Las Vegas Is Vying to Become the Sports Capital of the World

From football to F1, Nevada continues to build up its prime-time roster—but will sports fans roll the dice on the city’s latest tourism push?

Sports teams in Las Vegas
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Getty Images
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Getty Images
With a year of unparalleled activity and worldwide attention ahead, Las Vegas is in the midst of a major transformation. This week, all bets are off as we head to the desert to explore this exciting moment and what it means for the future of Sin City. Read more here.

The Bellagio Fountain Club was one of the most luxurious places to be during last November’s inaugural Grand Prix. Set three stories above the most famous fountain in Vegas, it was a space to indulge, with $135 cocktails served in leather racing shoes, a stage featuring Cirque du Soleil performances, and pop-up restaurants manned by celebrity chefs. Those willing to shell out a cool $11,000 for entry had an exhilarating view of the course and the roaring Formula 1 cars that raced through it. From a perch like that, it’s easy to see why champion racer Max Verstappen, who went on to win the event, said during a press conference that the Formula 1 event felt like “99% show and 1% sporting event.”

Las Vegas’s turn as the center of international motorsports that weekend—which saw 300,000-plus attendees and more than $1 billion in economic impact—represented the most recent peak in the city’s ascent as a sports capital. But for the fans who felt burned by the high costs, or the residents and local businesses hindered by construction and traffic for months, the transformation of one of the world’s busiest entertainment districts into a racetrack wasn’t exactly a success story. Still, Formula 1 signed a deal to run the race in Vegas for a decade.

The city has again proved itself an undisputed champion when it comes to the business of sports. With a steady supply of tourists and fans ready to spend big, Vegas offers a strategy that teams across professional sports are primed to capitalize on: sports as an experience, less tied to a local fan base and instead focused on the idea of the game as entertainment. In Vegas, a city that offers endless spectacle and excess, it’s become associated with an entire entertainment district.

“Vegas is the only city in the world that has a chance to treat a stadium of 65,000 people like they’re all actually VIPs,” said Steve Hill, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) and chair of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority. “You’ve got up to 333,000 tourists in Vegas every day who are looking for something to do. You don’t really need locals to fill up the venue.”

Golden Knights hockey team in Las Vegas
Golden Knights | Getty Images

Beginning in 2017, when the Golden Knights hockey team kick-started a frenzy of expansion and relocation, the movement of sports teams and events to Vegas achieved an unprecedented speed, volume, and cost.

In 2003, the NFL rejected a Vegas tourism ad from appearing during the Super Bowl because of concerns about gambling. Today, the storied Raiders attribute much of its financial success to its move from Oakland to Vegas in 2020. And the league itself will descend en masse on Sin City for Super Bowl LVIII in February. Not to mention, the Oakland A’s franchise is so determined to relocate and build a baseball stadium on the site of the old Tropicana casino that the team may shuttle between temporary homes until 2028, when its Vegas facility will be finished.

Vegas also won the rights to host the Men’s Final Four basketball tournament in 2028 and was the backdrop for the NBA’s successful in-season tournament last year. And that’s just scratching the surface: LeBron and Shaq have teased bringing a pro basketball team to town, which was followed by a proposal for making the new stadium the centerpiece of a $10 billion development; the NHL draft and a UFC fight are scheduled to take place inside the high-tech Sphere arena later this year; and a co-owner of the firm behind a Vegas-to-LA high-speed rail line intends to introduce the Las Vegas Villains as the next MLS expansion team.

“We’ve created a platform for events and sports and leagues that is unmatched,” Hill told Thrillist. “It allows people with great ideas to come here and make them real. We just want to keep making Vegas the greatest place for them to invest in.”

All of these teams are making the same bet, which is that in Vegas, the house always wins. Game-day revenues and luxury suites can juice franchise revenues considerably, especially in the NFL, where television revenue is shared across the league. “Venue revenue is the one area where an NFL owner can distinguish himself and can claim his money,” said Michael Leeds, a sports economics professor at Temple University. “That’s what’s driving the move.”

