Sin City to Sports Heaven: Las Vegas as an Athletic Destination

The emergence of Las Vegas as a premier sports city wasn’t always a foregone conclusion, and its recent success isn’t unjustified—it’s been earned through persistence and execution. GMA Consulting Managing Director Josh Swissman helps explore how the city has cemented itself as a high-caliber sports destination.

Sin City to Sports Heaven: Las Vegas as an Athletic Destination

At a Portland Trail Blazers game in 1999, NBA agent Warren LeGarie approached Rod Thorn, the league’s executive vice president of basketball operations at the time, about the possibility of establishing a new summer league in Las Vegas.

Shortly after, Thorn contacted LeGarie with the news that then-NBA Commissioner David Stern had soundly rejected the idea—-according to Bleacher Report, Stern’s rejection of Sin City was, in fact, stern: “No summer league can be involved with a casino.”

Four years later, in early 2003, the NFL made headlines by refusing to feature an ad from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) during Super Bowl 38, despite the fact that it reportedly made no direct mention of gambling.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told CBS News that the league “decided that the commercial was not in our best interest. The NFL has a long-standing policy that prohibits the acceptance of any message that makes reference to or mention of sports betting.”

Fast-forward to July 7, 2023—UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center sold all 17,500 tickets to see the NBA summer league debut of French phenom Victor Wembenyama, his first time playing professionally in the U.S. He would go on to finish with nine points, eight rebounds and three assists in limited minutes, but fans packed the arena before noon for a 6 p.m. tip-off.

Then on Feb. 11, 2024, the NFL completed its own about-face by hosting Super Bowl 58 at Allegiant Stadium, home to the Las Vegas Raiders since 2020. When it was first approved in 2016, the stadium was granted $750 million in public funding, which at the time was the most ever allocated towards an NFL stadium project. Allegiant Airlines’ $25 million per year naming rights deal was also the largest in league history up to that point, according to Forbes.

The game was a dramatic down-to-the-wire Kansas City Chiefs victory rife with sweeping cutaways to the buzzing Las Vegas Strip. There were panoramic views of the city skyline as the sun gradually set from the late afternoon into the early evening.

“The NFL looks forward to coming back,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said the next day, per NBC Sports.

Both examples highlight a theme that has become abundantly clear in recent years, especially after the repeal of the Professional and Amatuer Sports Protection Act in 2018. Las Vegas wasn’t always a sports town, but it sure is now.

Right Place, Right Time

The evolution didn’t happen overnight, and there wasn’t as much luck involved as might typically be ascribed to Las Vegas. There were several factors that contributed to this transformation, according to Josh Swissman, founding partner and managing director of GMA Consulting.

Swissman, a Vegas native, notes that the unique hospitality infrastructure of the city is tailor-made to cater to high-level sporting events. This includes “tens of thousands of hotel rooms,” a litany of “great food and beverage experiences and shopping and nightclubs,” as well as an “extremely heterogeneous” population that attracts fans for both local and visiting teams, in addition to the steady stream of tourists.

“Las Vegas continues to execute events like the Super Bowl that just happened, like the (Formula One) race that happened at the end of last year,” he says. “We execute as a city on a scale and at a level of quality that no other destination and no other city can rival. You swirl all of that into a big pot, and what many are now seeing and and more realize every year is that Vegas is the best place to host these big marquee sporting events on an ongoing basis.”

The success of the city in hosting these events can be seen in both individual events and full seasons.

The Aces (WNBA) and the Golden Knights (NHL), both of which won championships in 2023, finished first and second, respectively, in their leagues’ attendance rankings this past season.

Although the Raiders were far from championship contention last year and have posted an overall record of 32-35 since arriving in town, the team has still garnered average attendance rates of at least 94 percent for every season since Allegiant Stadium opened, according to data from ESPN.

On the special-event side, figures produced by Applied Analysis and published by Clark County show that November’s inaugural Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix generated a total economic impact of $884 million in visitor spending, with race goers spending 3.6 times more than the average traveler.

