Hot Ice: With the NHL and NFL headed to Vegas, the desert is ablaze
The Westgate Sports SuperBook seats on a first-come, first-served basis so all of the primo real estate has been staked out well before dawn. Even the bar in the back is packed with oh-so-many hopefuls in basketball jerseys, poring over parlays and double-fisting coffee and Mountain Dew. Even at 6:15 a.m., on this Thursday, March 16, mainlining caffeine doesn’t seem excessive. After all, the first round of the NCAA tournament tips off in three hours. And aside from the Super Bowl, no event jolts the Las Vegas sports scene to life quite like March Madness.
That this particular weekend aligns with spring break and St. Patrick’s Day only adds to the spectacular influx of bros bent on draining the valley of booze. But the marriage of basketball and betting lines boosts the anticipatory buzz to straight-up . . . madness. Cruise through the casinos. Follow the glow of the hi-def projection screens and the siren’s call of woo-hoos and f--- you’s. Now throw down a 20 at the buy window. Who knew you harbored such passion about East Tennessee State–Florida?
If mid-March marks the most vibrant stretch on the Las Vegas betting calendar, there has similarly been no more exciting time to follow sports on the ground here too. Three Division I basketball conferences held postseason tournaments in Vegas this spring. In a few months, as they have each July since 2004, NBA scouts and GMs will swarm UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center for the summer league. NASCAR just announced that Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host two races on the 2018 circuit; the UFC will soon unveil its sprawling corporate campus in the suburbs. And just last week NFL owners approved the relocation of the Raiders to a proposed 65,000-seat, $1.9 billion domed stadium near McCarran International Airport. Scheduled arrival: 2020.
At least the area’s two million residents won’t have to wait until Raider Nation invades Dean Martin Drive for a team to call their own. This October the NHL’s Golden Knights, Las Vegas’s first major pro franchise, will open their inaugural season at T‑Mobile Arena. When owner Bill Foley wrote the final check on a $500 million expansion fee on March 1, general manager George McPhee received the green light to make trades and sign free agents. Five days later he landed the Golden Knights’ first (and currently only) player, a 21-year-old center from the Canadian juniors (and future pub trivia quiz answer) named Reid Duke.
For now, though, the team mostly exists in the abstract. The roster won’t be populated until the NHL expansion draft in late June and only then will fans be able to buy licensed jerseys. McPhee needs to assemble a coaching staff, which he intends to do after this season, and the annual hire-and-fire carousel begins to spin. But progress is visible in other ways. The team’s practice facility, which will increase the number of public ice sheets in Vegas from three to five, should open in time for training camp. A waiting list for season tickets recently formed after purchases capped out at around 13,000. The Golden Knights also announced a sponsorship agreement with what senior vice president Murray Craven calls “the biggest athletic team in town”—Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian-based company, of course.
Once, the thought of planting roots in Las Vegas would send sports executives into a tizzy, with fears of seedy mobsters’ fixing games. But they’ve overcome those qualms; it has helped that daily fantasy is a billion-dollar industry. Like the 42.9 million visitors to Las Vegas last year, the leagues have been lured to the desert, to an untested market. “There’s been an awakening,” says mayor Carolyn Goodman. “And this is an energized place that says, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
“And a happy St. Patrick’s Day wherever you might be,” Brent Musburger says into a -microphone, headphones over his ears, a hint of faux brogue in his voice. “What’ve we got? It’s seven o’clock in New York. Some of you are headed home. You’ve had a green beer. . . . ”
Nope. Wait. Check that. . . .
“It’s six o’clock in New York. I’ve had a couple myself!”
For the record, that makes it 3 p.m. Las Vegas time when Musburger goes live from the sports book at the South Point casino, next to a bank of Shake Your Booty slot machines. Outside his studio’s glass-paneled windows on this second day of March Madness, the crowd is transfixed by two things: the wall of television screens and their betting slips. Only one force holds enough power to break the spell—the 77-year-old Musburger, who over the next two hours attracts a steady stream of selfie-snappers.
