Another day, another new professional sports team for Las Vegas. The Las Vegas City Council recently unanimously approved a lease agreement for an expected United Soccer League expansion team to play at Cashman Field. While the city was denied a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in 2015, ongoing chatter has maintained that a pro soccer team would be a natural fit for the Valley. USL President Jake Edwards said as much in a statement: “Las Vegas is a market that has all of the ingredients to be the home to a strong professional soccer club.” But who are Las Vegas’ soccer fans—and will they even support a new team?
Area soccer fans can generally be divided into three camps: general sports fans (for whom soccer may or may not be their favorite sport), adult and youth league soccer players, and the Latino community. It’s not hard to imagine soccer fans and athletes wanting to idolize their new hometown heroes. But what about adults who might already have allegiances to other teams or sports?
While he’s the president of Las Vegas chapter of the American Outlaws—fervent adult supporters of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams—Steve Engler is already “a fan 100 percent” of the unnamed, unstaffed USL team, whose first game is still eight months away. He sees it not only drawing in soccer fans like him who have only been able to root on their favorite teams in a bar, but the thousands of youth soccer players who will coax their families into taking them to Cashman—and others who want to watch people from their city on the playing field. “The USL team will draw in more local players,” says Engler. “It will be more connected to Las Vegas than an MLS team.”
More potentially tenuous is the team’s connection to what many see as the obvious audience: Latinos, who comprise 31 percent of Clark County’s population, and whose traditional devotion to the sport is renown. “Soccer is a huge part of our community. It’s embedded in our blood,” says Jose Sahagun, captain of the local battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army, the American fanbase of the Mexican national football team.
He sees a potential Hispanic embrace of the USL team despite any pre-existing allegiances to home-country teams, but it will come down to marketing and promotion that literally speak their language. “They need to do a lot of community outreach,” he says. “There’s a lot they can take advantage of, like the Dios de los Muertos [event] at Springs Preserve, where they can make a presence. And if they put out their publications in Spanish, that will help out a lot.”
Jose Lopez, host of La Cantina—a nightly show on ESPN Deportes Las Vegas 1460-AM that promotes the UNLV Soccer Team—agrees that the new team is a potential draw for fútbol fans, but adds that the USL will have its work cut out for it. For one, Latino soccer leagues are family-owned and might be dismissive or jealous of another team that takes the focus off their own. And for many Latinos, a home team must not only embody identity and stir pride, but foster inclusion. “You need unity. That’s the main word, especially with the political ambiance we have right now,” he says. “Include the Hispanic community in the development of our city. Make them feel like they belong here, that they’re not just neighbors.”
The new USL team has an opportunity to expand soccer’s appeal in Las Vegas beyond the presumed audience. That’ll mean exposure—merely going to a game, learning the rules and seeing what about the sport stirs so much passion. “Anytime you can bring in professional sports to an area, it will always grow that sport [there],” says Eric McDonald, director of Heat FC, the competitive arm of the Southern Nevada Soccer Association. “We went from the Las Vegas Thunder to the Las Vegas Wranglers to the Vegas Golden Knights. You’re going to grow that base and drive for having [soccer] here, create more players and expand the game in Las Vegas.”