What happened in Vegas: How a forbidden city became a pro sports hotbed

For the first time since the early days of the pandemic, no cars were rolling through Las Vegas Blvd. But the scene was much different this April than it was on those quiet days two years prior.

In place of empty streets, thousands of jersey-clad fans and workers filled the Strip, hitting the Bellagio and Caesars Palace. The 2022 NFL Draft was an announcement that Vegas was back, and it also served as proof that the city could handle a large-scale event for America’s biggest sports league.

“I talked to Roger Goodell three or four times since the draft, and he was just astounded at how well it came off,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a sitdown interview with The Athletic in May. “He goes, ‘It was better than perfect.’”

Once all but taboo in the world of sports, Sin City is now the home of the Golden Knights, Aces and Raiders, one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises. Vegas will host the Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium in 2024, an idea that once seemed nearly impossible for a city that was a pro sports backwater not that long ago.

“I moved here in 1985 and, honestly, I never thought that there would be any pro sports here in Las Vegas,” said Jeff Stoneback, director of sportsbook trading operations for MGM Resorts International.

But through decades of business deals, bureaucracy and changes in public perception, Vegas has transformed from a barren wasteland into a sprawling metropolis in the world of sports. And it’s not done growing just yet.

In 1984, then-Utah Jazz owner Sam Battistone considered relocating the team to Las Vegas, so he planned a split home schedule with a handful of games at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

There was a catch. The NBA wanted the sportsbooks to take Jazz games off the board when they were in town. The sportsbooks pushed back. Once it became clear the NBA wouldn’t come otherwise, they relented.

“The sports betting community got together and universally said, ‘OK, we’ll do this as a favor. We don’t like it. We don’t think it’s right. But, to get the Jazz here, we’ll take the games off the board,’” said 8NewsNow anchor Ron Futrell, who has covered sports in the city since 1984.

“But I also got the impression that it was, Never again, too, by the sports betting community: No, we’re not going to acquiesce. And, of course, they never did again.”

Outside of hosting Game 4 of the Lakers and Blazers’ first-round series following the 1992 L.A. riots, the NBA lacked a significant presence in Vegas until the inaugural NBA Summer League in 2004. Former mayor Oscar Goodman pushed to get the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Vegas, but the weekend went poorly, with over 400 people arrested. The Summer League remained, but it was clear that would be it.

The NBA’s posture illustrated a broader trend: Major pro sports leagues would flirt with Vegas, but they weren’t willing to commit.

Still, the flirtations were instrumental to the eventual breakthrough. In 1997, the NHL launched an annual preseason contest dubbed “Frozen Fury” between the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The event regularly sold out and brought an influx of tourists to the city — along with significant sponsorship dollars — and ultimately evolved into a week-long affair.

“And all of the sudden we were kind of looking around going, ‘My God, the number of people that want to come in from Southern California and spend a three or four-day weekend to go to a preseason hockey game,’” said Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, who helped run Frozen Fury as president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). “What does that tell you about Vegas?

“This isn’t about the two or three million people that live there: It’s about the 50 million people that come there.”

It wasn’t exactly a novel idea. Late Las Vegas Sands founder Sheldon Adelson and current CEO Rob Goldstein, for example, raked in money by building convention and exhibition spaces. Combined with the city’s existing hotel rooms and seemingly endless entertainment options, it made Vegas the go-to place for such events. Through the tourism that followed, conventions would dominate the city.

Major players in the sports business world began to come around on Las Vegas as a legitimate market. And they became more optimistic about the ability to construct state-of-the-art facilities.

In 2007, Leiweke and AEG entered a partnership with Harrah’s Entertainment to build a 20,000-seat arena, with plans to break ground in 2008. That deal never came to fruition thanks in large part to bureaucratic gridlock, but in 2012 AEG formed a new partnership with MGM Resorts International, which had come up with a project that would rely solely on private funding for the $375 million in estimated construction costs. The partnership announced the plan in 2013 and in 2014 began construction on what would ultimately be dubbed T-Mobile Arena, built to meet both NHL and NBA specifications.

