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Las Vegas’s minor league teams confirm city’s place as major league sports town

A helicopter drops $5,000 in cash for Las Vegas Lights fans to grab during a USL Championship match in September 2018 (Credit: Las Vegas Lights)

  • Aviators top Triple-A baseball attendance charts after move to $150m Las Vegas Ballpark
  • Lights drawing healthy crowds in USL thanks to Hispanic outreach and innovative gimmicks
  • City has two competing bids for MLS expansion franchise after arrival of NHL and NFL teams

On June 29, two of Las Vegas’s minor league teams – Triple-A baseball’s Las Vegas Aviators and the United Soccer League Championship’s Las Vegas Lights – both drew headline-grabbing attendances in different parts of the Las Vegas Valley on the same evening.

At the $150m Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin – an affluent master-planned community on the western edge of the city of Las Vegas – the Pacific Coast League’s Aviators secured a sell-out 10,322 fans for their 20-9 loss to the Reno Aces.

Meanwhile, at the Aviators’ long-time former home, Cashman Field in Downtown Las Vegas, the Lights registered a crowd of 9,418 for their 1-0 victory over Oklahoma City Energy. It was the second-largest attendance in the team’s history.

That both teams were able to draw such high crowds on the same evening – the USL Championship’s average attendance in 2019 has hovered around 4,300, by contrast – demonstrates the strength in depth that Las Vegas now has a sports town.

“Here we were, going head-to-head, with people thinking that Las Vegas was becoming oversaturated as a sports town, yet two minor league teams were drawing the highest attendances in their leagues in different parts of the same city,” Brett Lashbrook, the Lights owner and chief executive, tells SportBusiness.

 

The Vegas Golden Knights have gained widespread plaudits for their achievements on and off the ice since joining the National Hockey League in 2017, when they reached the Stanley Cup Playoff Finals and became one of the NHL’s top performers in almost every business metric during their inaugural season.

There is also huge excitement about the imminent arrival of the city’s first National Football League team, the Raiders, who are expected to move from Oakland into the 65,000-capacity Allegiant Stadium in 2020.

But it is the huge success this year of the Aviators and Lights that has removed any lingering doubts over Las Vegas’s place a legitimate major sports town in the US.

So much so that the city has recently entered the mix to gain a Major League Soccer expansion team, while Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said that Sin City is a viable market for an MLB team. This is in addition to Las Vegas gaining a WNBA team in 2018 – the Aces, who relocated from San Antonio – and the 2020 NFL Draft, which has become a massive off-season event for that league.

“The guys at [the Las Vegas-based] UFC said this first: Las Vegas is turning from the entertainment capital of the world to the sports and entertainment capital of the world,” Lashbrook adds. “The US sports leagues…are all racing to get here.”

Rebrand and new stadium help Aviators gain lift-off

The Aviators and Lights have achieved success in completely different ways. For the Aviators, their record-breaking attendances in Minor League Baseball this year have come as a direct result of the move from outdated Cashman Field to the new 10,000-capacity Las Vegas Ballpark and a simultaneous rebranding from the Las Vegas 51s to the Las Vegas Aviators.

This also coincided with the club forging a new major league affiliation with the Oakland Athletics following a turbulent period with three prior MLB affiliates over a 10-year period.

The team began life as the Las Vegas Stars from their inception in 1983 until 2000 when they were rebranded the Las Vegas 51s, in reference to the nearby top-secret military base Area 51. After being taken over by Texas-based land development company Howard Hughes Corp. in 2017, the 51s were rebranded the Aviators to honour the company’s billionaire namesake, who was an influential figure in United States aviation history.

The rebranding was timed to coincide with the Aviators’ move to their $150m, state-of-the-art new stadium in Summerlin to symbolize their new start. “You only get so many opportunities to have [a complete rebrand],” Aviators president Don Logan tells SportBusiness. “You have to take advantage of it and we did.”

The Aviators’ stadium relocation has been a 15-year project, according to Logan. “It took so many twists and turns a long the way…different ideas, different locations. But taking so long, we ended up with the best location you could have in southern Nevada,” he says.

The Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin (Credit: Tom Donoghue/Las Vegas Aviators)

There were multiple reasons for the Howard Hughes Corp. to move the team from downtown Las Vegas to Summerlin. Firstly, Cashman Field, which was built in 1983, was one of the oldest stadiums in minor league baseball, lacking many modern-day amenities and easy access for fans arriving by car.

Secondly, it was felt that Summerlin would be a more favourable neighborhood to locate to, as one of the most affluent areas in Nevada, as well as the home of the Red Rock casino complex, and the Vegas Golden Knights’ training facility, City National Arena. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, the Howard Hughes Corp, is a major land developer in Summerlin and Las Vegas Ballpark has provided the company a significant anchor point to aid current and future development in the area.

