As the Super Bowl rolls into town, Las Vegas has completed its journey from Sin City to the sports capital of the US, writes Buck Wargo.
Las Vegas has long been known as “Sin City” but new names are taking hold. Thanks to the city’s growing sports calendar, eyes around the world will be on the Strip when the Super Bowl comes to town on 11 February.
The superlatives are flowing in. Las Vegas is dubbed both the “sports and entertainment capital of the world” and the “greatest arena on earth”. It’s at the centre of what local economists call the “fun economy”.
Vegas has long been known for its stage acts. Singers, magicians, comedians and performers such as Cirque du Soleil are part of the landscape. In recent years resorts have lured even bigger names such as Katy Perry, Celine Dion, Adele and others. Now sports are becoming a mainstay to draw even more tourists.
This fun economy, according to the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ department of economic development, makes up 13.7% of the world’s GDP. The global sports economy saw substantial growth, increasing from $2.3tn in 2019 to an estimated $2.65tn in 2023.
For sports, events outside Nevada’s borders drew the leagues to Las Vegas, namely the expansion of sports gambling nationwide. Its growing acceptance among professional leagues and colleges helped make Vegas a viable location for teams and events.
Sports touch down on the Strip
The Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium is the culmination of that acceptance. It comes just three months after Formula One took over the Strip for the first time.
Allegiant Stadium, which cost $2bn, including $750m in public financing funded by an increase in hotel taxes, is expected to bring 330,000 to town, filling up 156,000 hotel rooms over Super Bowl weekend. Truist Securities says these room rates are record-setting at more than $800 on average at MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment properties. This beats the previous record, set by F1.
Las Vegas’ investment in sports quickly paid dividends after the Covid-19 pandemic devastated tourism in 2020. That year the city brought in 19 million visitors, down from 42.5 million in 2019.
With the draw of sports from the Las Vegas Raiders, Stanley Cup champions the Golden Knights and international soccer matches, Las Vegas attracted 40.8 million visitors in 2023. That’s 5.2% higher than 2022’s 38.8 million.
It includes 120,000 who came to Las Vegas for F1, spending on average $4,128 per person, according to research specialists Applied Analysis.
Thanks to Formula One, November, typically one of the slower months of the year, recorded the second highest Strip gaming revenue in history. When the final numbers for 2023 are tallied, it will undoubtedly be a record-setting year.
Will the NBA follow the Super Bowl ?
But as more teams prepare to move in, how long will that record stand?
The importance of sports to the Las Vegas landscape was evident when the Vegas chamber of commerce hosted its annual outlook event. The 24 January event attracted 1,500 people in the business community. Among them were representatives from the NFL, F1 and Oakland A’s owner John Fisher.
Fisher is relocating his baseball team to a $1.5bn stadium that will open in 2028 on the Strip where the Tropicana Las Vegas casino resort currently stands.
The conference also recognised the two-time WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces and the annual National Finals Rodeo that brings around 500,000 people to town over the course of 10 days.
Even the NBA can’t stay away. In December, the $375m T-Mobile Arena hosted its first-ever in-season tournament, won by the Los Angeles Lakers. And the NBA, which hosts its Summer League in Las Vegas that fills up arenas on the UNLV campus, isn’t done.
A world renowned arena developer, the Oak View Group, plans to construct a $1bn arena on Las Vegas Boulevard south of the Strip for an expected NBA expansion team by the end of the decade. It would be part of a development including a casino resort at the end point of a high-speed rail line connecting southern California and Las Vegas.
Las Vegas also hosts national matchups for college football and college basketball in addition to conference tournaments and NCAA tourney games. It will host the NCAA Final Four in 2028 and College Football Championship game this decade.
There’s also NASCAR not to mention Vegas’ traditional sports – professional boxing and UFC.
A packed sporting calendar
A 2023 report from the University of Nevada Las Vegas Center for Business and Economic Research noted 39 significant annual sporting events or tournaments planned in Las Vegas through 2024. These events generated $1.84bn in spending from out-of-town visitors in 2022.
Allegiant Stadium alone attracted 1.7 million people for sporting events and concerts in 2022. Since the stadium opened to the public in 2021, 3.7 million fans have visited. A September game where the Raiders hosted Pittsburgh drew 59,000 to the 62,500-seat stadium. Of this number, 64% of fans were from out of town. Some 93% said the game was their main reason to come to Las Vegas.
There are benefits to those added visitors. The US Travel Association says sports travellers spend 3.9 nights with a party size of 3.2 people, slightly more than the average leisure traveller.
The UNLV report notes professional sports offer opportunities to attract new visitors who are looking for unique experiences beyond traditional visitor options.
“We’re riding the biggest five months in the history of this city,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), responsible for marketing the city to visitors.
“We had The Sphere open 29 September and it led into all of these unbelievable events [including a U2 residency].
“We had NASCAR, the rodeo, Formula One, the NBA in-season tournament and CES [Consumer Electronics Show] in January. We’ve had meetings and sports months. And it all culminates with Super Bowl LVIII.”
What impact will Super Bowl LVIII have on Las Vegas?
UNLV economics professor Stephen Miller says the Super Bowl weekend is always huge for tourism for the city without hosting the game. As it comes to town, it’ll be an even bigger spectacle that’s driving hotel rates higher.
