The countdown finally hits zero and the lights dissipate. The screams become ear-piercing. On the jumbotron talking heads begin commenting on the Las Vegas Lights:
“It’s still hard to believe.”
“A garbage idea to put a team in the desert.”
“Vegas is going to get crushed. They are going to be a doormat this year.”
Clips of the team then begin flashing on the screen accompanied by blaring music. Then, a sentence appears in huge, yellow, capital letters:
“WELCOME TO IMPOSSIBLE.”
Las Vegas isn’t a city known for a great underdog story. Though many see Vegas as a land of opportunity where the American dream still truly thrives; the reality is that it’s a city that lures you in with its big bright eyes, has a good old gnaw on your emotions, then spits you right back out again.
Of course, not everyone endures that experience, but those who bank on heading to Las Vegas in the hope of bettering their life prospects very rarely make it out free from dishevelment.
And that seemed to be the outlook facing the Las Vegas Knights following their formation in the summer of 2017. After years of rumour, hope and then expectation, Vegas finally got its hockey team that it so longingly craved. But no one predicted it would go well. At least not for a few years anyway.
Yet here we are, 9 months later with the Knights just three wins away from the most incredible achievement in American sporting history following Monday night’s 6-4 victory over the Capitals.
Since the NHL’s foundation in 1917, only one expansion team has ever won a playoff round, and even then, it only came about by default as the whole of the Western Division were expansion teams. The Knights have won three playoff rounds.
In the history of American sport, no expansion team has ever finished the season with a win record above 50%. The Knights finished the season with a record above 60%.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sure, the Knights had a wider pool of players to pick from compared to previous NHL expansion teams, but there was still absolutely nobody who picked them to reach the playoffs. In fact, most pundits expected them to finish dead last. Throwing a bunch of journeymen together and expecting them to gel into a successful team within three months is just impossible. But then again, before the first casinos rolled into town at the end of the 1940’s, the whole idea of Las Vegas seemed to be impossible.
Before the Knights, Las Vegas had never had a professional sports team from any of the “Big Four” leagues, nor from the MLS. There had been a couple of ill-fated football experiences with CFL and XFL franchises, a professional ECHL franchise, plus a number of failed soccer teams, yet there has never been a club the whole city has been able to rally around.
Historically, the big four major leagues have all been resistant to the prospect of a franchise based in Vegas due to the legality of sports betting within the state and the overriding feeling that sport just isn’t interesting enough for Vegas residents. But times are changing.
In 2020 the famed Oakland Raiders will set up shop in Las Vegas, last year the Las Vegas Lights were formed in the USL (soccer’s second tier), the Las Vegas Aces have just begun life in the WNBA, and a new baseball park will be finished in 2019 which is being built to help accompany an MLB bid.
The Raiders moving to the Vegas is obviously the huge one. Since their formation in 1960, the Raiders have always been based in California – initially in Oakland before moving to LA in 1981, then back to Oakland in 1995 – but after years of failing to renovate or replace the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum (voted the worst stadium in the NFL), the club have been desperate for a move.
Despite having one of the fiercest and most loyal fanbases in the United States, the Raiders hierarchy have been actively looking to relocate since 2011, initially to a number of spots in the Bay Area, then further afield to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Antonio, Texas.
The proposal for Vegas was touted in early 2016 and the relocation was confirmed just over a year later, but how the move will go is certainly up in the air.
The team will get heavy investment, but whether the Raider Nation will still travel hundreds of miles in their thousands to games is still up for debate – 1,000 fans cancelled their season tickets the day the relocation was announced.
The University of Las Vegas Rebels (the NCAA Division I football team) only attracted crowds of 17,000 last year, among the worst in the country, and though an NFL team is a different prospect entirely, the empty seats in Los Angeles following the recent Chargers and Rams moves don’t bode well for the Raiders.
New coach Jon Gruden has deferred questions about the move to Vegas while the players of the team reacted with general tongue-biting disappointment. “Welp,” simply tweeted Guard, Onim Omoile. Linebacker, Neiron Ball tweeted, “*scratching neck”.
However, nine miles north of the Raiders’ new $2 billion home, there is a club with a much more upbeat outlook.
Ten games into their inaugural season, the Las Vegas Lights currently sit mid-table in the USL and are averaging the fifth highest attendance in the division despite being a minor league team in the entertainment capital of the world.
To get fans in through the doors, the Lights have taken some inspiration from the razzmatazz of the city by introducing an in-game DJ and creating a mascot who’s a mix between Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He drives around the pitch on Harley Davidson.
The shirts have neon lights strewn across a predominantly black strip and on the inside there are beaming emojis. The teams most well-known player is the kid who was labelled the American Pele at the age of 15, Freddy Adu.
“There are difficult things about this project but trying to find 23 young men who want to be a professional athlete in Vegas is not one of them,” said the founder Brett Lashbrook. “We are not trying to bastardise the game, we like to have fun.”
However, since the opening in March, attendances have dropped week upon week and there is an overriding feeling that because it’s not Major League with no major stars and no major draw, the whole Lights experience will start to dim quickly.
Meanwhile back over on The Strip, the Las Vegas Aces have just started their first season in the WNBA following a relocation from San Antonio, which is seen as being a good testing ground for determining whether there is potential for an NBA relocation in time.
But the Aces have started the season with three consecutive losses and are expected to struggle all year long after finishing 12th out of 12 as the San Antonio Stars in 2017. Their first home game on Sunday resulted in an 8-point loss in front of fewer than 4,500 fans (lower than the average attendance San Antonio had for the whole of 2017).
But Lashbrook still remains confident that it will work, and it is working.
“We have always been a big-league city and now we finally proving it. There is a rising tide.”
But which way will the tide turn? Will this city with such a continuous non-sporting buzz be able to incorporate such a sudden and vast import of major and minor league teams? Will the Lights and the Aces follow the Knights lead, or will they fall by the wayside like so many people do in this wild city?
The early signs make for very temperate optimism, but ultimately, it’s impossible to know.