Bright lights, glitz, kitsch, debauchery.
That is what Las Vegas Lights Owner and President Brett Lashbrook wants his team to represent.
Just like the Green Bay Packers embody the blue-collar midwest and Los Angeles Lakers capture the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, the Lights are trying to embrace the reputation of Sin City.
“When we started, we thought of Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels, so right away, we wanted to play and uptempo, fast soccer style,” Lashbrook said. “But we are in downtown Las Vegas. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, any continent, anywhere in the world. If you use the words downtown Las Vegas, it immediately elicits something in your mind – it is bright lights, it’s sexy, it’s kitschy and it is debauchery.”
“We are the only [team] here in downtown Las Vegas and we can take that identity on. And we have done so unabashedly. And I would say Las Vegas gives us a platform that is so unique and so rich.”
The Lights have rolled out Zappos’ – the jersey sponsor – llamas on the field, signed the first marijuana partnership by a pro sports franchise, twice dropped cash from a helicopter above the field, littered the sidelines with kiddy pools, and held a giant water balloon fight, among other quirky antics.
Despite playing their inaugural season in the shadows of the Vegas Golden Knights, the Las Vegas Lights were called “the most interesting team in sports” by Sports Illustrated. Now, with MLS expansion speculation looming as the team heads into its third, the organization is striving to keep that title.
“We are not embarrassed by it; we lead with our chin and that is the Las Vegas Lights in a nutshell,” Lashbrook said of the antics. “We are putting on a show and we’re going to make it affordable for everyone and we’re going to make you happy.”
“It’s what can we do, outside the game on the field, that will get us on the morning show, on the radio shows, get us word of mouth, get us 53 seconds with Scott Van Pelt,” he said.
While the play on-the-field for the Lights has yet to be a winning formula, Lashbrook believes once that hits, it’s only more fuel on the fire.
“I can’t guarantee wins, I can’t guarantee goals, but I can guarantee I’m going to make you smile and laugh on a Saturday night in downtown Las Vegas,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s still about the game in those 90 minutes, we don’t want to touch those 90 minutes. I am convinced, once our on-field product starts to match, we are going to be something really, really special.”
There were plenty of skeptics about soccer before the launch of the Lights, but Lashbrook believes 99.9% of the city’s population now sees the team as a success. In that .1%, however? Lashbrook.
“I do not think we’ve reached our potential,” he said. “There’s a reason why we grew in year two from year one and a reason why we’re so absolutely adamant about continuing to grow in year three.”
From year one to year two, the Lights grew in pretty much every measurable statistic, from ticket sales to sponsorship revenues – groups were up 35%, sponsorship grew 50% and attendance went from 6,786 fans per game to 7,711.
But Lashbrook knows there’s more possible. More than 220,000 fans walked through the gates of Cashman Field – good for fifth-best attendance in the USL Championship – but in a city of 2.3 million, Lashbrook sees opportunity in the more than 2.2 million that didn’t show up.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this city who is against us. We just have to convince them on Saturday night that we’re the best option for entertainment,” Lashbrook said. “We’re not going anywhere and we’re going to continue to grow. If we continue to make people while they’re here, they’re going to church the next day, the water cooler or school on Monday and they’re going to talk about it.”
“50% of the surveys we do of why you come the first time, it’s word of mouth.”
There was a hurdle in the Lights first season – the Golden Knights improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We launched a professional sports team in the shadows of, hands down, without a doubt, the most successful professional sports expansion team in history,” Lashbrook said. “I never had in a year-one business plan that we’d be playing a game in early June at home and I’d have to worry about a hockey game in the desert. What the Golden Knights have done for this community is fantastic, they’ve opened our eyes, the community’s eyes and got us excited about sports.”
Now, the two teams are among the drivers of turning Las Vegas into one of the most exciting cities in sports. From the Lights, Golden Knights, Las Vegas Aces, Aviators, UFC, Raiders to expansion and relocation chatter emanating from MLB, NBA and MLS.
“We are quickly turning Las Vegas, collectively all to different extents, from the entertainment capital of the world to the sports and entertainment capital of the world,” Lashbrook said. “And you can’t have the world’s most popular sport and the world’s most entertaining city and not have a role for soccer.”
That role for soccer is potentially larger than the Lights’ current status, and Lashbrook accepts and believes in that fate. Currently, there are multiple billionaires connected to efforts for an MLS franchise in Las Vegas – Boston-based Seth Klarman and Golden Knights owner Bill Foley. The Klarman scenario would incorporate the Lights, which Lashbrook has agreed to sell, into a massive development in downtown Las Vegas. That development would in all likelihood come with an MLS application and a new stadium.
Whether or not MLS ultimately comes to Nevada, Lashbrook believes because of the early success in Las Vegas, its demographics and the metrics of soccer in America, there’s nowhere to go up – especially if the team stays interesting.
“This isn’t putting a man on the moon, this is soccer in America,” Lashbrook said. “Soccer in Las Vegas has a bright future. That no one thought to bring the most popular sport in the world to the most entertaining city in the world the past 30 years, it’s absolutely crazy that no one did this before us.”