“It’s hard to imagine a bigger desert oasis than Las Vegas,” according to author Cinnamon Stomberger.
For the best part of a century, the neon-lit Nevada watering hole has drawn gamblers and pleasure-seekers in their millions.
On my flight to San Francisco late last year, Canadian tourist Jenny told me visits Vegas at least three times a year and has done for the past decade. She said there is nowhere else like it in the world and that it has everything that she could ever want from a city break.
But while boxing and, more recently, the UFC have thrived on ‘The Strip’, the one thing Vegas has never had historically is franchises from the big four US sports – the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
For many years, its ‘gambling capital of the world’ identity – with its shadowy connotations and clear links to organised crime – served to deter the major leagues.
But Las Vegas is now the 28th largest city in the US, with a population of well over 600,00 (and still rising fast), with that number swelled year-round by hordes of visitors from around the globe.
The saying ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ now seems to (mostly) belong to its sleazy past – its future is a lot shinier and corporate, making it prime territory for the big four sports.
But those big fight nights are still a major part of the sports scene in ‘America’s Playground’, and being there in early October for the UFC 229 clash between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
The bad blood and feuding in the build-up to their bout almost inevitably led to ugly scenes in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s victory, with the Russian brawling outside the octagon with McGregor’s team, and the Irishman fighting inside it with his opponent’s entourage.
Both men received bans and fines, having sullied the UFC’s reputation – and by extension that of Vegas as a newly emergent location for respectable sports.
Afterward, the T-Mobile Arena went back to its regular role of hosting home games for the city’s first major league franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights made their NHL debut in late 2017 amid the backdrop of one of the most horrific massacres in American history, which occurred when a gunman opened fire from the Mandalay Bay Hotel on music fans attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival, killing 58 people and leaving 851 injured.
Perhaps inspired by their mission to represent the city in the wake of this atrocity, the Knights went on to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Becoming the first expansion team for half a century to reach the NHL showpiece, they lost the series 4-1 to the Washington Capitals.
But as head coach Gerard Gallant, reflecting on that first season, said: “It wasn’t about our team winning, it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before [the Knights inaugural home game].”
Knights forward James Neal said: “You’re suddenly playing for a lot more than yourself and the team. It goes further, it means more.”
The slogan ‘Vegas Strong’ became part of the city’s mantra and hangs on a flag as you enter the arrivals gate at the Macarran Airport. It’s on every other car’s bumper and has even become a popular choice of design in local tattoo parlours.
Driving around The Strip with ‘Native Las Vegan’ Brian Wall, it became clear just how important the Knights had become to life in Vegas.
“Growing up here, you would occasionally visit The Strip perhaps for a special occasion like a birthday. But now all that’s changed because of the hockey; every week you have 20,000 people coming out to support their team.
“Almost everyone in Las Vegas is originally from somewhere else, and we all bring our sports loyalties – Cubs, Cowboys, Lakers – with us. It’s great now with the Golden Knights to actually have a team that feels like it belongs to all of us.”
We drove past where the Route 91 Harvest Festival had been held; it was really just a massive parking lot. The thing that struck me was the distance that the attacker had been able to fire on it from was at least 400 yards. He fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition before killing himself.
His murderous deeds could have destroyed the optimistic feel that permeates Vegas but failed to do so. Certainly, its sporting future continues to look bright.
Just 10 minutes drive down The Strip from the Mandalay Bay Hotel is the construction site for one of the most expensive stadium ventures ever undertaken.
In early 2017, the NFL’s Oakland Raiders announced that they would move to Las Vegas, building a stadium that will cost more than $2bn.
The move has met with some criticism, especially from the West Coast fans. However, NFL followers in Nevada and Utah are ecstatic about the changing sports landscape in Vegas.
The cost of the Raiders’ new home, due to open for the 2020 season, will eclipse that of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, which ran to around $1.6bn.
It will have a capacity of up to 72,000 and plug yet more visitors into the massive range of surrounding hotels and attractions in the Vegas area.
More to come?
The arrival of the Raiders may not be the end of expansion by the major leagues into Sin City.
In the summer of 2018, rumours began to circulate that an NBA team could relocate to the Mojave Desert.
I was assured by Brian Wall that these rumours have been swirling around for some time but have only grown stronger with the success of the Knights and the incoming Raiders.
‘It’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real’
Adding substance to them is the fact that the MGM Group has a lot of partnerships in the NBA along with massive investments in Vegas.
The new Las Vegas Stadium (awaiting sponsorship naming rights) could also be home to an MLS team in the near future. In Atlanta, the Falcons share their stadium with Atlanta United FC.
With the MLS and NFL seasons running at different times in the year, it isn’t a stretch to see a ‘soccer’ team move or be founded in Vegas.
Whatever happens in the future, Las Vegas will surely stay good on its promise to never do anything in a half-hearted manner.
Sport has been a healer for this desert oasis; it has united a city probably for the first time in its history after something that could have torn it apart.
Speaking to visitors and locals alike, it’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real.
It is also very obvious that it is a united city pulling forward towards a bright and dazzling future.
Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, said that “A little bit of this town goes a very long way.” This statement is probably truer now than it ever has been.