LAS VEGAS — The most overwhelming sensation for a first-time visitor to Las Vegas is the sheer number of overwhelming sensations. Between the lights, the crowds and the DJs behind laptops stationed seemingly every hundred yards along the Strip, it would be forgivable if there was skepticism that pro sports would be able to draw the critical mass of necessary focus in order to flourish here.
And yet they have. And they’re growing. The Vegas Golden Knights may have been the first game in town, but they won’t be the last. Las Vegas is among the hottest hotbeds of growth in major professional sports.
The MLB Winter Meetings are being hosted by Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino this week, and though it’s not the first time the meetings have been here (it’s a pleasant place to visit in the winter for any number of reasons), it is the first time that they’ve been here since the Golden Knights began play in the NHL and quickly established that sports are and can be an indelible part of the Vegas fabric.
Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, formerly of the St. Louis Blues, conceded on Wednesday night that he was among those who thought, “it was just gonna be a bunch of visiting team fans” when the Knights took the ice. After being traded to Vegas by Pittsburgh in February, he was surprised by what he found.
“When I got here,” Reaves said, “it was something I had never seen before. It’s all locals. They’re partying in the stands. They’re loud the whole game.”
Reaves said that it’s impossible to drive around Vegas without seeing “decals and stickers and flags everywhere.” His observations are validated by the teeming mass of humanity surrounding T-Mobile Arena before Sunday’s victory over the Dallas Stars began. Nearly every member of the crowd seemed to be clad in a gray Golden Knights sweater representing wide swaths of the roster. The enthusiasm was palpable.
It was also certainly noticed by the representatives of approximately six MLB franchises who attended Sunday’s game as guests of the Golden Knights. Those team officials, primarily from public relations and communications staffs, got an up-close look at the unique Vegas atmosphere. With the NFL’s Raiders scheduled to move to Las Vegas for the 2020 NFL season, the professional landscape here is growing. The NBA seems likely to follow. MLB is likely to be the last – and perhaps most complicated – hold out.
Despite protestations about market size and concerns over franchise viability, the biggest struggle related to placing professional teams in Vegas has always been the city’s inextricable connection to the gaming industry. Baseball is particularly sensitive to these concerns. The Black Sox and Pete Rose remain permanent stains on the game, and every major league clubhouse still displays a prohibition on gambling at the very top of prominent posters of rules.
That sensitivity will eventually be overcome by the cleansing power of vast sums of money. Last month, MLB reached a landmark deal with MGM that will allow the gaming giant to become baseball’s official gaming partner. MGM has similar agreements with the NBA and NHL, and those deals have served as a pathway toward integrating wagering more directly into the fan experience. They also come in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court decision this May which allowed for expansion into many states that were previously under a prohibition.
As sports in Vegas grow, athletes will come to and leave the city as they have so many others. No matter who comes and goes, however, someone had to be first. That someone is Reid Duke, a forward who was recalled to the NHL by the Golden Knights for the first time within the last week.
Duke was the first player acquired by the Golden Knights when he signed as a free agent from Brandon of the Western Hockey League in March of 2017. When asked about being the original Vegas professional athlete, Duke confessed that he had “never really thought of it that way.” He was patient zero without ever realizing it.
Still, Duke was enthused about the impact the Golden Knights have had on the community. “I think that’s cool that we get to bring that kind of atmosphere to the city first and kinda get the fans cheering for hockey right off the bat,” he said.
The Golden Knights may have been the first, but they will not be the last. As the city plays host to all of MLB’s top brass this week, the most important movers and shakers in baseball will get an up-close view of the changes that have taken place since Las Vegas became a professional town.
Though a first-time visitor may not be able to say for sure, it appears to look a lot like the old Las Vegas, albeit with an extra coat of gray. Somehow, though, that gray seems to make the city shine even brighter.