“There’s a thing, you want to ‘live, work, play’ and we went out to provide the ‘play’ part of that in Summerlin,” Logan says. “Getting into a brand new ballpark in an invigorated part of the Valley, it was just a new beginning for us. This is such a different place. The facility is the finest in all of minor league baseball, it’s one of the finest in all of professional baseball – period.”

The results of the stadium move have been staggering. From 2018 to 2019, total attendance rose from 332,224 to a franchise record 650,934, while average per-game attendance jumped from 4,746 to 9,299 year-on-year.

The Aviators’ attendance this year has also been historically significant. They gained the highest average crowds in all of Minor League Baseball since the Charlotte Knights drew 9,428 fans per game in 2015. For much of 2019, they also outdrew Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins and for a while it appeared that the Aviators would become the first minor league team to outdraw a major league team since 2004 when the Sacramento River Cats attracted more fans per game than the now-relocated Montreal Expos. In the end the Aviators, fell just short.

Not that Logan takes any joy from the Marlins’ slow and painful rebuild under chief executive and part owner Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees legend. “I feel bad for the Marlins,” says Logan. “All of us in baseball certainly from a business perspective, we all cheer for each other. We want everyone to do well. It’s not good for anyone, for a major or a minor league club, to not do well.”

The Aviators’ high attendances also can be attributed in large part to the Las Vegas Ballpark’s top-class amenities. These include a 360-degree concourse, an outfield swimming pool, mesh seats as opposed to plastic which keep fans cool as well as comfortable in the hot Nevada summers, the largest scoreboard in the minor leagues (3,930 square feet), free parking, a wide variation of high-end food and beverage options, visiting celebrity chefs, and various social gathering spaces and party decks.

“It’s like a quilt, all these things blended together to make a wonderful place,” says Logan. “The season we’ve just experienced was unprecedented. You don’t know this for sure because we’re all private businesses but I believe we did more ticket revenue, sponsorship revenue, food and beverage revenue than any team has ever done in minor league history.”

 

At $150m, the Las Vegas Ballpark is the most expensive stadium in minor league history. The Aviators, though, have managed to secure an $80m naming-rights deal with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the local tourism agency, which will cover over half of its cost. To further cover the investment, there are 22 luxury suites, while ticket prices have increased from Cashman Field.

“We still kept the new ballpark affordable, but at Cashman people could only afford so much,” says Logan. “I think we retained 65 per cent of our season-ticket base but the fan changed. It’s a different demographic when you move into a different area. It’s a wealthier, younger, more family oriented, more educated demographic.”

To help monetize the stadium, the Aviators are also hosting regular music concerts, yoga sessions, movie nights utilizing the scoreboard, beer festivals, and a Mexican baseball fiesta. The Las Vegas Ballpark will host the Triple-A championship game in 2020 as well.

The increased business has led to increased costs. To cope with the higher attendances – as well as rising concessions and merchandise sales – the Aviators have doubled their full-time staff, while the team hires additional game-day staff on ticket sales and security.

Despite selling out so many games, the Aviators have no plans to increase the size of the ballpark – for now at least. “Size-wise I think we nailed it,” Logan says. “But we do have the ability, if we needed to add some permanent seats, where we could do it.

Hispanic outreach and fan-engagement tools help Lights shine bright

Despite the Aviators’ concerns over Cashman Field, the Lights have used the stadium to great success to gain well-above-average crowds in the USL Championship, the designated second-tier soccer league in the United States.

After being awarded an expansion place in August 2017, the Lights – who are owned by Las Vegas Soccer, LLC, a company founded by Lashbrook, a former MLS and Orlando City executive – secured a 15-year lease agreement with the city of Las Vegas to rent the ageing venue.

The Lights shared their first season at Cashman Field with the then 51s, paying for all costs to convert the stadium from a baseball venue to a soccer venue, before becoming the primary tenants for the 2019 season.

It was specifically the looming availability of Cashman Field that convinced Lashbook to establish Las Vegas’s inaugural professional soccer team. “If you have a big city, you don’t have to worry about finding soccer fans. Soccer fans are here, whether you are in Des Moines or Omaha or Houston, Texas. The most difficult thing is stadiums,” says Lashbrook.

“The [Aviators] wanted to leave Cashman Field for the suburbs because it fit their business model. But there was a 10,000-seat stadium which could be converted to soccer and a Mayor [Carolyn Goodman] who wants pro sports. I knew this is exactly what would work. And seeing the growth of the sport across the US, I candidly looked around and thought, ‘Why is no one else in Las Vegas doing this?’ It was the perfect storm.”