“There was always a lot of momentum and chatter there. I think the fact that we, along with our partners at AEG, made the leap to go ahead and build a state-of-the-art venue helped,” said Dan Quinn, VP of entertainment for MGM Resorts International and general manager of T-Mobile Arena. “Had another team wanted to either relocate here or talk about adding an expansion team here, the natural question would’ve been, ‘Well, where are they gonna play?’”

The arena solved that problem. Both AEG and MGM Resorts were confident that it would be profitable off of concerts, boxing matches, UFC events and conventions alone, but, as Leiweke pointed out, when it came to sports franchises, the venue was built on the concept of, “If you build it, they will come.”

Now, Vegas just needed one to bite.

The NHL had already been nibbling. With a two-decade-long presence in Vegas thanks to Frozen Fury, the league had conversations with businessmen Bill Foley and George Maloof about leading a potential ownership group for an expansion team after construction began. Still, longtime NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was skeptical.

“He couldn’t believe that we’d be able to sell that many tickets in the desert for hockey,” said Sisolak.

The NHL gave Foley the green light to hold a season ticket drive in December 2014 with a goal of 10,000 deposits. That mark was hit by April 2015, quelling Bettman’s doubts. In June 2016, two months after T-Mobile Arena opened, Foley’s bid was approved by a unanimous vote of NHL owners.

Major professional sports was in Vegas for the first time — but an even more massive shift was underway.

In July 2015, then-Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval created a committee to explore what it would take to construct a 65,000-seat stadium, big enough to lure a potential NFL franchise. The same month T-Mobile Arena opened, the Raiders sat down with Las Vegas representatives at one of the committee meetings to discuss their possible relocation from Oakland.

The biggest question was how the stadium would be funded. Raiders owner Mark Davis said he would contribute $500 million toward the projected $1.84 billion cost, and Adelson — who at the time of his death in January 2021 had a net worth of around $40 billion — was on board to make a $650 million contribution of his own, but the project would still need significant public money. In September 2016, the committee approved a plan with $750 million funded by a hotel room tax increase.

“The big thing to get the community involved was the jobs,” said Sisolak, who worked in the Clark County Commission at the time. “We were coming out of a tough time — jobs were in short supply — and this was a lot of both construction and permanent jobs.”

Opponents argued that the money raised through the room tax increase would be better off used on public and social needs, according to LVSportzBiz founder Alan Snel, who covered the debate.

“This whole streak of stadium and arena construction (happened) against the backdrop of a market that literally is at the bottom of the country in terms of primary care doctors per capita, surgeons per capita, health and medical resources and … education and teachers,” Snel said. “Las Vegas for so many years held back from subsidizing and backing sports with public money, and now it’s completely both feet in the pool.”

After passing through the committee, the plan needed to make it through the Nevada Legislature. It did, but not without controversy — one Republican lawmaker called the proceedings a “disgrace” and “​​stacked deck” after the bill was voted on in the 42-seat state Assembly without first being debated.

Three months later, the Raiders officially filed relocation paperwork with the NFL.

“The NFL was the 900-pound gorilla,” Snel said. “And it definitely made Las Vegas big-time overnight.”

The city was still reeling in response to the deadliest mass shooting in American history when the Golden Knights began their inaugural season. On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman had opened fire on a crowd of people at a music festival from a room at the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more.

Nine days later, after honoring victims and first responders, the Golden Knights took to the ice at T-Mobile Arena amid banners featuring the hashtag #VegasStrong.

“The community just latched on to them,” Sisolak said. “They were very active in the community. They were out in the schools and working with all the civic organizations. They really had a big presence here.”

One week later, the NBA and WNBA approved the sale of the San Antonio Stars to MGM Resorts, which relocated the team to Vegas and renamed it the Aces. In just 16 months, three major sports franchises had elected to make the city their new home.

