new ad campaign with Jamie Foxx, who has been a BetMGM spokesperson for four years, recently debuted, showing the actor and singer making his way to a race car waiting for him at Aria’s valet as a nod to November’s race along the Las Vegas Strip. Fellow BetMGM ambassador Wayne Gretzky makes a cameo prior to Foxx driving off into the night.

Leading into Super Bowl, BetMGM’s Chief Revenue Officer Matt Prevost is anticipating the “biggest retail betting experience ever” and while “Formula 1 is more of a spectator sport than a betting sport, it’s an opportunity for BetMGM to bring some of our best customers to Las Vegas.”

Casino owner Derek Stevens took a big gamble when he opened Downtown Las Vegas’ Circa Hotel & Casino in 2020. Not only does it have the world’s largest sportsbook, but it also features a year-round pool “aqua-theater” where guests watch games from their rooms, a cabana or the water. Stevens’ financial advisors told him not to mention plans for Stadium Swim when they were raising funding for Circa because the idea seemed “too crazy.” While Vegas has been known as a place for sports betting, the big dollars associated with the live-viewing component were largely unrecognized.

“We were counseled to not even bring it up because no one would really understand or even want to hear about it,” he says. “[Traditionally], a pool is an amenity to a hotel room,” he says. “However, we looked at it differently. Our hotel rooms are the amenity to Stadium Swim.”

The independent-casino owner banked on selling a live viewing experience that people could only get in Vegas. Games are one of the only things that people still have to — and want to — watch live in a world dominated by on-demand content. “No one ever says, ‘I’m going to record the Super Bowl and watch it on Tuesday,’” he laughs.

Stadium Swim has been consistently sold out since opening and its popularity drives business to his online sports-betting platform Circa Sports, which launched in Nevada in 2018. It allows bettors to wager anywhere in Nevada, Colorado and Iowa — Illinois and Kentucky are next up.

“I felt having a substantial brick-and-mortar book was important, because it lets customers know there’s some physical assets behind a sportsbook brand,” he says. In its sixth year of regulated operations outside of Nevada, sports betting has generated more than $20 billion of revenue from almost $250 billion in total wagers.

Now Stevens revels in the fact that the city and his sportsbook will swell on Sundays with football fans, whether or not they are going to Allegiant to see the game.

“Whatever team you’re a fan of, whenever they play on the road in Las Vegas it has a bigger economic impact than it would be in other cities — additional flights are even scheduled by airlines,” Stevens says.

Super Bowl and F1 exponentially increase that impact over a much longer period of time.

“For those events, you can’t look at a single weekend — you have to evaluate over the course of the next decade,” he says.

Vegas’ sports shopping spree is far from over. In June, state lawmakers approved a $380 million financial package that could bring the Oakland A’s to town with a $1.5 billion, 30,000-seat retractable-roof ballpark where the Tropicana now resides. Playing in the smallest MLB stadium would allow management to capitalize on “premium experiences” in line with what Las Vegas audiences want. Bally’s Corporation, who owns the land, says they would build a new resort to accompany it.

Irving Azoff and Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group is raising the stakes even higher with a proposed $10 billion sustainable sports complex, 20,000-person arena and 2,000-room resort on south Las Vegas Boulevard in a bid to attract an NBA team. It would be the most expensive development ever built in Vegas. 

Mesfin Fekadu contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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