Year in Review: Top 10 Las Vegas Sports Business Stories of 2019

Originally published Dec 19, 2019, at LVSportsBiz.com. View the original here. Thanks to Alan Snel and LVSportsBiz.com for sharing with us.

Las Vegas is the frontier for sports business development in the U.S. It was difficult to compile a Top 10 sports-biz stories for Las Vegas because there were so many compelling and newsworthy story lines. But we’re going to give it a crack. Let’s go…

Raiders fans add some silver and black to the Allegiant Stadium construction site
#1: Raiders Stadium

It’s among several massive construction projects scheduled to open in Las Vegas in 2020, with the Raiders confident that the venue’s construction will be completed by July 31.  Besides generating at least $200 million in stadium founding partnership deals in 2019, the Raiders sold nearly $400 million worth of personal seat licenses and have also sold out their stadium tickets.

The stadium project has an overall budget of $1.97 billion, including the stadium construction at $1.4 billion. The public is chipping in with a record NFL stadium subsidy of $750 million to help build the domed 65,000-seat venue. Allegiant Stadium’s overall value to Southern Nevada will balance with the extent to which the Raiders bring non-NFL programming and events to the stadium that will sit quiet 300 days a year based on the estimate of 46 annual events. UNLV is supposed to play its football games there starting in 2020, but the Raiders and UNLV are still negotiating about two UNLV games in September. The Las Vegas Bowl and the Pac-12 football championship game will be staged at the Raiders stadium starting in 2020.

VGK fans have shown up in “force” again for the 2019-20 NHL season
#2: Vegas Golden Knights Money-Making Ways

In this market, the revenue juggernaut of the Golden Knights is a close second behind the Raiders stadium for top sports-biz story of 2019. The emotional bond between the NHL franchise and the home market has meant tens of millions of dollars in revenue for VGK in the form of ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales. At the same time, it’s not a cheap sports experience to attend a Golden Knights game.

The Knights had the fifth highest cost in the 31-team NHL for a family of four to attend a NHL game, while having the fourth most expensive average ticket at $104.36, according to the Team Marketing Report Fan Cost Index, which tracks the costs of attending major league sports games.

An aerial view of the new Las Vegas Aviators ballpark that is drawing rave reviews

#3: Las Vegas Aviators’ New Ballpark

Howard Hughes Corporation was given $80 million in public money by the local public tourism agency (Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Association) for a ballpark naming rights deal in 2017 and in April, Howard Hughes Corp. opened a $150 million Taj Mahal of a minor league baseball ball yard that led Minor League Baseball in attendance in 2019.

The former 51s/Aviators went from one of the worst Triple A baseball parks at Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas to the arguably the best in the upscale suburb of Summerlin. It was a completely different baseball experience, with the Aviators drawing attendees who enjoyed the new ballpark amenities such as suites, swimming pool and open club area with an impressive bar and food buffet.

MLS commissioner Don Garber takes a selfie with Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goldman at the Bellagio’s famed fountain
#4: Dreaming of Major League Soccer in Downtown Las Vegas 

The city of Las Vegas sat on the sidelines as the Golden Knights, the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders and the Las Vegas Aviators were setting up shop in gorgeous sports venues in Clark County outside the city limits. But the city is hoping to cut a public-private agreement with a development group headed by Floyd Kephart and The Baupost Group hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman that would result in a new soccer stadium as part of a redevelopment project in the downtown Cashman Center area.

The negotiations between the city and Kephart/Klarman were extended into 2020, so we don’t know what the proposed public contribution will be. Meanwhile, Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is looking at the possibility of pursuing an MLS team, too. The problem facing Las Vegas, though, is Major League Soccer has already named its 30th franchise in Charlotte, N.C.

New UNLV men’s basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger shouts instructions at a recent game
#5: UNLV Basketball and Football Trying to Stay Relevant in a Competitive Market

It was a busy year for UNLV Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois, who fired basketball coach Marvin Menzies in Mar and football coach Tony Sanchez in Nov. In hiring two young up-and-comers — T.J. Otzelberger to replace Menzies and Marcus Arroyo to succeed Sanchez — Reed-Francois is hoping to rekindle the fire under a one-time top college basketball brand and create a buzz for a football program bestowed with a fabulous new training center with the help of the Fertitta family and a new game day stadium only two miles from campus.

