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Las Vegas new magnet for major sporting events

Updated April 25, 2022 - 3:27 pm

Until recently, Las Vegas was an afterthought to host major sporting events.

Phoenix, for many years, had a monopoly in the Southwest on showcasing championships such as the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

The stigma of legalized sports betting and a lack of adequate facilities made Las Vegas a nonfactor. Los Angeles also suffered from the lack of a modern stadium, despite quality arenas in the metro area.

But that has all changed. Now Las Vegas and Los Angeles — with new, state-of-the-art facilities — have put Phoenix on notice.

For Las Vegas, it’s been quite a rise. The combination of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a law in 2018 that essentially legalized sports betting nationwide, as well as the opening of T-Mobile Arena in 2016 and Allegiant Stadium in 2020, changed everything.

Not only do the NFL and NHL have teams in Las Vegas, but the NFL draft will take place here Thursday through Saturday, and other major professional and college events have been played here with more on the way.

The draft originally was going to be in Las Vegas in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to go virtual. Because it already was scheduled for Cleveland in 2021, the NFL awarded the draft to Las Vegas for this year.

Its presence in Las Vegas is the latest indication of the giant step Las Vegas has taken as a sports city. The draft will draw hundreds of thousands of people to the Strip and make the city front and center to a national TV audience.

Today, when it comes to Las Vegas, University of Southern California sports business professor David Carter said, “I think the pendulum has swung dramatically in the last five years toward that of ‘we’re thinking about it’ to today that ‘if all possible, we need to be there.’ There’s no other city in the country that has accelerated its position as a landing spot than Las Vegas.”

The rise of Las Vegas and re-emergence of Los Angeles have not gone unnoticed by Phoenix organizers.

“We do want to make sure that we don’t lose our pole position,” said Lorne Edwards, senior vice president of sales and destination services for Visit Phoenix.

Battle for future events

All three Southwestern cities are in the midst of a run hosting Super Bowls, a rare occasion given the NFL would rather spread its marquee game from region to region. But the league tends to reward cities that open new buildings, making Las Vegas and Los Angeles attractive hosts.

SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, hosted this year’s Super Bowl, which next year moves to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. In 2024, the big game comes to Las Vegas.

Don’t expect the NFL to go back-to-back-to-back in the same region again any time soon.

“I do think creating some regional diversity is positive when we can,” said Matt Shapiro, NFL vice president of events strategy.

Among the events coming up, Las Vegas will host an NCAA men’s basketball regional in 2023, a Formula One race for at least the next three years, beginning in 2023, and college hockey’s Frozen Four in 2026.

Los Angeles will be home to baseball’s All-Star Game this summer, the College Football Playoff National Championship next year, a men’s basketball regional in 2024 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2028.

Phoenix gets the men’s Final Four in 2024 and the women’s version in 2026.

There are events all three cities still hope to attract. Las Vegas could be in line for a future CFP National Championship and Final Four. Los Angeles is waiting to see if it will be a host city for the 2026 World Cup. In addition to next year’s Super Bowl, Phoenix will remain a player whenever a championship spot opens.

Follow the process

Most college championships are put out for bid, and that used to be the case in the NFL. But the league streamlined the process in 2017 by identifying a handful of potential host cities, working behind the scenes to determine which sites make the most sense for which year.

Then the NFL negotiates exclusively with each city, a process that typically takes about six months but can last up to a year. From the beginning to when the game is played usually takes about two years, but can be as long as five.

“We like to have a number of years ahead of us to create a runway for planning,” Shapiro said.

The next Super Bowl years to be determined are in 2026 and 2027, and for the CFP National Championship, the next open dates are 2025 and 2026, as it concludes its 12-year contract.

Las Vegas will not be considered for the CFP title game for those years because of a conflict with the enormously popular Consumer Electronics Show. The city is expected to be a strong contender if the four-team field expands beginning in 2027 and moves the game later into January.

“We’d love to host a national championship for college football, but we’re not going to disrupt CES, our largest trade show, just to do that,” said Brendan Bussmann, founder of Las Vegas-based consulting firm B Global. “So those aren’t factors LA goes into. Those aren’t factors that Phoenix goes into. So we’re going to play our game just like we have on everything else, and we’ll see what we get done and what we can pick away at.”

Phoenix hosted the CFP title game in 2016. The opening of SoFi Stadium in 2020 allowed Los Angeles to get the championship next year. The tradition-rich Rose Bowl didn’t have the modern amenities, such as the number of suites and available back-stage space.

CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock acknowledged as much, and said all three Southwestern cities are strong candidates for future games, though there is an emphasis on trying to spread the championship to many different venues.