But this luxury- and entertainment-focused game-day experience doesn’t necessarily benefit longtime fans. When the Raiders moved to Vegas and into the newly built Allegiant Stadium, the relationship between the team and its die-hard Raider Nation fans, most of whom lived in California, was damaged. Not only was it more costly to attend a game, but it didn’t feel like home, since so many opposing fans and tourists filled the seats (it’s a dynamic that hurt the growth of new fans in Vegas, as well). Games at Allegiant are half filled with opposing fans—the Baltimore Ravens chartered two jets for fans and booster club members when the team played in Vegas—and local oddsmakers literally don’t give the Raiders any home field advantage.

Fans of the Las Vegas Raiders
Fans of the Las Vegas Raiders | Getty Images

And yet, the Raiders are now one of the most valuable NFL franchises: Allegiant Stadium is one of the five highest-revenue stadiums in the world, and in 2022 alone, it generated $182.5 million from additional non-sporting events—the highest of any other pro football venue.

Going all in on game day has become a tried-and-true strategy for other profitable sports teams. “The Dallas Cowboys are worth more than the New York Yankees, even though the Yankees have roughly five times more attendance,” said Leeds. “It’s because they have more luxury boxes than any other franchise. Revenue is off the charts.” Pro sports franchises in general seem to be moving away from the value of the local market, Leeds concluded, and are focusing more on overall revenue.

Vegas’s entertainment machine also feels custom built to attract teams. The lavish funds the region has doled out to prospective teams, like the record-setting $750 million of public funding spent on Allegiant Stadium, comes in part from the hotel and entertainment tax revenue that the LVCVA collects.

University of Nevada Las Vegas professor Nancy Lough, who specializes in sports management, called it a “fist-in-glove” relationship. “There’s nobody better than bringing people into town than the LVCVA, but they also have more resources,” she said. Resorts and hotels count on entertainment and sports events to fill their rooms, and these bookings generate tax revenue the LVCVA can then spend on incentivizing teams and events to move to Vegas, which in turn generates more visitors, hotel stays, and tax revenue. The Raiders, for example, found that Allegiant Stadium brought 1.5 million incremental visitors to Vegas in 2023, 88% of whom said their main reason for coming was an event at the stadium.

Vegas boasts roughly 150,000 hotel rooms, or about as many rooms as there are seats in the city’s existing arenas. And this flywheel of tourism and sports has helped Vegas perfect a system of incentives that other cities have attempted to imitate. There’s a reason so many major and successful pro franchises, from the LA Rams to the Chicago Cubs to the Dallas Cowboys, have invested in developing major entertainment districts around their stadiums. Leeds sees Vegas’s sports frenzy as a bet on long-term economic growth, a gamble that for many other cities rarely, if ever, pays out. “An analogy I like to make to my students is that after you jump off a 30-story building, for the first 29 stories, you think you’re flying,” he said.

Even with so many out-of-town franchises looking to cash in on Vegas, the city has seen two of the most successful launches of pro sports teams in recent memory, both of which bet big on their hometowns, developing rabid, loyal fan bases in the process. The Las Vegas Knights—which in the early weeks of its Cinderella first season had the same challenges the Raiders had in establishing space for locals amid road-tripping opposing fans—leaned into its “Vegas Born” tagline and the Knight’s Vow, a ticket-selling gimmick that made locals promise not to resell playoff tickets. The Aces, the city’s championship WNBA team, zeroed in on grassroots outreach when it came to town in 2018, striking numerous partnerships with after-school clubs and YMCAs, setting up sponsorships with local businesses, and investing in high-caliber facilities.

But for many franchise owners, the Raiders showed the way as well. Transforming games into an entertainment-focused experience isn’t necessarily new. But in Vegas, that idea is being taken to its logical conclusion. “You can gamble anywhere, you can drink anywhere, you can get whatever you want anywhere—that’s not what Vegas is anymore,” Lough said. “What’s old gets demolished and replaced with something new.”

It may be certainly exciting, but it’s not always clear that in the relentless pursuit of Vegas-like spectacle that every fan walks away feeling like a winner. Because with every new sports attraction that’s built, there are loyal fandoms left behind.

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