Super Bowl

How Las Vegas went all-in and became an American sports capital

Super Bowl LVIII is just the latest step in Las Vegas' rise as a sports city

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Las Vegas has a long history of beating the odds, and landing a Super Bowl is just the latest example.

The NFL’s biggest game is headed to Sin City for the first time with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers squaring off at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 11. It will mark a triumph for one of those two organizations and a city that has made a meteoric rise in the sports world.

Las Vegas has always offered a mix of entertainment options, but now it has a growing lineup of professional sports teams and marquee competitions. From Stanley Cup champions to F1 events to Super Bowl LVIII, fans can catch action in the city like never before.

How did Sin City go from a sports desert to a sports destination?

Let’s take a look at Las Vegas’ leap, and why the city has no intention of slowing its roll:

In the early 1990s, Las Vegas’ roster was limited to collegiate sports and minor league squads. The Triple-A Las Vegas Stars and International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder were the only teams in town, and both folded at the turn of the millennium.

That left just UNLV basketball. Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were one of the greatest spectacles in college hoops for a few years, winning the big dance in 1990 and reaching another Final Four in 1991. Things soon crumbled, as the team was handed a ban from live TV and the national tournament in 1991-92 over NCAA violations.

After a one-season stint for the XFL’s Outlaws, Las Vegas tried to bounce back and reenter the national sports landscape by hosting the 2007 NBA All-Star Game. Kobe Bryant won MVP honors in a Western Conference victory, but the bigger story for the city that weekend was outside the arena, where hundreds of people, including NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones, were arrested.

“I spoke to the hotels that Monday morning and they thought we made a big mistake and never should’ve supported the NBA coming here,” former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said.

Sports leagues’ reluctance to do business in Las Vegas went far beyond a single weekend. They wanted nothing to do with one of the city’s staples: gambling.

“For years, whether it be the NHL or the NFL or or whoever it would have been, they were petrified of sports gambling,” John Saccenti, executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl, told NBC. “They did not want to have sports gambling infiltrate their sport.”

Just months after the tumultuous All-Star Weekend, the NBA was rocked by a gambling controversy of its own. Referee Tim Donaghy resigned from his position in July 2007 and was later sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after betting on NBA games, including some that he officiated.

Scandals like Donaghy’s kept sports leagues away from Las Vegas for decades, even when the city wanted to pay to promote its non-gambling attractions.

“The [NFL] was not accepting advertising dollars from Las Vegas in a Super Bowl,” Saccenti said. “If you think about that, they would not let us run a commercial that had no gambling references. It was, ‘Hey, we have restaurants and we have nightclubs and we have sponsors and we have shopping.’ They wouldn't let us run a commercial in the Super Bowl.”

Despite the scandal and rejection, Las Vegas went all-in on moves that would turn the city into an American sports capital.

Las Vegas’ first roll of the dice with a professional sports team came on the ice.

The NHL had a small presence in Las Vegas heading into the 2010s. It hosted the first ever outdoor game between two NHL teams in a 1991 preseason exhibition between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers and became the home of the NHL Awards ceremonies in 2009.

Talk of a potential NHL expansion franchise began in 2014, when the league’s board of directors allowed an ownership group led by businessman Bill Foley to gauge interest through season tickets. Just months later, the NHL opened bidding for cities interested in landing an expansion franchise. Las Vegas’ bid was approved in the summer of 2016, and the Vegas Golden Knights debuted in the 2017-18 season.

The Golden Knights soon took the NHL – and Vegas – by storm. They reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first season of existence and became the fastest expansion franchise to win it all with their triumph over the Florida Panthers in 2023.

“Vegas wasn't a hockey town and you know it's 110 degrees here in the summer, so it didn't seem like a completely natural fit,” Steve Hill, CEO and president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said. “But they have done such a good job of, both on the ice and in the community, integrating themselves with Las Vegas, and now they're the Stanley Cup champions six years after they got started.”

The next title-winning team to come to town was the Las Vegas Aces. Originally the Utah Starzz, the organization was one of eight founding WNBA franchises. The team stayed in Salt Lake City for six seasons before moving south and becoming the San Antonio Silver Stars for 15 years.

A move to Las Vegas was one of three major overhauls for the organization in 2018. The team hired two-time NBA champion Bill Laimbeer as its head coach and used its first draft pick as the Aces to land A’ja Wilson out of South Carolina at No. 1 overall. The team made one WNBA Finals appearance in Laimbeer’s four seasons before bringing in Becky Hammon in 2022. Hammon, Wilson and Co. proceeded to win the franchise’s first championship that year and went back-to-back with a WNBA Finals win over the New York Liberty in 2023.

With the Golden Knights and Aces in town, Las Vegas got its first taste of top-tier professional sports. Next up, the city made its chase for the NFL.

While the Raiders announced several short-term agreements to stay in Oakland throughout the 2010s, team owner Mark Davis spent years looking for a new home.

Davis confirmed in 2014 that he had talked to San Antonio officials about a move to Texas. A year later, the team jointly announced that it would partner with the division rival San Diego Chargers for a joint stadium project in Carson, Calif. The Raiders, Chargers and St. Louis Rams filed relocation proposal paperwork in January 2016, but the NFL gave the Chargers first dibs at joining the Rams in Los Angeles. The Raiders would have only had the opportunity to go back to L.A. if the Chargers declined.

Davis made his desire to head to Las Vegas official in April 2016, insisting “we’re not using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip.” Before long, a proposal was in place for a new stadium near the Las Vegas Strip, as well as the public funding that would help get it off the ground. The Raiders’ move to Las Vegas was made official on March 27, 2017, when NFL owners voted 31-1 in favor of the relocation.