“Sport is one of the players now in Las Vegas along with conventions and people driving in from California,” Miller adds.
Oliver Lovat, president of the Denstone Group, points out sports also helped give Las Vegas a sense of identity in a community that’s known as being transient despite its two million population.
The Super Bowl, which is expected to have an economic impact of about $600m, is good for recognition but probably won’t make that much difference to the bottom line for casinos. It’s already the busiest weekend of the year, Lovat says.
It’s the other sports that will make a difference year-round, especially when the NBA (41 home dates) and Major League Baseball (81 home dates) come to town.
“What sports does mean is it fills the gap on the tourist calendar,” Lovat explains. “Five years ago, you could sit down and look at the weekly chart and say Las Vegas will be busier this week and quieter that week.
“Sports has plugged a lot of those gaps and brought in additional tourists to the city at times when it was less busy. The calendar is a lot less volatile now. And it’s not just sports but musical events.”
Sports and music accelerate pandemic recovery
That has helped Las Vegas recover quicker from the pandemic than it might have otherwise, Lovat says. And it’s recession-proof.
“People don’t stop supporting their team because the economic conditions were harder,” he continues. “Coming out of a recession and a reasonably strong economy right now, people are saying if you’re going to make an away trip, let’s go to Vegas. The number of people who come to Las Vegas to gamble has stayed pretty static.
“The number of people who came for conventions has returned to pre-Covid numbers, but there’s a cap on it. If the city wants to grow, it has to go after new customers that aren’t currently coming.
“Sports customers are very easily identifiable because they support teams and sports aren’t just one demographic. They’re spread across families, men, women and children. Are they going to gamble? Maybe. Are they going to have food? Yes. Are they going to need some place to sleep? Yes. You can develop a resort in Las Vegas not for gamblers. That’s where we are.”
Originally shunned, now embraced
To Brendan Bussmann of B Global Advisors, this evolution dates back to the arrival of the National Finals Rodeo, NASCAR and the Las Vegas Bowl college post-season game.
Fast forward to late 2023 and it’s culminating with F1 and Super Bowl LVIII. A decade ago the NFL wouldn’t allow the LVCVA to advertise the city because of gambling.
“Sports has been very important to the recovery,” Bussmann says. “The development of Allegiant Stadium and having that as an asset in addition to T-Mobile and other venues has been very instrumental not only in the recovery but in the future marketability and draw to Vegas.
“You can host events like a Super Bowl and college football national championship and the Final Four. This is the first Super Bowl we will host but one of many to come.”
All eyes on Las Vegas
The LVCVA reported Las Vegas had 110 billion media impressions worldwide during the week it hosted F1. That’s 10 times what it gets in an entire year.
The Super Bowl is expected to generate a similar buzz that officials hope translates into more people wanting to visit, especially from abroad.
“The international draw of Vegas continues to become more important because that’s a customer base we can get significant growth from,” Bussmann explains. “With F1 and now one of the largest sporting events on everyone’s television around the world, those are marketing dollars you can’t put a value on because of the impression they create now and down the road.
“This is something that’s taken a while to get to, but sports means business but it’s not only for the domestic but the international market as well. The sky’s the limit on where this can go.”
While special events and entertainment have long been part of the core experience for travellers to Las Vegas, the expansion into sports has “proven to pay dividends” according to Applied Analysis principal Brian Gordon.
When Las Vegas built Allegiant Stadium, it also benefited the city by hosting concerts that would not otherwise come to the city such as Beyonce, Korean boy band BTS and others.
“Clearly sports and entertainment played a significant role in the local economy’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic,” Gordon says. “Sports was another reason for people to not only travel but participate in new experiences. It’s a critical component of southern Nevada’s critical tourism-based economy.
“Finding reasons for people to get into an airplane or drive their car to Las Vegas to participate in something they may not have access to in their own community is invaluable.”
Sin City to fun city?
Sports tourism diversifies Las Vegas’ economy, says Marta Soligo, director of tourism research at the UNLV Office of Economic Development.
That’s been taking place gradually in Las Vegas, over three decades. Back then, two thirds of casino revenue was earned from gambling. Today? Two thirds comes from non-gaming amenities such as restaurants with celebrity chefs, spa services, nightclubs and amenities.
Conventions have also become more of a focal point to fill weekday hotel rooms with visitors. Resorts continue to add meeting space, something Soligo says ties into sports.
“It’s interesting how people who were not interested in gambling at all find a pretty interesting offering and now sports is a key factor here,” she says. “By diversifying the offering, you not only attract new tourists that may not have come to Las Vegas.
“Think of the people who come here for meetings and conventions and now, when they are done with their work, they can go to a game. Vegas can put together these two elements.”
Most tourism destinations have a low and high season, Soligo points out. But Las Vegas is turning into a 365-days-a-year proposition.
“Being Italian, F1 and soccer are really important and F1 is also a big factor for international tourism to Las Vegas,” Soligo says. “The Super Bowl is a declaration that Las Vegas is a sports destination.
“It’s like a shop window with the exposure we will get from the Super Bowl on every television around North America and the world. We’re coming out of a period in which tourism was one of the most damaged sectors because people could not travel.
“Having a strong diversification of tourism through sports is really important now after going through the 2020 crisis.”
Buck Wargo is a Las Vegas-based business and gaming journalist. He’s a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas and worked as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.