Las Vegas Cementing Itself As Basketball Powerhouse

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Las Vegas Basketball
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Looking for the Mecca of Basketball? Try Sin City.

As the USA Basketball training camp wound down in Las Vegas, it put a cap on a busy summer of hoops in the desert. As usual, the city hosted the NBA Summer League, along with a slew of AAU tournaments. But this year, the city also welcomed the WNBA All-Star Game along with USA Basketball, which returns every so often. While events kept basketball fans, players and professionals alike flocking to Las Vegas, it’s far from unusual. 

“Las Vegas has been an epicenter for basketball for quite some time, but it’s certainly amplified in recent years,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “It’s probably for a different reason for a lot of entities, but there’s a lot of affordable hotels and great infrastructure. For us, we struck up a relationship with Wynn and Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Bureau. It’s really around the relationships you build.” 

USA Basketball finished up its camp with a Blue vs. White scrimmage at T-Mobile Arena, an MGM property and home to the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. Finishing at T-Mobile is fitting, because the palpable momentum of the sport in Las Vegas is due in large part because of MGM’s efforts. 

MGM made its basketball intentions loud and clear when it bought a WNBA franchise in 2017 and moved it to Las Vegas from San Antonio. The Aces are now one of the top teams in the league and has the full support of MGM behind them, said Rushia Brown, Aces player programs & franchise development manager.

“Vegas does everything big and the fact they would embrace sports just means it will be at the highest level possible,” Brown said. “Jim Murren, [MGM] CEO and chairman had a conversation with me about how important it is to have basketball, and specifically women’s. They understand the impact it has on the community.”

MGM Senior Vice President of Sports Partnerships Lance Evans said basketball is the missing piece of the puzzle for the city when it comes to sports. 

“We have the NFL coming, there’s a wildly successful hockey team, very successful minor league baseball and soccer teams,” Evans said. “What’s left is basketball.”

This summer’s mass amount of basketball events in Las Vegas wasn’t by accident and while it might be hard to beat, MGM and the city’s other powerful voices aren’t stopping.

“We are always pushing,” he said. “Trying to do more with a variety of teams and leagues. Priority one is to improve on what we did this year. I don’t know if that means more events or just promoting at a higher level and giving fans a greater experience.”

UNLV Roots

Evans said for much of Las Vegas, the basketball love affair started during UNLV’s powerhouse days in the late 1970s to early 1990s, including the 1990 National Championship, when the team was lead by head coach Jerry Tarkanian. The late Tarkanian’s influence is still felt throughout the Las Vegas valley. 

Brown said the struggles on the court for UNLV has left an opening for other basketball entities to pick up some love, while the school works toward bringing back Runnin’ Rebel basketball.

“It’s important we solidify Las Vegas as a place of basketball,” Brown said. “UNLV’s glory days showed basketball can thrive here, especially when you’re winning. The program hasn’t been as good recently, but the community does love basketball and we’re in a position to become that face.”

While UNLV has struggled on a national stage in recent past, the NBA Summer League has continued to build a strong basketball foundation. The league started with six teams in 2004 but has since grown to host all 30 NBA teams, as well as two international teams. 

“We’re always continuing to build each year and grow it as an experience,” said Kelly Flatow, NBA senior vice president and head of special events group. “It’s our fans have very high expectations and we look to meet and exceed those expectations each year and build on them.”

While Summer League was still in its relative infancy, the NBA recognized the basketball fever in Las Vegas and brought the NBA All-Star Game to Nevada in 2007, the first and still only city to host the game without having an NBA franchise calling it home.

Plenty of speculation has surfaced over the years about an NBA expansion or relocation to Sin City, but they’ve yet to materialize. MGM and other sources are mum on any NBA team-specific plans, but Evans promises there’s more. 

“This year isn’t done yet,” he said. “There is definitely more Las Vegas basketball to be seen and we’re without a doubt laying the foundation.”

Even without a full-time NBA presence, basketball is nearly a full-time sport in Las Vegas.

Bank On It

Las Vegas has at least two basketball seasons, said Lisa Motley, the director of sports marketing at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, or LVCVA. Motley said March brings in visitors for a slate of conference tournaments, including the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament keeps sports books filled in their busiest weekend of the year.

Starting with the NBA Summer League and adding on the WNBA schedule, Las Vegas has also turned into a hoops haven in the summer. Last year – this year’s data hasn’t come in yet – Summer League brought in 145,675 attendees with an estimated economic impact of $57.1 million. Lead by the Pac-12’s $21 million impact, college tournaments drove more than $40 million in economic impact this spring.

“It definitely drives heads in beds,” Motley said, referring to the common tourism industry saying. 

The city is only adding to its basketball seasons as entities like MGM and LVCVA focus on bringing more conference tournaments and special events to town, like the Jordan Brand Classic. Motley said the city will be aggressive in bidding for NCAA Tournament regional and Final Four games in once the window opens up for 2022-2026.

The city also hosted the NBA G League Showcase last December and could be back this year.

Las Vegas made a big push for the WNBA All-Star Game, and received it, in the team’s second season. 

“It’s a will to want to host it,” Brown said. “I don’t know what the stipulations were, but [Aces President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach] Bill Laimbeer and Jim Murren laid it out on the table and made it known. Anyone who follows Vegas will be hard-pressed to match it.”

While setting an impossibly high standard for the All-Star Game was a goal, Brown said the way the Aces organization treats its players is meant to help elevate the way WNBA players are treated league-wide. Following the All-Star Game, Laimbeer revealed the league said no to flying all the All-Stars to Las Vegas in first class.

“You look at what’s been done and now everyone sees Las Vegas, it’s raised the level of WNBA ownership,” she said. “They make sure everyone has everything they need and treat them like first-class athletes.” 

Meeting central

Las Vegas is a party destination, but just as much as it relies on its casinos, pools and clubs it also relies on the millions of business visitors flocking to Southern Nevada for conventions and meetings. 

The summer basketball events have given the leagues and organizations a fun place to go and hold official business with plenty of attractive amenities, Tooley said. Earlier this summer, USA Basketball also hosted its 3×3 National Championship in Las Vegas.

“It’s a home away from home for us and the relationships we have here is the impetus for us staying there,” he said. “We can engage our corporate partners and sponsors during the time there because it’s an attractive destination for people. The city has done a great job in investing in sports and the Golden Knights brought a whole new dimension and soon the Raiders. It’s really an impressive growth by the city and it’s fun to see.”

Perhaps no other time is more convenient for NBA leadership to meet up than when all 30 teams are in the same place like they are in Las Vegas during Summer League. 

“There’s an opportunity to have the front office staff out there and get a lot of business done,” Flatow said. “It’s a great destination with everything you’d expect to host a large scale event.”

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Flatow said there’s been a conscious effort to grow the ancillary events around Summer League, like this year’s Fan Village and Health & Performance Expo. She also noted the league’s use of the time as a testing ground for new technologies and broadcast capabilities.

Las Vegas and its well-known slogan of “What Happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” is definitely changing, especially when it comes to sports. Real estate developers will talk at length about how much professional sports can change perceptions about a city’s legitimacy and the LVCVA sees that as well.

“The Golden Knights were the first to really open that door and opened up a lot of eyes that Vegas isn’t just gambling, this is a sports mecca,” Motley said. “This is a special place to be, a new sports capital of the world. Our big companies see the value in sports.”