By 2025 UNLV aspires to be recognized as a Top Tier public university in a city that is currently aspiring to be the next great sport city. What does it take to be considered a great sport city? Usually at least a couple major professional teams, a passionate fan base, and attention-grabbing facilities.
This year, Las Vegas made three big moves that will transform the image of the city known as the entertainment capital of the world, toward contention as a great sport city. The Vegas Golden Knights initiated the transformation, drafting an entirely new team to start their National Hockey League (NHL) season this fall in T-Mobile Arena.
Meanwhile, plans continue to unfold for a state-of-the-art football stadium for the Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas in 2020. Then MGM announced they have acquired a WNBA team that will begin play here in 2018. With the addition of an NHL team, a National Football League (NFL) team, and now a WNBA team coinciding with the development of state of the art facilities, Las Vegas is now in the conversation when sport is the topic.
But, perhaps surprising to some, Las Vegas has long been a great city for sport.
Just consider the spectacle created by major boxing matches, the Ultimate Fighting Championship presence, and, of course, the two weeks of National Finals Rodeo. These sport events and organizations have called Vegas home for years. Tourists from around the world, and their dollars, regularly come to our city for these events.
Whether it’s to attend the USA Rugby 7’s international tournament held each spring at Sam Boyd Stadium, or to complete the Las Vegas Rock ’n Roll marathon — the only marathon in the world run at night, or to support their favorite college basketball team during conference tournament play, sport fans and participants have known Vegas to be a great city for their sport even if the fans of America’s majors weren’t always aware of it.
Yet the question remains, will Las Vegas become known as a great sport city? With the facilities in place and three professional sport franchises launching, the answer is likely “yes” — if they can turn locals into passionate fans.
Today developing a fan base requires a strategy, a game plan of sorts. Just as tourists are lured to Las Vegas through strategic marketing, innovative approaches to building connections and a new identity will be a necessity for the Golden Knights, the Raiders and the WNBA team. Developing a “new” fan base will be a bit easier for the Golden Knights — it is a homegrown team. Hockey may not be the first-choice pro sport for desert dwellers, but pride will come from the Golden Knights truly being “ours” from the first faceoff. And the team is building its brand with Vegas icons.
In contrast, most NFL fans have a team they already identify strongly with. Shifting loyalties will require a sophisticated strategy that incorporates intentional identity development, even redefining the Raider Nation to more authentically align with Las Vegas.
All of this is to point out the level of sophistication required among those who work in professional sport, especially those behind the scenes in sport marketing, brand management, ticket and sponsorship sales, event management, and community relations. Like their counterparts in the entertainment and gaming industries, the majority of those employed to make the industry successful remain invisible to the tourists and fans.
Perhaps surprising to some, universities prepare the talented individuals who make these ventures and industries successful. UNLV’s top-ranked College of Hospitality is known for preparing the workforce needed on the Las Vegas Strip. The College of Education embraces its role in preparing educators for the fifth largest school district in the United States. Now the burgeoning Las Vegas sport industry will offer a new workforce need for UNLV to step up and feed. We will play a distinct role in transforming the image of Las Vegas and identity of those who live here.
As a comparatively young university, UNLV prides itself on being innovative in its response to emerging opportunities, and this will need to be even more true over the next 10 years.
The new School of Medicine, for example, was possible through collaboration and intent to meet critical community needs. In a quick two years, founding Dean Barbara Atkinson brought to fruition a compelling vision to improve community well-being while also diversifying our local economy. A similar approach designed to meet sport industry needs will further diversify our economy while enriching the local culture.
So where will the emerging sport properties find the talent and educated workforce they need in Las Vegas? Where will they find people who actually understand the local market and those who call Vegas home?
UNLV has this capacity and ambition to be that place. As a Top Tier university that brands itself as different, daring, and diverse, UNLV offers the best fit for satisfying the needs of this new segment of the economy. The majority of UNLV students are coming from Clark County schools, suggesting they identify with Las Vegas as their home. Those who raise their families here need to see a way to identify with the city that builds on positive attributes offered through sport, like determination, dedication, discipline, diversity, healthy activity, and competition.
Becoming known as a sport city will be good for Las Vegas and for UNLV. Ten years from now the sport industry will be a significant spoke in the economic wheel, with UNLV as the hub supplying the talent and innovation.
Professor Nancy Lough has studied sport marketing and management for more than 20 years and is chair of UNLV’s Intercollegiate Athletics Council. She leads the College of Education’s graduate degree programs in higher education as well as its certificate in college sport leadership. She speaks on sport marketing and media coverage of women’s sport. Currently, she is working on a book on the business of women’s sports.