Las Vegas has been betting big on sports as its new tourism highlight – but in many cases, they’ve done it in a surprisingly small way. Suddenly there is a lot more than meets the eye for sports loving travelers, and many bargains have been added to the otherwise glitzy scene.
Vegas is a city of constant reinvention, and the most recent iteration has occurred extremely quickly. Almost overnight, Vegas has become the nation’s top destination city for sports, which plays out in three distinct ways. All are successful because they combine spectator sports with the other unrivalled entertainment offerings, music, nightlife, gastronomy and action that has made Vegas one of the world’s favorite vacation destinations and sparked a string of recent tourism records.
First, it’s the new favorite “away game” city for hockey or football fans to see their home team on the road against the Raiders or Golden Knights. Secondly, it’s the place to take in other special one-of-a-kind sporting events live, from championship boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) to NASCAR racing to the National Finals Rodeo, along with one-off biggies like the recent Pro Bowl and upcoming Superbowl (2024), the biggest day in America sports. Thirdly it is the top place away from home to watch – and bet on – spectator sports on television, especially big events including the Superbowl, March Madness, major horse races (Kentucky Derby, Breeders Cup), World Cup soccer, and all the big-league playoffs and championships. Many casinos throw special parties around major sporting events, and the city’s sports books have been reinvented for comfort with in-seat food ordering, reservable luxury boxes, couches and more – there is even sports betting and viewing from the swimming pool. As a result, despite the fact that sports betting is now allowed in more than half the states in the country, fans still flock to Las Vegas to partake in the excitement.
I’ve written about Las Vegas’ emergence as the capital of spectator sports before, but until now most of the attention has focused on the city’s ability to secure the biggest things in sports, from landing new WNBA, NFL and NHL teams in fast succession (just five years ago it was the largest city in the country with no franchise in the “big four” American sports) to hosting the very highest-profile one-off or annual events, including the upcoming Superbowl and the nation’s newest Formula One (F1) race. The Las Vegas Grand Prix, beginning next November and expected to be annual, is simply huge in the world of sports and travel, and is expected to break the city’s all time event attendance record. It may even rival the Indy 500, long the most attended single day sporting event on earth. You can learn more about the new F1 race here.
But what’s far less well-known is how the city has in similarly very fast fashion built a vast infrastructure of much smaller and more under the radar spectator sports offerings that are well worth considering if you are a sports loving visitor. I remember coming here for the Rugby Sevens World Cup years ago and just being blown away by how much fun the high energy, low key, very international tournament was (since departed). While there was much hoopla around the debut of the new state of the art T-Mobile Arena (hockey, fights) and Allegiant Stadium (NFL, Superbowl, NCAA football), these represent just half of the city’s brand-new sports venues, and the on-field options go way beyond the more obvious – and often hard to get – Raiders and Golden Knights tickets.
The prime example is the Las Vegas Aviators, the city’s Triple A minor league baseball team, which got a brand new – and extremely welcoming – stadium in 2019, the 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin. While Las Vegas has quickly moved away from its 99-cent shrimp cocktail and bargain hotel room days to increasingly become a very expensive place to visit, the Aviators offer up a refreshingly affordable throwback day or night out. They are locally beloved thanks to very accessible tickets (from $14), and a fun and lively venue with lots of fireworks nights and theme games.
The open-air stadium is a great spring to fall escape to America’s pastime, and just won Ballpark Digest’s Best of the Ballpark Fan Vote for the second consecutive year. It has exceptional options like an outpost of BBQ Mexicana (the original is in Mandalay Bay). This is the fast casual eatery from award-winning celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and TV personalities Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (the Too Hot Tamales) and the burnt end tacos is one of the best barbecue dishes in the entire country (and arguably the best grab and go option in Vegas). There’s also a classic Chicago-style hot dog stand, other foods, and the Aviators have their own line of custom craft beers from local Tenaya Creek Brewery. The stadium is also hosting the Pacific Coast League Championship, International League Championship and Triple-A National Championship on three consecutive days this fall (September 30- October 2).
Until Las Vegas gets its own Major League Baseball team – something rumored to be happening sooner rather than later (just last month the league waived fees for the Oakland A’s, who have been scouting stadium spots near the Strip, to move here) – the Aviators fill the void nicely. It’s just a great several hours of entertainment and a ton of bang for the buck.