Airing daily on SiriusXM, the gambling-centric radio show is called My Guys in the Desert, which was Musburger’s old wink-wink way of shouting out to Las Vegas pals while calling games for major networks without ticking off the execs. Working here requires no such caution. Now Musburger can explore betting trends during a recurring segment with longtime oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro called “Follow the Money.” He can watch No. 1 North Carolina pummel No. 16 Texas Southern in the NCAA tournament and safely tell the audience, “Tar Heel fans, cash your tickets!”
“I think attitudes are changing,” he says later in the studio, sitting at a repurposed blackjack table that serves as a desk, sipping from a postshow Guinness. “It’s not a dark-room undertaking.”
Or, as Vaccaro puts it, “We’re winning the war. We broke down the wall into mainstream America.”
When voters elected Goodman’s predecessor—her husband, Oscar—in 1999, one of his first acts was to fly to New York City to sell his city’s virtues to the NHL and NBA. As his memory serves, a half-hour visit with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman went cordially enough. “He was very receptive but wasn’t interested in expansion,” Oscar says.
Next up was David Stern. “A disaster,” says Oscar. “He basically said, over his dead body he’d authorize an NBA franchise coming, as long as Las Vegas had sports betting. That was nonnegotiable as far as he was concerned.” A similarly frosty response awaited Goodman from MLB in 2004, when he walked into the winter meetings with a martini glass of Bombay Sapphire and sequined showgirls on each arm, aiming to pitch owners on relocating to Vegas.
By the time Carolyn Goodman took office in 2011, the leagues’ positions were softening. “You had turnover at the top,” says Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association. “You were seeing fresh perspectives.” In November 2014, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, penned an op-ed in the New York Times calling for nationwide legal sports betting; his MLB counterpart, Rob Manfred, recently declared baseball to be “reexamining [its] stance” 98 years after the Black Sox scandal.
In 2002 the NFL nixed a Las Vegas tourism commercial from airing during the Super Bowl because, as a league rep wrote to a network executive, “an association between the NFL and gambling . . . could have a uniquely negative effect on the public’s perception of our sport, its integrity, and our athletes.” On March 27, NFL owners voted 31–1 in favor of the Raiders’ move.
“I think they’re finally coming around that betting on sports is part of the landscape,” says Marc Ratner, the former Nevada Athletic Commission director who now works for the UFC.
Why the embrace? For one thing, gambling brings eyeballs. Look outside Musburger’s studio. Every seat on the sports book floor—and there are more than 100 of them—is filled; the nearby bar lounge is at capacity, and some 1,000 more are squeezed into two ballrooms upstairs. The lines to make wagers ebb and flow in length and steadily replenish. This year, according to AGA estimates, legal NCAA tournament wagers in Nevada might hit $300 million for the first time—and that represents only 3% of the estimated $10.4 billion in play, when you count offshore sites and illegal bookies. On Super Bowl Sunday, almost $5 billion moved worldwide as the Patriots beat the Falcons.
“[The leagues] ought to get their heads out of the sand,” Musburger says. “They would not be as big as they are without gambling on the outcome of their games.”
Technology has helped, too. Where concerned execs used to cast betting as a threat to the integrity of competition, more seem to be coming around to the gaming community’s longtime stance: Better to actively police corruption than pretend it doesn’t exist. The NFL, NHL and NBA, for instance, all recently partnered with a European company called Sportradar that flags potential match fixing.
“If you ask Las Vegas, they think sports gaming exists every-where, but it exists under the table and unregulated in most jurisdictions,” says NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “They believe Las Vegas is the safest place to maintain the integrity of sporting competition.”
Still, the Golden Knights will skate a fine line. Whether their games will be kept off the local sports books has yet to be announced; the team and league have until 30 days before the season opener to inform Nevada Gaming Control of a decision. MGM may co-own T-Mobile Arena, but no gambling references will appear on-site, and there will be no betting kiosks on the concourse. Still, that won’t stop the team from signing sponsorships with casinos that have sports books. The NHL indicated in December it would allow such arrangements; advertisements are subject to league approval, provided that sports betting isn’t explicitly referenced and that the ads don’t appear online next to game scores.
“For us it opens Vegas’s main industry to sponsorships, which had been closed,” one Golden Knights official says. “It’s a big deal.”