Tax revenue for state and local governments totaled $77 million from the race alone, and for the month overall, the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) said that the state took in $1.37 billion in gaming revenue, which was a 12 percent increase year-over-year.

The aforementioned Super Bowl drew 202.4 million viewers for all or part of the game broadcast, which was the highest unduplicated audience in U.S. television history, according to CBS and the NFL. While the economic impact figures for the game are still being tallied, the city of Las Vegas said in a post on its website that preliminary results indicate that the final numbers will eclipse the $799 million pre-game estimates.

Stepping Up to the Plate

Vegas is certainly making up for the time lost when organizers avoided it altogether. But Swissman believes that might have been a blessing in disguise because it allowed the city to expand and hone its craft. Simply put, the Vegas of the past may not have been capable of such great results even if it had the opportunity.

“I think that sort of local fan base perhaps wasn’t developed enough,” he posits. “You certainly didn’t have the hotel-room inventory that you have now. The kind of magnetism that Vegas has now, you had that back then, perhaps for different reasons though. It probably was a good thing that it took as long as it did because in the 90s, the perception of Vegas and just Vegas itself wasn’t at the place that it is now. It was very much a gambling town back then. It’s not anymore.”

The city’s hotel-room inventory was just over 76,000 in 1992 and has doubled to 153,000 by the end of 2023, according to LVCVA data. Annual visitation has increased from 20.95 million to 39 million over that same period.

The bigger the stakes get, though, the more people start to question whether it’s a good idea to keep betting on this trend. Three stakeholders that aren’t skeptical are Bally’s Corp., Gaming and Leisure Properties (GLPI) and the Oakland Athletics (A’s).

Last March, Bally’s announced it would demolish the Tropicana Las Vegas to make way for a $1.5 billion, 30,000-seat stadium for the A’s on nine of the 35 acres of a plot owned by GLPI. In exchange, Bally’s will then build a new integrated resort on the remaining acreage.

Later that summer Nevada lawmakers in a special session approved a public funding package for the project worth up to $380 million in tax credits and county bonds, which is the second-highest allocation for an MLB stadium development since 2010.

The A’s received unanimous relocation approval from MLB on Nov. 16, 2023, and the 67-year-old Tropicana closed its doors for the final time April 2. Bally’s expects to implode the property later this fall.

If all goes according to plan, the new stadium will be ready for the 2028 regular season.

Preparation and Poise

Now that the sports world has accepted Las Vegas with open arms, Swissman says that one of the keys to sensibly orchestrating the madness starts at the top, with guidance and oversight from the LVCVA. The agency “serves as a great kind of leading actor in terms of getting everyone organized” and working together, which “at a high level is quite important.”

On an individual property level, the constant stream of traffic day in and day out “breeds great leaders” with a high level of muscle memory from going through big events one after another.

“I won’t say it gets easier over time, but you get closer and closer to certainty over time,” Swissman explains. “That in and of itself is a beautiful thing when you’re hosting an event or welcoming people that come in the hundreds of thousands for a particular event.”

He points to the fact that average occupancy rates on the Strip “run in the 90s throughout the entire year,” with an extremely wide range of price points that offer fans much more flexibility than other metropolitan areas such as New York or Los Angeles.

All of these factors would suggest that Las Vegas is primed to continue its recent success and even reach new heights. The infusion of the A’s represents a unique challenge for the city, as MLB’s 81-game home schedule is the most of any U.S. league and falls during the slowest period of the annual sports calendar.

But anyone doubting the development’s potential success, Swissman argues, is off base.

“It’s kind of logical for people to say, ‘Jesus is, is this too much?’And every single time someone’s asked that question, they’ve been soundly proven wrong,” he said. “You’re literally putting the newest major league baseball stadium on the busiest piece of real estate in America. How can that fail? That’s going to be amazing.”