“It’s a tremendous endeavor for a city to host an event like ours,” Hancock said. “For the Final Four, Super Bowl, CFP, I think we all realize that cities need to take a step back, take a deep breath and rest up a little bit before they crank up again.”

The last time the Final Four announced its cities was in July 2018, and the next round could be unveiled this summer. If Las Vegas is awarded the event, the earliest it would host would be 2027.

Las Vegas’ rivals

SoFi Stadium brought Los Angeles back as a prime-time contender, making it possible for the country’s second-largest media market to host events that otherwise would have gone elsewhere. Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is building a new arena near SoFi that could draw even more top events.

The push to build facilities is a relatively new development for Los Angeles.

“Part of the LA aura was to say, ‘We don’t care. We have everything else. We don’t need that,’” said Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute. “But I think once the bids for the Olympics started up again (that enhanced) the idea of having a modern, world-class facility. The Coliseum and the Rose Bowl are extraordinary facilities, but just not where we are today.”

Los Angeles is the only Southwestern city likely capable of hosting the Olympics, but Las Vegas should find itself on fairly even footing when it comes to trying to beat out L.A. for other events.

And then there’s Phoenix.

“The Cardinals’ facility will be, hard to imagine, dated relative to Vegas,” Shropshire said. “Compared to there and what’s in Southern California, it’s the third-best facility now for sure.”

Phoenix officials aren’t sitting idle. Upgrades have been made to State Farm Stadium and Footprint Center, the downtown Phoenix arena where the Suns and Mercury play.

The valley’s transit system will be extended, and Visit Phoenix’s Edwards said another major hotel next to or near the convention center is needed to keep up with demand.

“It’s something that our committee is looking at constantly just to make sure we’re keeping up with the times and the demands that these marquee events drive,” Edwards said. “I think it’s good competition. It’s good for us. It keeps us all focused on the right areas.”

Phoenix, known largely for its ability to smoothly pull off major events, remains powerful competition for Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

USC’s Carter said much of what determines which city lands which event comes down to what organizers seek.

“If they’re looking for a splash, nothing will be splashier than a Formula One race in Las Vegas,” Carter said. “If they’re looking for something that’s turnkey, a Super Bowl in Phoenix is pretty much that. If they’re looking for branding, hosting your event at SoFi in Los Angeles with the positive marketing shadow that building is casting, maybe that’s where you go.”

Las Vegas is long used to competing for major events and successfully hosting them, though many have been on the entertainment side.

“There is a template that any event can come and overlay here in Vegas and customize their event from that,” Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson said. “I think that’s the competitive advantage we have is that the template is so strong.

“I think we are as strong as we’ve ever been and more competitive than anyone we’re competing against. That doesn’t mean we’ll always get the event.”

Las Vegas past, future

Las Vegas’ rise in the sports world appears fast given that so much has happened in recent years. The city was granted an NHL expansion team in 2016, opened T-Mobile Arena that same year, was awarded the Raiders franchise in 2017 and opened Allegiant Stadium in 2020.

In truth, Las Vegas’ ascension has been much more gradual, dating to the 1950s, when the city began to host championship fights and became known as the Boxing Capital of the World. The Las Vegas Bowl was launched in 1992 as a reason to fill hotel rooms and now pits a Pac-12 team against one from the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference.

The NBA Summer League began with just six teams in 2004 and now welcomes all 30 and serves as the league’s key summer meeting spot. In 2007, the NBA put its All-Star Game in Las Vegas, and though it created a great deal of off-court controversy with more than 400 people reportedly arrested, the move was a sign a major pro league finally saw the city in a favorable light.

College basketball fans can now count on seeing some of the nation’s best teams often play each other in Las Vegas. That began in 2006 when Kansas beat defending national champion Florida in overtime at Orleans Arena before a raucous sold-out crowd, leading to programs such as Duke, Kentucky and UCLA to make regular appearances here.

Five conferences play their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Las Vegas venues. The most recent to move here was the Big West, which vacated the Honda Center in Anaheim, even though it’s largely a California-based league.

The Pac-12 has made Las Vegas its virtual headquarters. Commissioner George Kliavkoff lives in Las Vegas, and the conference football championship is played at Allegiant Stadium.

So what’s next for Las Vegas?

Landing the Final Four could be next, and more down the road the CFP National Championship. Should the Oakland Athletics move to Las Vegas and the NBA one day place a franchise here, that opens up possibilities for playoff and all-star games in both sports.

The 2024 Super Bowl also likely won’t be the last in Las Vegas, which could become a part of the NFL’s rotation of cities for that game.

“Las Vegas certainly has the ingredients for what it takes to be a great Super Bowl host,” Shapiro said.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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