Just hours after the WNBA announced its San Antonio Stars had been purchased by MGM Resorts International and would move to Las Vegas to play at Mandalay Bay Events Center, thousands of people piled into the Park, MGM’s short strip of restaurants and bars between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo casinos. There were rock bands playing there and on the faux Brooklyn Bridge along Las Vegas Boulevard, and extra beer vendors trying to keep up with the steady stream of pedestrians. You couldn’t fit another person into Shake Shack or Beerhaus. The environment felt electrified. It was a Tuesday night, and the Vegas Golden Knights were about to beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 in overtime inside T-Mobile Arena.
Las Vegas’ first major league pro sports team has become a phenomenon. The Golden Knights’ fairy tale 7-1 start is a big reason why, but if you’ve been to T-Mobile for a game or even spent time here at the Park before or after a game, you’ve seen the bigger picture. If you were hanging around Shake Shack on October 17, you would have seen a visiting New Yorker wearing a Sabres hat and a newly purchased Golden Knights jersey.
It might seem like this happened overnight—we got a hockey team and then a football team and now a WNBA team that could possibly lead to an NBA team—but plenty of official people have been working for plenty of years behind the scenes to turn Las Vegas into a major league sports town. For its part—building T-Mobile Arena for the NHL (and NBA?) and buying the Stars—MGM is just starting to reap the benefits.
The average attendance for the first six regular-season NHL games in Las Vegas is 17,834. The listed capacity for hockey at T-Mobile is 17,500. A lot of these people are surely like the guy in the Sabres hat, tourists who decided to make an extra trip to Vegas to catch their team in action. That will occur less frequently for the Las Vegas Stars when they begin playing women’s basketball at Mandalay Bay next year, but even more often when the Las Vegas Raiders start playing football at a new stadium that just happens to be very close to Mandalay, the Luxor, Excalibur and all the other MGM resorts on the south Strip.
WNBA President Lisa Borders said last week she had been working on moving a team to Vegas for a long time: “We have a responsibility to the players and fans that the league is healthy, finding a great spot for that team to land. That’s what we’ve done in Las Vegas.”
The Stars have become the third WNBA squad (in the 12-team league) to play in a city without an NBA team. The Connecticut Sun—the other WNBA team owned by a company with casino holdings—plays in Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, and the Seattle Storm plays in Key Arena, where the SuperSonics ran the court before moving to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder in 2008.
This year, attendance for WNBA games grew to the largest per game average since 2011, the second consecutive year attendance went up. This year’s average was 7,716 per game. The closest team to Las Vegas, the LA Sparks, have the highest average attendance. Mandalay Bay Events Center’s capacity is 12,000.
The assumption always has been that the long-term success of a pro sports team here will depend on the locals, that Las Vegans will need to visit the Strip to cheer on its teams, which will need to win to keep the fans coming. That assessment should hold up for the WNBA’s Stars simply because fewer fans attend those games. But all those Sabres hats on the Strip make you wonder if the NHL, NFL and potentially impending NBA actually need that many Las Vegans.
We’ve only actually had major league sports for a few weeks, but it seems clear they’re a good fit. Whoever decided sports would be the next wave of Las Vegas entertainment looks like a genius right now.