We’re suddenly surrounded by sports. Much of the infectious current excitement is being generated by the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s first major league professional team, which is defying expansion expectations by leading the Western Conference. And of course there are the NFL’s Raiders—due to arrive in 2020—and their $2 billion stadium.
But the new team that could prove to be the most natural fit here is arriving stealthily. The Las Vegas Aces made their biggest splash on December 11 when they unveiled their name and logo in typically Vegas flashy fashion at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. The WNBA team formerly known as the San Antonio Stars will begin play at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in May.
Like Las Vegas’ other sports developments, this team’s transition has been shockingly fast. MGM Resorts International purchased the team in October and hired veteran WNBA figure Bill Laimbeer to lead the way as head coach and president of basketball operations. This month, MGM also announced it’ll spend $10 million to spruce up the Aces’ new venue.
WNBA president Lisa Borders told ESPN the move to Vegas is all about “tickets, tickets, tickets. Fill the arena, fill the arena,” she said. “Vegas brings star power to our league. It’s a destination city, so you are importing people that are a potential fan pool. And the data tells us that Vegas is a top-10 basketball market. We want to go where the fish are biting.”
Basketball has always been a favorite sport in Las Vegas, but Borders believes the WNBA needs Vegas, and she should know. The former chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation took over in 2016, one year after the WNBA posted the lowest attendance numbers in its 19-year history. It might be the most recognizable women’s pro sports league in the world, but it has always struggled for relevancy and financial success, even though experts and observers agree the quality of play has never been better.
“The players are bigger, faster and stronger by far than ever before,” Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Sun. “All the ladies in college basketball are on TV, they get exposure and now they want to go to the next level, because there is a next level in professional sports for them.”
The idea that young girls’ athletic dreams can come true is the foundation of the league’s “Watch Me Work” ad campaign, an exciting and empowering effort that sparked a boost in attendance for the WNBA’s 20th season in 2017. Under Borders’ leadership, the league has displayed a united, progressive stance on social issues like the national anthem protests that have divided the NFL’s audience. The league has also launched a public-awareness campaign with LeanIn.org to spotlight the role men play in gender equality.
As Laimbeer repeatedly mentioned at the House of Blues event, the WNBA’s connection to its communities truly sets the league apart. Its charitable outreach, WNBA Cares, focuses on education, youth and family development, health and wellness, with specific programs like Hoops for Troops, supporting active and retired service men and women; Fit, a grassroots wellness, fitness and nutrition outreach; and summertime Pride and breast cancer awareness initiatives.
Laimbeer promised Las Vegas will regularly spot the Aces out and about in the community. “If we can show everyone how hard we play and show them how passionate we are, that will help, but [so will] community involvement,” Aces player Kayla Alexander told ESPN. “As players in the WNBA, we pride ourselves on giving back, and that will be the same here. If we do that, I think the fans will come.”
Like Las Vegas as a whole, Mandalay Bay is still recovering from the October 1 tragedy, but the South-strip resort offers the complete Vegas entertainment package in a way few properties can, and it boasts one of the largest convention centers anywhere to help keep traffic flowing. Adding a new sports team to Mandalay’s mix—and Las Vegas’—looks like a genius stroke.