Las Vegas is no stranger to top-level sports events, but things are entering a new and exciting phase starting this fall with the debut of the city’s first ever professional sports franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights of the National Hockey League (NHL), to be followed before too long by the Las Vegas Raiders of the National Football League (NFL), who will move from Oakland to the brand new Las Vegas Stadium for the 2020 season. Professional soccer is also in the works, with the Las Vegas Lights of the United Soccer League (USL) slated to play their first match in 2018.
Lisa Motley, director of sports marketing and special events, Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, talked with Casino Journal Executive Editor Charles Anderer about the impact of the new teams on tourism marketing and how a wide range of sports have become a key addition to the city’s non-gaming amenity mix. What follows are some excerpts from that conversation:
It has been interesting to watch attitudes of major sports leagues and organizations toward Las Vegas evolve over the years. What do you attribute that to?
Motley: We have long been the home for champion sporting events and series including the National Finals of Rodeo, Big League Weekend, MMA, USA Rugby Sevens, NBA Summer League and the Las Vegas Bowl. We were also home to NASCAR race, which was the very first professional-level event held here. The popularity, economic impact and scale of that event I think opened the door for other major sports organizations like the NFL and the NHL to come into the marketplace. They saw us as an opportunity. For eight years, we sponsored the NHL Awards, so we formed a very good relationship with them. We were able to showcase Las Vegas, and that kind of paved the way to bring the Golden Knights here.
What sort of impact will the NHL team have on tourism?
Motley: The stands will be filled with fans from the visiting teams, so they’re going to come from all markets. So it’s exciting for us to be represented in all NHL markets and what better place to cheer on your team… do you want to cheer them on at home or in Las Vegas where you can get a three-day trip out of the deal?
It’s premature to put out any numbers because the first puck hasn’t been dropped yet, but we know that any time we bring a major sporting event here, room volume and occupancy will increase, as does food-and-beverage and nightlife. Everything stands to benefit from the Golden Knights being here.
It should be a nice opportunity with the Canadian market as well.
Motley: Absolutely. Canada is our number one international market. There are already some Canadian games very high on the list of ticket requests, and all of the Canadian NHL team games are selling very quickly.
When you look at the calendar, how does the Golden Knight season complement the existing sports and special events offer in Las Vegas?
Motley: Very well. We have a few holes in November, the end of December, January and in the beginning of February after the Super Bowl that the Golden Knights will overlap with. We stayed away from the NCAA tournaments that we have in town—the team is not in town from March 3-14. They’ve been very flexible about not overlaying on our convention calendar and with other sporting events.
March looks like a busy month for Las Vegas, sports-wise.
Motley: It’s the biggest month. We’ve got four NCAA conference basketball tournaments, Rugby Sevens, Big League Weekend, Mint 400 off-road racing and the first of our two NASCAR Weekend races. We’re also the best place to watch March Madness. March is a happy time here.
Rugby Sevens has been around since 2010; how has that evolved, particularly as a contributor of international visitors to Las Vegas?
Motley: Rugby Sevens was and is an international event. The average length of stay of international visitors is five nights compared with three for domestic visitors, so we really like that aspect. Rugby Sevens used to be in January, and this was prior to rugby becoming an Olympic sport. We knew this was coming and we wanted to get on board early, so we were the only North American stop on the Rugby Sevens tour. Now they share dates with NASCAR weekend but with 150,000 rooms, we can easily accommodate all of the international visitors who come for the Sevens.
In terms of how rugby has developed, the sport has become a very big deal in colleges here. It’s a good example of a sport that is reinvesting in itself and reaching a younger audience.
That’s a nice segue into soccer and the Las Vegas Lights, the new USL franchise in town. What are the hopes for that piece?
Motley: That’s more of a city initiative, but we’re very excited about the repurposing of Cashman Field and putting soccer downtown.
We think Las Vegas is a great destination for soccer. We have hosted a match for Mexico’s Men’s National Soccer team and we’re looking forward to doing that again next year. That match drew 26,000 people, 75 percent of whom were out-of-market. We’re hoping that the Lights become the next major league piece that we add to our lineup and that it springboards to a MLS franchise.
With the Raiders scheduled to arrive at the new Las Vegas Stadium in 2020, what can you tell us about their brand and what it will mean to your tourism marketing efforts?
Motley: Los Angeles is their top drive-in market for the Oakland Raiders right now, so we’re very excited because that’s our top drive-in market as well. I think we’re going to see a lot of black-and-silver coming from all over.
We’re a melting pot, so we all kind of get to pick our own teams if you were born here. The atmosphere has been very supportive; I think we’re all just very excited that we’re getting an NFL team.
The new stadium seats 65,000 people. Have you looked at what’s going to happen to visitor volume on game weekends?
Motley: We have the capacity to put all of those heads in beds on game weekends. Ultimately, the stadium as a whole will have a big economic impact on the destination. With UNLV getting to play there, that’s a recruitment tool and a game-changer for them. Plus we can look at new special events to be held at the stadium that will continue to build sports as a destination marketing tool for us.
The Raiders have developed a following in Mexico as well, correct?
Motley: They have. They will play the New England Patriots November 19 in Mexico, which will be an opportunity to present Las Vegas.
Admittedly, the Raiders are being a little bit quiet about Las Vegas right now because they still have tickets to sell and they still are the Oakland Raiders. This first year they are going to educate people here on the history of the Raiders and do a little outreach. Next year, they will do more messaging and year three they will be the Las Vegas Raiders because they’ll have tickets to sell for Las Vegas games. They have already enjoyed tremendous support for ticket deposits for Las Vegas, but again, Los Angeles has been the major source of that. Their Las Vegas ticket sales are matching up with the same demographics they see in Oakland.
As gaming has spread nationally, Las Vegas has long invested in non-gaming amenities to maintain its leadership as a destination. We’ve been through the restaurant, retail and nightclub eras, has sports become the new hook?
Motley: It is the newest amenity, yes. We’re in the sports era now and it’s very exciting for all of us who have been here for a while. I’ve been here 17 years and never did I dream that we would have a professional sports team, let alone two in an 18-month time frame.
Sports is the new shiny penny for Las Vegas and it’s just going to get bigger because now we’ve become a sports mecca. My guess is we’ll end up with the Super Bowl at some time or a Final Four. And we know from experience that those things are great for us. Whether you’re in Las Vegas for those events or they’re broadcast live at home on television, we get so much exposure domestically and internationally that people watching say, “I want to go to Vegas.”