The guy was pissed. I nearly walked into him because the sun was low in the sky and glaring right into my field of vision. Luckily, he wasn’t pissed at me, but at the friends who had asked him to stand in a parking space at Sam Boyd Stadium until they arrived.
The United Football League was about to start its first season, and the guy was ready to party and look cool, beer in hand, sunglasses, flip-flops … “I’ve been standing here since 5. I feel like a dipshit.”
That feeling—one of expectations not quite met—started to creep in long before I arrived at the readily available ticket window. After all, other than UNLV’s Rebels, football in other incarnations hasn’t fared so well in Las Vegas. (XFL and He Hate Me, anyone?) But here we were again. The UFL consists of four teams—the Las Vegas Locomotives, the California Redwoods, the Florida Tuskers and the New York Sentinels. The “season” will consist of six games, followed by a championship bout in Las Vegas. Players are a mix of those trying to make it to the NFL or former NFL-ers on the comeback trail.
But a professional football game in Las Vegas? There just seemed to be a disconnect between those two things the minute I arrived. Though I stopped and strained to look, nowhere could I see tailgating parties going on. Which invites the question: If there’s no tailgating, did a football game really happen?
Well, yeah. For a few thousand people, anyway. An extremely pleasant usher looked at my $10 ticket, then looked way, way up at the nosebleed seats … and then told me, “You don’t have to go all the way up. We didn’t sell that many tickets.”
As I made my way to whatever seat I wanted, I ran into a softball buddy I hadn’t seen in a while. Scanning the crowd, he observed, “This is what UNLV’s next home game will look like.”
Despite what looked to me like a disappointingly low turnout, the exuberance of the UFL never waned. “Time to get on your feet,” a loudspeaker blared. “Professional football is finally here!” From what I could see, not one attendee stood. Hell, even fireworks and two planes from Nellis doing a flyover didn’t raise more than mild clapping, although one guy turned to his wife and, holding his camera at the ready, said, dejectedly, “I missed the fireworks.” At least some were in the spirit.
Of course, once uniforms hit the field, the mood changed. Suddenly, a group of guys who had to keep checking the program began shouting, “We’re the Locomotives! Woo!” (Although I question if they really knew what that means in its historical context.) A reporter from the local NBC affiliate roamed the crowd, asking questions like, “Who’s the biggest football fan here?” Nearly everyone he approached beamed for the camera.
The breaks for commercials (the game could be seen on the Versus network, which I didn’t even know existed) were filled with either public-service announcements or awkward interviews with players whose names I could barely make out. Wow, I had no idea what’s-his-name’s favorite movie is The Usual Suspects.
Breaks in the action were all too frequent. One kid off to my left kept scraping the grooved surface of the bench—that is, when he wasn’t cracking pistachios and stomping on the shells. One row up from him, a guy whose arm seemed permanently attached to his girlfriend mused, “They’ll be blowing this up on ESPN, making it look better than the NFL.” She didn’t argue, because, as everyone knows, any male becomes an expert on everything during football games.
Our team down 13-3, many fans began to get ambulatory. A quick look at the concession stand revealed lines 50 people deep. But strangely, the bathrooms were completely empty. This crowd could hold its alcohol.
At this point, a lot of fans in our section seemed more interested in watching former NFL player Kordell “Slash” Stewart, here relegated to sideline reporter and interviewing Denzel Washington, who was there to watch his son, John David Washington, a running back for the California Redwoods. “Remember the Titans!” one guy screamed. A jersey-clad teenager reeled around. “Hey, that was a great movie, dude!”
It struck me as extremely odd that at no point during the game did the announcers refer to our team as the Locomotives. It was always “Locos.” Then a videotaped message from UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue explained that they liked the nickname because of Las Vegas’ large Hispanic population, and how it suggests a bunch of out-of-control guys. I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been had the team just been named the Crazies.
Anyway, at this point the Locos went ahead, and the crowd, which according to Huyghue was 15,000 strong (I was dubious, as were several others I overheard in the crowd), began to really get into things. One guy stood up and started to shimmy to Usher’s “Yeah!” That is, until he looked around and realized he was the only one, and sheepishly sat down.
Las Vegas won the game 30-17, and the vibe was mostly a positive one. A few people could be overheard talking about how they were coming back for the next game. And on my way back to my car, I overheard a guy say sarcastically to his girlfriend, “Good thing they didn’t steal my grill. Want a chair?” pointing to the evidence I’d been looking for earlier—a grill and a folding chair sitting in the middle of a parking space.
Someone did hold a tailgate party, even if it was only one guy. Maybe there’s hope for professional sports in Las Vegas after all.