And as it became clear that the Golden Knights were pretty damn good — they went 51-24-7 on their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance — Vegas took to sports in a way it hadn’t since the days of the high-flying UNLV men’s basketball teams under Jerry Tarkanian.

“There was tremendous pride here when the Runnin’ Rebels won the national championship. This town was lit up. It was electric. You could feel it,” Futrell, the 8NewsNow anchor, said. “I don’t feel like it came back until the first season of the Vegas Golden Knights.”

The official capacity for hockey games at T-Mobile Arena is 17,500, but the average attendance for the first season was 18,042. The city had grown something organically and latched onto it as theirs.

“I think it had a profound influence on everyday residents, literally buying into their first sports team franchise,” Snel said. The Golden Knights, “were wildly successful.”

The Golden Knights were an immediate success, going 51-24-7 on their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in their first season. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

As recently as 2016, the NFL, NBA and MLB had come together to oppose challenges to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PAPSA), which outlawed sports betting nationwide excluding a few states. They were worried about the integrity of the game, but the counter from Nevada was that its gaming industry was as well regulated as anywhere else. The Raiders referenced a 2015 study by UNLV international gaming institute executive director Bo Bernhard in their relocation proposal to the NFL.

“Because the regulation of the gambling is so strict and so severe here, it’s one of the safest places to do it,” former Raiders president Marc Badain said. “It was compelling to us, and it was compelling to folks in the NFL. I think that played a big part in changing some people’s archaic beliefs and what was the tie between sports wagering and the sports teams themselves.”

The NFL agreed and, on March 27, 2017, approved the Raiders’ relocation bid. With the league on board, Vegas had officially been stamped as a major sports market. “It’s the entertainment capital of the world,” Badain said. “And it’s becoming the sports and entertainment capital of the world.”

With the Aces playing their inaugural season and the Golden Knights going into Year 2, as well as the expansion USL Championship’s Lights FC, the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators, UFC and boxing, the city continued to make strides as a sports destination in 2018. But the most significant development that year came when the U.S. Supreme Court voted to strike down PAPSA that May, which opened the door for legalizing gambling nationally.

The same sports leagues that were so strongly opposed to the proliferation of gambling a couple of years prior began to explore ways to profit from it.

“When (PAPSA) got repealed, everybody wanted to cash in on it,” said Stoneback, the director of sportsbook trading operations for MGM Resorts International. Through fantasy leagues and sponsorship deals with sportsbooks, leagues and teams became directly involved in the industry. And with the influx of media coverage, more people started to participate.

“It’s become much more mainstream,” Stoneback said. “I remember when PAPSA got repealed, people were like, ‘Boy, that’s gonna hurt you guys in Nevada,’ but it’s only increased our wagering.”

That increase gave the local economy another lift that carried through 2019, but growth came to a halt in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire world to a halt. The NFL had planned for Vegas to host the draft that April ahead of the Raiders’ first season in the city but was forced to postpone. And while the NFL season would be played, Mark Davis opted against allowing fans to attend games at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders’ introduction to Vegas was put on hold.

The Raiders were able to survive losing a season’s worth of ticket sales, but many others in an economy driven by tourism and hospitality weren’t so lucky. By April 2020, the city’s unemployment rate had spiked to 30 percent. And while that number came down, there was still a concerning trend: From November 2019 to November 2020, unemployment in Vegas jumped from 3.6 percent to 11.5 percent. Entering 2021, the city needed a bounce back in a major way.

The recovery was gradual. In March, the Golden Knights became the first local sports team to let spectators back into the arena; they were at full capacity by June. The Aces allowed fans back in May, and that August the NFL officially made its debut in front of fans when the Raiders held a scrimmage at Allegiant Stadium in front of about 20,000 people. The vision for the evolution of Vegas into a sports hub was finally coming together.

Across nine home games that season, the Raiders’ average attendance of 61,185 ranked just 26th in the league, but they brought in a league-leading $119 million in net ticket revenue, according to Sportico. That money didn’t directly funnel into the Vegas economy, but it still had an impact through tourist spending and stadium employment.