The Raiders had originally hoped to complete their move to Las Vegas in 2019, but they were left to play two more seasons in Oakland while their new stadium was still being built. The stadium was complete in time for the start of the 2020 season, but something was missing when the Raiders finally stepped onto the field to break ground at their new home: fans.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Raiders to play the 2020 campaign without fans at the newly constructed Allegiant Stadium. It wasn’t until Sept. 13, 2021, that Raiders fans were able to fill the 65,000-seat “Death Star” for a Monday Night Football opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

Before the Raiders even had a full season with fans, Las Vegas was named the host of football’s biggest game. The NFL announced in December 2021 that Super Bowl LVIII would be played in Sin City.

“It's as if the entire history of Las Vegas was leading up to hosting the Super Bowl,” Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal said.

Here are five things to know about the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The Super Bowl was a yearly Las Vegas event well before it landed the actual game, but there’s no denial that this year’s edition will be unlike any in the city’s history.

“I'd say that’s the difference between riding in a plane and jumping out of a plane,” Fischer said when asked about how Super Bowl festivities will differ in Las Vegas now that the city is hosting the game. “It'll be just a crazy, busy, big weekend in Vegas and every street corner will be full … every word that comes to mind seems inadequate to describe the scene that is sure to be the first Super Bowl in Las Vegas.”

Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the city annually in anticipation for the big game. Las Vegas is well equipped with accommodations like restaurants, entertainment and hotels. The resorts are a particular plus for this Super Bowl, as they are equipped to handle responsibilities beyond lodging.

“Here in Vegas, they're actually not just our hotel rooms. They're a part of our security plan, they're part of our transportation plan, they're hosting our events because they are venues in themselves,” said Sam Joffray, CEO and president of the Las Vegas Super Bowl LVIII Host Committee. “So, without the cooperation of the resorts, the Super Bowl certainly wouldn't happen.”

There are more than 150,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, according to 2022 statistics. While the Chiefs and 49ers reportedly will be staying around 25 miles from the Strip, media and fans with hotel reservations in the city will be within walking distance of Allegiant Stadium.

While the city is well equipped with places to stay, there was plenty more work to be done from a logistical standpoint. Even though Las Vegas hosted the 2022 NFL Draft and the last two Pro Bowls, it doesn’t possess the same experience as prior hosts in handling everything that comes with the Super Bowl.

“I think the biggest hurdle has just been creating all these plans from scratch,” Joffray said. “We didn't know exactly how much public safety was needed. We didn't know exactly what the gameday costs were. We didn't have the stadium piece put together or stress test during the bid process. So we threw a lot of educated darts at the board.”

Along with luxury hotels, renowned restaurants and other entertainment, Las Vegas’ sportsbooks have been the main draw for its Super Bowl crowds. People no longer need to go to Nevada to place Super Bowl bets, as sports gambling is legal in 38 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Still, the city has a newfound partner in a league that once shunned it.

The NFL has several sportsbook partners, including MGM, Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel. Four teams – the Washington Commanders, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants and New York Jets – even have sportsbooks at their stadiums.

It has not been a seamless transition for the league as it embraces gambling. At least 10 players have received suspensions for violating the NFL’s sports gambling policies with several getting year-long bans. A Las Vegas Super Bowl will put even more eyes on the NFL’s new stance on gambling, one that many across the city thought would never change.

“There's decades of history leading up to this, of a storyline where Vegas and the NFL or the Super Bowl couldn't be mentioned in the same sentence,” Joffray said. “And now here we are, just a few years into this new marriage between the NFL and Vegas, and we're hosting a Super Bowl after doing the Pro Bowl and the draft. It's one of those ‘about time’ moments. And I think the expectations are high, not just locally, but for everybody around the country.”

“I was one of those people who was like, ‘The NFL's never going to give on this one,’” Saccenti said. “And boy, was I wrong.”

It’s been a banner year for Las Vegas, and it has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

On top of titles from the Golden Knights and Aces, the city broke ground on a couple of new events in 2023. The city streets were converted into a race track for Las Vegas’ first Formula One event, the Las Vegas Grand Prix, in November and will do so again in 2024.

The NBA also brought an inaugural event to Las Vegas. The league’s first In-Season Tournament culminated at T-Mobile Arena with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers becoming the first team to ever lift the NBA Cup. James wants to return to Las Vegas, as well, but in the owner’s box.

“It’s a sports town,” James said in December while in Las Vegas for the In-Season Tournament. “Hopefully I can bring my franchise here one day.”

While NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league won’t consider expansion until after the current media rights deal expires in 2025, Las Vegas and Seattle are widely expected to land franchises in the near future. With legends like James and Shaquille O’Neal expressing interest, an NBA team in Las Vegas seems inevitable. 

“There's nothing else like LeBron and Shaq out there saying, ‘We want a team,’” Hill said. “They matter at this point. Them saying that is a great thing.”

Las Vegas already has another professional team waiting in the wings. MLB owners unanimously approved the A’s relocation to Las Vegas with their new ballpark set to open on the Tropicana site on the Strip in 2028. It’s the second Oakland-to-Vegas move in less than a decade and a new opportunity for a team that has ranked dead last in MLB attendance for the last two seasons.

“For their troubles, their ups and downs on the field, their business is in a dramatically better spot in Las Vegas than it was in Oakland, and I think clearly the Oakland Athletics are going to say the same thing in five or 10 years,” Fischer said.

Las Vegas is scheduled to host its first men’s Final Four in 2028 and hopes to become a regular Super Bowl host every four to five years. If the last decade is any indication, anything’s possible.

“We never say you can't do that here. Ever,” Saccenti said. “There's nothing that we can't accomplish and there's nothing that we can't get done in this city. And once you do an event here, once you have an event here, you realize very, very quickly that if you can think of it, we'll figure out a way to do it.”

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