There is a revolution currently taking place in Las Vegas, and though it is being televised, it can’t be truly appreciated without traveling to T-Mobile Arena and witnessing it for yourself. A city that did not have a professional sports franchise 12 months ago has evolved into the best sports town in America. And it all starts with a hockey team lifted straight out of Las Vegas’ imagination.
The Vegas Golden Knights were conceived in 2016 but were not truly born until June 18, 2017. On that day, the organization began selecting from a pool of veteran players made available by other teams in the NHL’s expansion draft. The roster was, therefore, an amalgam of the hopes and dreams of 30 other fan bases. And it did not disappoint.
The Vegas Golden Knights finished their inaugural regular season with an impressive 51-24 win-loss record and are the first North American expansion team in 50 years to reach its sport's championship round. This team is special, not just because of how great they are, but because all 30 NHL teams that preceded them are represented among their ranks. The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t in the Stanley Cup Finals, but their former goalie is. Marc-Andre Fleury spent over a decade with the Penguins, and now that their team is out, the city of Pittsburgh can rally behind one of their own. In the expansion draft, each team lost a single player. With each of those players, the Vegas Golden Knights gained a new fan base. All 30 other NHL cities had a reason to pick them as their surrogate team during their historic playoff run. Based on the pure sense of fun that run captured, both on the ice and through the team’s incredible pre-game presentations, those telecommuting fans have plenty of incentive to stick around.
The Vegas Golden Knights are hockey’s ultimate unifier—a great story with an even greater reach that perfectly exemplifies the transplant nature of the city’s population. Las Vegas attracts millions of visitors per year, and at a given time, likely has hundreds of thousands of tourists seeking one-of-a-kind experiences. There’s something incredibly fitting about that sort of city hosting hockey’s melting pot. That fit is even stronger when you consider Las Vegas’ previous place in the sports world.
What brings a sports fan to Las Vegas? Without teams, the answer has always been events. You go to Vegas to watch the Super Bowl because Lagasse’s Stadium at The Palazzo throws a better Super Bowl party than your local sports bar. March can’t reach true “Madness” without a room full of jetlagged strangers screaming for a school they’ve never heard of at the Westgate SuperBook. Take practically anything to the bright lights and late nights of Las Vegas and it becomes a party.
That party atmosphere is one of the defining traits of the sport that started it all for Las Vegas. Boxing has no geographic ties. Venues are picked on a fight-by-fight basis, and time and time again, they landed in Vegas. They did so out of pageantry. Vegas breeds characters, and sure enough, fights became populated with movie stars sitting ringside, outspoken promoters, and the world’s greatest fighters putting making each event historic. That is, after all, the entire purpose of a boxing match or a UFC fight. Fighters don’t wear jerseys with a city’s name on them. Fans don’t root for a winner, they root for a spectacle. Las Vegas is spectacle incarnate. And that is what makes the city wholly unique.
The greatest myth in sports is the notion of geographic identity. Philadelphia loves the Eagles and hates the Giants. New York loves the Yankees and hates the Red Sox. Boston loves itself and hates everyone else—and does so loudly enough to convince the world it somehow has a sports culture unique to itself. It doesn’t. While other cities play the overly dramatic game of Mad Libs that universally boils down to “our team is great and your team isn’t,” Las Vegas has managed to build an entirely independent identity around spectacle and inclusiveness because the word “our” has never existed in its sports vocabulary.
When the entire Pac-12 conference migrates down to Vegas for its basketball tournament, there isn’t a gym full of fans from one city cheering for one team. There are 12 of them. Just as there were 29 NHL fanbases pulling for the Vegas Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup. So even though they were defeated in the finals, up losing, too can win it. While Boston exists to be Boston’s favorite sports town, Vegas has become everyone’s sports town.
That makes it the perfect home for the NFL’s greatest nomads: the Oakland Raiders. Vegas will have a new football team in 2020, but it will be business as usual for the city the Raiders leave behind. Oakland lost the Raiders once before, in 1982, when they moved to Los Angeles. The Raiders came back in 1994, but once again find themselves on the move as neither city gave them the stadium they craved. That won’t be a problem in Las Vegas, as a new state-of-the-art facility is on the way, and based on the support fans have lavished on the Vegas Golden Knights, the Raiders won’t ever need to move again. Two city-wide fan bases are making the trek to Vegas with the Raiders, and it seems inevitable that a third major sports league will join them.
The NBA has long entrusted the unveiling of its brightest new stars to Vegas, where it hosts its annual Summer League. The league is also ripe for expansion thanks to booming revenues, an expanding talent pool, and an abundance of modern facilities in available markets. Vegas has one of those facilities in the sparkling T-Mobile Arena. It has a pre-existing relationship with the league and proof that basketball as a concept works in the market due to the success of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and popularity of the NBA Summer League. It sees how the city and country have embraced the Vegas Golden Knights.
The notion of Las Vegas as an NBA city seemed preposterous even five years ago. But the same thought held true of the NFL, and they’re making the move. The NHL already has with massive success. The Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA—the NBA’s sister league—quickly followed, as they left San Antonio and played their first home game at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on May 27. The Las Vegas Lights FC also made their debut in the USL in 2018.
Vegas is becoming a breeding ground of possibility in the sports landscape. If a hockey team can compete for the championship from the moment it lands, what could an NFL or NBA team achieve? Or a WNBA or USL squad for that matter?
The open-ended nature of that question also provides the answer, which is anything. In a sports world closed off by borders, Vegas has become the nation’s ultimate athletic destination because of that possibility. The Vegas Golden Knights are proof that the impossible can happen in Vegas. The flock of teams and leagues to plant flags there is proof that it will keep happening. And there’s no better seat to watch the revolution upend sports than right in the heart of one of America’s liveliest destinations.