“It made a difference in the recovery of the city from the pandemic,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO/president Steve Hill said. “The stadium has performed about twice as well as we would’ve expected from a tourism and economic standpoint. … It is just going to continue to grow this market.”

During the Raiders’ first season, the NFL announced that Vegas would host the Pro Bowl the following February, the NFL Draft months after that and the Super Bowl in 2024, which will make it the first city to host all three events. The league bestowing its approval has seemingly opened up the door for other high-profile suitors, such as Formula 1, which will come to Vegas in 2023 for the first time since the 1980s.

But the NFL’s introduction to Vegas wasn’t all positivity. Head coach Jon Gruden was forced to resign in October after his racist, misogynistic, and homophobic emails were uncovered during the league’s workplace misconduct investigation into the now-Washington Commanders. And a string of issues raised concerns about the potential dangers of having a franchise in Sin City.

On Nov. 2, 2021, second-year receiver Henry Ruggs III, the 12th pick in the 2020 draft, was involved in a car crash that killed 23-year-old Tina Tintor and her dog. Las Vegas police later revealed that Ruggs was driving at excessive speeds on a residential road — 120 miles per hour at the time of the crash — and that his blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit hours after the crash. Ruggs was released by the Raiders and charged with multiple felonies including DUI resulting in death. He is currently awaiting trial.

Less than a week later, the team released cornerback Damon Arnette after a video of him brandishing weapons and making threats to an unidentified individual emerged on social media. Just over two months later, Arnette was arrested in Vegas on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and drug possession.

The consecutive nature of the events led to some hypothesizing about whether living in Vegas made it more likely for athletes to get into trouble and, as the Ruggs case showed, potentially harm civilians living in the community.

The data is a mixed bag. Vegas has a higher crime rate than most cities in the United States, but it lines up pretty similarly compared to other major cities. And while it may not pose greater dangers than cities such as Los Angeles, New York or Miami, Vegas still stands out from the pack in certain areas. For example, BuyAutoInsurance.com ranked it as the most dangerous city in the country for drunk driving, with an average of 4,311 DUI arrests per year.

“I think there’s a public perception with that, but there’s obviously been some problems with some of the young players,” Sisolak said. “And I think sometimes what we fail to realize, especially people my age, is these are kids …

“Yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities, but every town has opportunities. I think it’s dependent on the coaching and the management to make sure that they make them aware of what those pitfalls could possibly be.”

Badain worked within the Raiders organization for over 30 years before abruptly resigning last year. (Mark Davis revealed a few months later that Badain’s and former Raiders CFO Ed Villanueva’s exits were forced due to “accounting irregularities” that started back when the team was in Oakland.)

While he still worked for the Raiders, Badain met Leiweke in the early 2000s, and they reconnected through the Adelson family, who hired Leiweke as an advisor when the Raiders began to discuss collaborating on a relocation to Vegas. The Adelsons ultimately backed out, but Badain and Leiweke stayed in touch. Toward the end of 2021, Leiweke posed a question.

“What if we built the best arena in the business?”

Leiweke had been mulling over the idea for years. He’d seen T-Mobile bring the NHL to Vegas, and now he wanted to do the same thing with the NBA. The home of the Golden Knights was built for NBA specifications, but Leiweke and Oak View Group (OVG) didn’t want to take a chance that a prospective franchise might not want to share T-Mobile. In their minds, bringing the NBA to the city would require yet another arena. 

“There’s a lot of people that I know of that want to buy an NBA franchise if one becomes available in Las Vegas,” Leiweke said. “We have one or two groups we may be working with, and I’m convinced there will be people that will step up if the NBA decides to expand and chase a franchise. But what they need is the certainty of an arena. You can’t have a question mark.”

In partnership with Badain and led by Leiweke, OVG announced last March that it planned to erase that question mark with plans to build a $3 billion sports and entertainment center — including a $1 billion, 20,000-seat arena — near The Strip. The complex, which will break ground in 2023 and is set to be completed in 2026, will also include an amphitheater, hotel and casino.

