Every few years Las Vegas reinvents itself in some way to broaden its tourism appeal – this time it is through sports. Some of these pushes have worked better than others, and while the city pretty much gave up on its years ago effort to compete with places like Disney World in the “family friendly” travel space, its more recent concerted efforts to become world-class destinations for live entertainment and dining have been resounding successes. The redevelopment of “old” Downtown Las Vegas into a viable tourism expansion of the Strip was another of Sin City’s many travel game changers. The latest such trend is sports.
There are two concurrent sports movements going on in Las Vegas right now. The first is the massive expansion of the city’s spectator sports offerings, which began in earnest with the arrival of NHL expansion team the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who played their first games in the new T-Mobile Arena in October 2017. At the time, Las Vegas was the largest city in the country with no franchise in the “big four” American sports, NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA, making the Knights an even bigger spectacle than a new hockey team would have been anyplace else. It also helped that they dramatically had the best debut season in hockey history – and arguably in all team sports – going from 500-1 longshots to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Almost immediately after hockey season started, MGM Resorts International announced the acquisition of a WNBA team, the Las Vegas Aces, marking the city’s first foray into major professional basketball. The Aces play in the Michelob Ultra Arena in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, an MGM property. The company also owns the T-Mobile Arena and has in short succession brought two new professional sports not just to Las Vegas, but to the heart of the Strip, more accessible to visiting tourists than sports stadiums in almost any other city.
This is all compounded with the arrival of the Las Vegas Raiders, the city’s team in America’s most popular spectator sport, NFL football. The Raiders just completed their first season in the new state of the art Allegiant Stadium, set adjacent to the major Strip resorts, just behind Mandalay Bay. Allegiant in turn is also the new home of the city’s college football team, the UNLV Rebels. In less than four years, Las Vegas went from no notable live professional spectator sports other than rodeo and the occasional boxing or MMA fight to high profile teams in three of the four most popular spectator sports. It is also still dominant in those high-profile fights, and the city’s longest standing significant pro team just got a new stadium as well. The Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators have been here representing minor league baseball for almost two decades (with two different earlier team names), but baseball’s profile just went up, with the new 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin, which opened for the 2019 season.
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Read a recent exclusive book excerpt about the Las Vegas Golden Knights debut season and its impact on the city here.
That’s all just one part of the sportive equation. The other is a big new focus on sports betting, better sports books, and more and better casino-based sports viewing venues. The biggest boost came with the opening of the all new Circa Resort & Casino just over four months ago. Developer and CEO Derek Stevens has been a driving force in the Downtown renaissance with his other casino hotel properties, The D and Golden Gate.
But the 777-room Circa is larger and much more sports-centric, home to what it claims is the world’s largest sportsbook. Spanning three floors, the stadium-style venue has a 78-million-pixel screen viewable by up to 1,000 guests that display up to 19 games simultaneously. Fans can reserve reclining seats or booths for large groups, all equipped with power outlets, Wi-Fi and tables, while ordering in food from a broad selection of Circa’s restaurants directly to their seat. Even the sections and seating mirror a sports arena: For fans who love the front row, The Dugout offers VIP single-seat cushioned chairs directly in front of the screen. Behind The Dugout, the Legends Club features plush recliners, while the Champions Club has long booth-style seating for larger groups. The Circa Club Upper and Lower have exclusively intimate booth seating for groups. The facility also houses a broadcast studio for The Sports Betting Network (VSiN), giving bettors real-time, in-depth analysis from expert broadcasters, athletes and industry professionals. But most importantly, the Circa is the first major casino property to use a high-profile sportsbook as its calling card for drawing guests.
“The pie is growing so much nationally there’s room for us. The growth of sports betting nationally helps us and it helps Las Vegas,” Stevens said in an interview about his focus with Sportshandle.com. The Circa’s sports theme even extends to the hotel’s rooftop pool complex, dubbed “Stadium Swim,” with six pools, two swim-up bars, and a 143 x 40 foot, 14-million-megapixel drive-in theater style outdoor screen so sports fans won’t miss a second of the action.
When MGM Resorts renovated at the old Monte Carlo property and reopened it as the more upscale Park MGM casino resort, one notable new addition was the BetMGM Sportsbook & Bar, which sort of combines the classic casino book with the feel of an oversized sports bar, featuring more restaurant-style tables. It offers a broad list of local beers, wines by the glass and elevated snacks on the “Tailgate Menu” like wagyu burgers, plus shareable group party platters and 100-ounce beer towers. Tables can be booked for big events, and special facilities for groups include bowling alleys and pool tables.
This latest wave of venues is a perfect fit for the city’s biggest sports tourism events, from the recently played Super Bowl to the annually ultra-popular NCAA tournament. “For many college basketball fans, the road to March Madness runs straight down Las Vegas Boulevard,” says Michael Hiller, who writes about Las Vegas as a tourism destination for The Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times. “The Super Bowl is Vegas’ biggest money game, but the first four days of March Madness are the sportsbooks’ biggest money event – by a long shot.” Due to the pandemic and COVID-19, both are more subdued this year, but the increasing spectator sports infrastructure in the city will be prime for post-pandemic visitation, with even more spots coming online.
The next biggie is at Caesars Palace, an iconic casino resort property in the heart of the Strip, which just announced the opening soon of a new 120-seat higher-end sports bar and lounge, Stadia (spring 2021). It features a swank interior, numerous large high-definition screens, a menu of high-end and unique premium craft cocktails, plus a deep list of rare domestic whiskies, with both regular seating and rentable spaces allowing for intimate viewing experience for small groups. The latter are in leather clad domes designed to mimic vintage helmets.
“Caesars Palace has a long-standing history in sports from hosting iconic events like the first outdoor hockey game to legendary boxing matches,” said Caesars Entertainment Regional President Gary Selesner. “Stadia, located at the busy Forum Shops entrance, is the embodiment of Caesars’ commitment to sports. It offers a comfortable yet luxe environment for fans to catch the action or wager on their favorite team or championship fight, as well as a state-of-the-art, stylish lounge space to experience beyond the game.” Like most Vegas casinos now, Caesars offers mobile sports betting on property, but if you want to go to the window, Stadia sits immediately outside the large sportsbook.
Across Las Vegas Boulevard, another Caesars property, the LINQ Hotel + Experience, has The Book, another new twist on the sportsbook concept, with reservable seating, 50-plus TVs, a self-serve beer tap wall, augmented reality games and private “Fan Caves.” These are basically rentable living rooms, featuring sectional sofas and 98-inch private screens with Xbox and virtual reality headsets. The LINQ is also home to the ESPN Studio where they produce “The Daily Wager.”
Every major casino resort had a sportsbook, but many were tired spots relegated to the back of the gaming area. The new trend is to put sports watching and betting front and center in a more experiential way that ties into the entire Las Vegas vacation theme, while adding sports viewing bars and locales, alongside a new wealth of actual live in-person spectator sports (at least post-pandemic). For all these reasons, sports are what is hot in Las Vegas right now.