When it comes to the other missing major sport, the National Basketball Association, well, Las Vegas has a minor league team for that too, the Ignite in the NBA G League. Another brand-new arena, the Dollar Loan Center, just opened in suburban Henderson five months ago, and will be home to the Ignite for staring with the 2022-23 season.
The 5,567-seat Dollar Loan Center is also home to yet another minor league team, the Henderson Silver Knights, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the city’s most beloved sports team, the NHL Golden Knights. Many sports pundits consider hockey the best team sport to watch live, and this gives visitors twice the options, and a great affordable alternative when Golden Knights tickets are too hard to come by (which is much of the time). As a result of this affiliation, the arena boasts a “Modern Medieval” theme including staff in costume. Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley (also a very successful and prominent winery owner and Executive Chairman of the Board of financial powerhouse Fidelity) has brought his wines to the Dollar Loan Center, and the Foley Food and Wine Society has a tasting salon here.
If NBA G and AHL teams are not enough, the arena is also the home field for a third local franchise, the Vegas Knight Hawks, who play in the Indoor Football League. Again, for fans of football, America’s most popular spectator sport, expect tickets to be much, much cheaper and easier to come by than for the Raiders.
Expansion teams in just about every sport traditionally get off to terrible starts because they have no talent pipeline, nothing in development, and begin by picking up the scraps other teams are willing to discard. When the Golden Knights debuted just five years ago, they were 500-1 longshots who probably would have faced even longer odds if they were not the hometown team. But they had a true Cinderella season, easily the best performance by any expansion team ever in any major sport, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Maybe the same will be true for the city’s latest expansion team, the Desert Dogs of the National Lacrosse League. The DD’s first roster was just selected this month in the League’s 2022 Expansion Draft, taking one player from the unprotected roster of each of the league’s other 14 teams, setting the stage for an inaugural 2022-23 season. The Las Vegas Desert Dogs are co-owned by all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky along with others including NBA star Steve Nash and Liv Tour golfer Dustin Johnson.
Speaking of golf, Las Vegas has also become a semi-regular venue for the Match, a twice-yearly sports celebrity mash-up that usually features two-man teams which can include pro golfers, other sports celebrities or both. The inaugural Tiger Woods edition was here at Shadow Creek Golf Club, while the most recent two Match events were right on the Strip at the Wynn Golf Club, most recently with NFL star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers partnering against Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.
The Desert Dogs will play at Michelob Ultra Arena located inside Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Ultra is the easiest of all these venues to attend since it is right inside a Strip resort, and is also home to the WNBA Las Vegas Aces, the city’s highest profile professional basketball team, who made it to the league championships in 2020.
The final recent sports news of note is the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which returned in 2021 after a one-year hiatus when the event decamped for Dallas due to COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada. It spans 10-days, is the nation’s biggest rodeo event, and the 2021 return surpassed the sold out 2019 season with 170,000 attendees. The NFR is in early December, always coincides with a slate of high-profile country music live performances, and anchors one of the most interesting but least widely known Las Vegas signature events, Cowboy Christmas.
The NFR is held at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center, while Cowboy Christmas, at the city’s huge Convention Center, is even bigger – it drew over 241,000. The Western-themed gift show has been a local institution for more than 25 years, spans more than half a million square feet with 350+ exhibitors, and is a marketplace of jewelry, western wear, boots, horse accessories, furniture, art, crafts and home goods. In addition to the shop till you drop offerings, Cowboy Christmas includes a saloon (of course), food court, its own rodeo (the $1 million purse YETI Junior World Finals), live DJ and acoustic artist performances, and a main stage of live music daily.
Resorts World is the first new build mega-casino resort to hit Vegas in over a decade, and I did an in-depth profile of the three hotels, facilities and especially the excellent food scene and line up of restaurants here at Forbes just a few weeks ago. The city’s newest, shiniest property is partnering with the NFR and from December 1-10, Resorts World will be transformed into “Rodeo World.” The huge resort will offer Rodeo-inspired entertainment, room packages, rodeo activations and more, with country superstar Luke Bryan in residence at the state-of-the-art Resorts World Theater.