Like Leiweke’s first arena project in the city — and other projects of his throughout the country — the new arena is being constructed before landing a commitment from a franchise. It seems risky, but those behind the project similarly believe the complex can sustain itself through live entertainment and events. They know they can’t assume the NBA will come.

“There are no guarantees the NBA is coming, and that’s been made very clear,” Leiweke said. “So, what you gotta do is go build (the arena) and make it work on everything else. My guess is they’ll get more interested and fascinated by Vegas if there is a world-class, billion-dollar arena.”

The hope is that the arena will at very least house the Summer League, preseason games and NCAA basketball games and tournaments. The MGM Sphere at The Venetian, a 17,500-seat auditorium scheduled to open in 2023, will be competition for music and entertainment events, so Oak View views it as instrumental for their arena to have some sort of sports element.

“The goal, and Tim has done it before, is to build a venue that’s ready for these tenants, to program it with strategic partners that he’s already done business with in the past, and to build the next arena for Las Vegas,” Badain said. “It’s time.”

Leiweke has taken a similar approach in other cities. He helped build the Sprint Center in Kansas City in 2007 with hopes of landing an NBA or NHL franchise, though none came. But OVG’s $1.15 billion redevelopment of Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena — formerly KeyArena — is already home to the NHL’s Kraken and is the most logical landing spot if an NBA franchise were to return to the city.

“The day (the NBA) makes a decision, they can turn around and start playing up there tomorrow,” Leiweke said. “It’s wise for us to do that in Vegas as well. It does not mean we’re gonna get one, but it does put us in a better position in case they decide to expand.”

Late NBA commissioner David Stern made annual visits to Vegas for Summer League, and current commissioner Adam Silver has followed suit. Sisolak, who assumed office as Nevada governor in 2019, has been having conversations with NBA leadership over the last decade. He can’t be certain, but he’s optimistic about the league coming to the city.

“I talked to Roger Goodell three or four times since the draft, and he was just astounded at how well it came off,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. (Jeff Speer / Getty Images)

A much more immediate development is the potential relocation of MLB’s Oakland A’s, whose lease at the Oakland Coliseum is set to expire following the 2024 season. The club has threatened to relocate if Oakland doesn’t approve plans to build a new stadium.

The Aviators have been their Triple-A affiliate since 2019, and Sisolak has been in active conversations with A’s owner John Fisher. The club has explored parcels of land in Vegas and could theoretically play at the Aviators’ Las Vegas Ballpark while a new stadium was being built.

“I think they gotta pull the trigger and say, ‘Look, we’re gonna move or not move,’” Sisolak said. “The town is ready for them.”

The tricky part? Like their former Oakland neighbors, the A’s would be aiming for a public contribution toward building a new stadium. Considering the city just committed $750 million to do the same for the Raiders, it could be difficult to get that legislation to pass.

“I know everyone is kind of gung-ho about the baseball and the Oakland Athletics; I’m not really drinking the Kool-Aid until there’s like a public-funding source for a baseball park,” Snel, the LVSportzBiz founder, said. “If there is a sizable public subsidy for a baseball park, then I think the Oakland Athletics would have a crack at the Las Vegas market.”

Major League Soccer is another league in the mix. It’s aiming to add a 30th team through expansion and commissioner Don Garber called Vegas the “frontrunner” to land that prospective franchise last December. And while an independent soccer stadium would need to be constructed — Cashman Field, home to Lights FC, won’t cut it — the MLS has held multiple matches at Allegiant Stadium the last couple of years.

It seems clear it’s a matter of when, not if, more leagues are coming to Vegas. The city has arrived as a national — and international — sports hub. The only question that remains is how big it can get.

“These are the early years,” Leiweke said. “I don’t think we’re at the end of this cycle; I think we’re at the beginning.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Ethan Miller, Christian Petersen, Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

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