The initial reaction to the establishment of the Lights was far from favourable, though. “When we started, a local newspaper columnist basically said, ‘this is stupid, it’s not going to work, what are we doing?'” Lashbrook recalls. “Now this columnist comes to games and he admits he was wrong.”

 

These doubts, though, led to hesitation from local companies over potential commercial partnerships.

“We were running quick. We did six months from announcement to first game. That is drinking out of a fire hose,” says Lashbrook. “We could have waited 18 months but I had to go show the sponsors what it was going to be. If I told the sponsors that it would be great, the response would have been ‘let’s see,’ so it was a case of ‘let’s go’. There was a natural hesitation, especially with editorials saying that this wasn’t going to work. The challenge was to get the atmosphere right and everything else would fall into place.”

It worked. In 2018, the team averaged 7,266 fans a game, which was the sixth-highest in the 33-team league, while this year average crowds have grown to 7,547 per match by mid-September.

In order to ensure an optimum fan experience from the outset, Lashbrook focused on two key initiatives: engaging the local Hispanic population – which represents about a third of the area’s entire 2.3 million population – and introducing a series of attention-grabbing Las Vegas-style gameday initiatives.

“The Golden Knights are amazing – starting a team the same year as them was not easy at all – but they were not getting the Hispanic audience. Being the sport of soccer, we have more of an opportunity to reach out to the diverse population of Las Vegas,” Lashbrook says.

“I knew that at this price point and the demographics in Las Vegas that we were going to get a real Latin flavor to the stadium, with drums, trumpets, smoke, tifos and flags, with singing and dancing in a front-row seat. I knew that if we presented it in the right way that the Hispanic community would come in droves. The Hispanic audience is my calling card, my niche, my point of differentiation. And how we’ve done it is by being authentic. You can’t force it. That’s been our special sauce,” he says.

The large attendances can also be attributed to the Lights’ innovative fan engagement tools, which have given the team national – and even international – media coverage. They include: the team’s mascot Cash the Soccer Rocker, a Harley Davidson-riding Elvis lookalike; using two llamas named Dolly and Dotty (who have been known to defecate on the field before kick-off) in team photos; a DJ in the team’s locker room; $5,000 cash drops from helicopters and the world’s largest water balloon party. Even hip-hop star Flavor Flav is a fan of the team.

Las Vegas Lights mascot Cash the Soccer Rocker (Credit: Las Vegas Lights)

The Lights have also pushed boundaries in regards to sponsorships, to the grudging acceptance of USL. In April 2018, the Lights teamed up with NuWu Cannabis Marketplace to become the first US professional sports team to partner with a marijuana dispensary. In an innovative partnership with Plaza Hotel and Casino, players are given $100 in gaming chips each time the team scores three or more goals in a home win.

“I’m a big believer in that a lot of teams are boring, they don’t have an identity, they try to please everyone and they just end up being forgotten about,” Lashbrook says. “Teams need to represent their community and downtown Las Vegas gives you a platform that you just can’t do in other communities, it gives you a platform to be different and to lead with your chin and not be apologetic. And we’re a new team, we’re trying to be different, to try to give ourselves a sense of character.”

Lashbrook says the promotions and gimmicks have a serious side. “When I started out I didn’t intend to be ‘the most interesting team in America’ but as you are going through the grind of starting this team, we realized there was this rocket fuel here. At first we dabbled with it and then we realized it enabled us to do really interesting things in a very cost-effective way. We’re not being crazy to be crazy. It used to be ‘what is the next crazy thing we can do?’ now it’s ‘what is the next innovative thing we can do?'”

As a USL team, the Lights are not making a profit just yet, although revenues have risen across the board in the team’s second season. But the team’s commercial future appears promising.

Las Vegas City council is currently in exclusive negotiations with The Renaissance Companies Inc. – a construction management firm led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group – to redevelop a 62-acre site surrounding Cashman Field, including transforming the venue into a 25,000-seat stadium which would anchor a surrounding mixed-use development.

Should the Renaissance Companies and the city successfully enter into a master development agreement, Baupost Group will take over and operate the Lights. A final decision is expected in October and, if approved, it is expected that the Baupost Group would apply to MLS to make the Lights an expansion team soon afterwards.

At the same time, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is leading a rival effort for an MLS expansion franchise in Las Vegas, with the hopes of housing the team at the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium, or possibly a new soccer-specific stadium.

“It’s exciting to see the journey from no one saw the opportunity [to put a professional soccer team in Las Vegas] to now multiple billionaires trying to bring even higher level soccer to town,” Lashbrook says.

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