UNLV football said goodbye to Sam Boyd Stadium, but there might be one more UNLV football game played there in September 2020 depending on stadium negotiations with the Raiders.  Overall, UNLV’s marketing strategy is to provide the best local sports family value in Las Vegas.

UFC’s Dana White holds court — as usual
#6: Las Vegas-based UFC Extends Its Tentacles Locally and Globally

The $4 billion MMA promotion had another busy year with a major media deal with ESPN that helps promotes UFC’s fight show spectacles; an impressive new facility called the APEX for fights and media next-door to its headquarters off the 215; and new training centers around the world.

UFC President Dana White remains one of Las Vegas’ most personable sports executives with his brash, in-your-face and candid style and his jeans-and-T-shirt wardrobe. UFC ended the decade with UFC 245 at T-Mobile Arena and White looks to break attendance and revenue records in 2020.

The Orlando Magic play “in your face” defense against the Brooklyn Nets during NBA Summer League play on July 10, 2019
#7: NBA Summer League and National Finals Rodeo Continue to Grow 

Sometimes lost amid the rumors and chit-chat about the NBA and Major League Baseball coming to Las Vegas is the fact that the NBA is already here for two weeks in July, while the big leagues of rodeo spends 10 days in Dec when the tourism industry could use a jolt of visitors. Both major events are staged at Thomas & Mack Center.

The NBA Summer League brought all 30 NBA teams, while the National Finals Rodeo has turned into a massive two-week Western and country music festival up-and-down the Strip. NFR drew nearly 170,000 rodeo fans for the 10-day event Dec 5-14.

Action from the National Finals Rodeo Tom Donoghue

NASCAR action from the pits — under the lights — at Las Vegas Speedway
#8: Two NASCAR Races a Year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Starting in 2018, Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted not one NASCAR weekend a year but two. That was a big deal. In 2019, the starting time of the second NASCAR race in Sep was moved later so that the race could finish under the lights and race fans would not wilt under the Las Vegas heat.

Kevin Camper, the Speedway’s sales and marketing chief, discussed the business impact of staging two NASCAR weekends at the race track.

The new Circa sports book in downtown Las Vegas is heaven for gambling sports fans
#9: Downtown Hotel Owner Derek Stevens Unveils Mega Sports Book with Giant Screen at Circa

Derek Stevens is a hotel-casino owner who loves sports — and sports betting. He unveiled his downtown Circa hotel-casino, complete with a massive stadium-style sports book and a monster-sized screen that will be built by a company known for installing stadium Jumbotron scoreboards. Overall, Las Vegas is still a sports gambling hub for Super Bowl and March Madness college basketball weekends.

The 2018 Supreme Court decision that allowed state legislatures to greenlight sports gambling initiatives in their states does not appear to have hurt Las Vegas. In fact, Las Vegas sports betting leaders believe just the opposite; that is, more legal sports betting across the U.S. will drive gamblers to visit the sports gambling mecca of Las Vegas.

#10: Aces and Lights Improve in Season Two

The WNBA Las Vegas Aces made the playoffs, while the United Soccer League Las Vegas Lights FC improved its record as both second-year Las Vegas franchises continued to grow their niche brands in the market. MGM Resorts International owns the Aces, and its CEO, Jim Murren, attended games as a big fan. Meanwhile, the Lights will be purchased if a development group works out a stadium deal with the city of Las Vegas.

The Lights’ Cash the Soccer Rocker L.E. Baskow/Lights FC

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (L) and NBA commissioner Adam Silver shake hands after speaking at CES 2019 David Becker/Getty
Honorable Mention: CES Becoming Hub For Sports Tech and Personalities

The sports business presence at Las Vegas’ biggest trade show — CES — has grown annually every Jan. It’s a must-be place for everyone from sports league commissioners to new sports tech product developers. In 2019, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed social media, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman came to Las Vegas to check out digital sensors involved with puck and player tracking technology.

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Alan Snel brings decades of sports-business reporting experience to LVSportsBiz.com. Snel covered sports business for the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal. As a city hall beat reporter, Snel also covered stadium deals in Denver and Seattle. In 2000, Snel launched FoxSportsBiz.com, a sport-business website for FoxSports.com. Snel has also detailed the Raiders stadium for Desert Companion magazine in Las Vegas and The Nevada Independent.