These are matters exclusive to the only state with fully legal sports betting. But, Freeman says, “the gambling questions have been asked and answered. . . . The issues in Las Vegas are [instead] the same issues that will be asked when you talk about moving a team to Seattle or any other market. And that’s, Can they support a team? I’m thrilled to see that’s the question being asked here.”
One day in mid-February, the Golden Knights held an open house at T-Mobile Arena that lasted 24 hours. Management expected up to 2,000 locals would come check out season-ticket packages, schmooze with staffers, play some floor hockey on the covered rink. The final count topped 9,000.
By operating around the clock, the team was nodding to the casino industry’s endless cycle; a blackjack dealer getting off work at 4 a.m. could simply wander across the plaza and through the turnstiles. It was a savvy business move. If the Golden Knights are to succeed in fostering a major league fan base where one has never existed, they’ll need to woo the permanent Vegas population as much as the visitors.
Locals sound ready. “I think we have a couple of whole generations that have been waiting for their own team,” says Clark County commission chair Steve Sisolak, who oversees the area south of Sahara Avenue known as the Strip.
The city has given birth to its share of national sports figures: Andre Agassi; NASCAR brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch; and its lone NHL representative, forward Jason Zucker of the Wild. One of the most prominently displayed pictures in Mayor Goodman’s city hall office shows her between the past two National League MVPs. “Of course you know that Bryce Harper is ours,” she says, motioning with pride. “And Kris Bryant.”
But Harper and Bryant are exports. What about the natives who stick around? Recently Gabe Gauthier, hockey director at Las Vegas Ice Center, has started to see kids ditch Ducks and Coyotes gear in favor of wearing Golden Knights black and gold. “It’s created an identity that people are looking for,” says Gauthier, who played eight games for the Kings in the 2000s. “The only missing link is, Which player am I going to emulate? Who am I going to look up to?”
At the Golden Knights’ offices their biggest challenge is the same as every new act in town. “It’s not like we have decades-long fans who will put up with whatever we do,” says chief marketing officer Nehme Abouzeid, a former casino executive. “We have a bit of a fickle audience here. You can do anything, especially on a Friday night in Vegas.”
Exhibit A: UNLV basketball. The Jerry Tarkanian–era Runnin’ Rebels whipped up a level of fandom since unmatched, but after finishing 11–21, last in the Mountain West, this year’s team played its lone tournament game in front of just 4,979 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center. “Fans will be patient for a couple of years here, but they’re not going to hang in there forever,” Sisolak says. “You could shoot a cannon off at Thomas & Mack right now and not hit anybody.”
Speaking of cannons: The Columbus Blue Jackets, one of two teams added during the NHL’s last round of expansion, in 2000, are infamous for their deafening artillery that booms following home goals. Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz wants something similarly distinct. “What does that little 30-second timeline look like in our world?” he says. “This is Vegas. Is it something like the slot machine noise?”
It would be foolish to ignore the sources of Sin City’s appeal. So far, no problems there. The upper level at T-Mobile Arena features an 18,000-square-foot nightclub, complete with bottle service, live postgame deejays and bronze lamps shaped like bunnies with bright ideas. “We don’t want to be lowbrow Vegas,” says Abouzeid. “We want to be highbrow Vegas.”
After the recession hit less than a decade ago, highbrow Vegas ceased to exist. Construction cranes disappeared. Hotel prices plummeted. Among metropolitan cities nationwide, Las Vegas ranked first in foreclosures. “We went through hell,” says George Maloof, whose family owns minority stakes in the Palms Casino and the Golden Knights. “Now this town is exploding.”
Which is to say that the challenges have multiplied. Since the Las Vegas economy is tied to tourism, its financial well-being is dependent on the economic health of the whole country and how much people are willing to spend on leisure activities. The Golden Knights also need a television broadcast partner in the country’s 40th largest market. And how will they approach the 30.9% of Clark County residents who identify as Latino (selling a sport with almost no Hispanic representation)?
Still, “It’s a world-class city now,” says Carolyn Goodman. “And without sports, you wouldn’t say that.”