Pro sports flocking to Vegas

Spencer Gallagher was born and raised in Las Vegas, and the Xfinity Series rookie driver always thought something was missing. All around him, inhabitants of Utah, Arizona and Southern California got to watch and support teams from the major sports leagues.

“It was one of the things I felt I missed out in my childhood,” he said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “Growing up here, I never had a sports team to root for. I always had to find one somewhere else.”

That has changed.

The NFL’s Raiders seem ever-so-close to relocating here from Oakland. With the recent Bank of America financial aid disclosure — for the nearly $2 billion RaiderDome, or whatever it will be nicknamed — the likelihood of the approval of three-quarters of the NFL’s 32 owners if they choose to vote at the annual meetings in Phoenix in a couple of weeks appears more fact than fiction.

The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights begin play this fall. Their home, the sparkling T-Mobile Center on the south end of the Strip, has been operating for less than a year. Last week, it was one of four city sites for NCAA basketball conference tournaments.

NASCAR got caught up in the week’s sporting whirlwind by announcing that LVMS will, starting in 2018, host two Monster Energy Cup Series races every year. Along with the one that has been run every March for 20 years, a September race will be added during the 10-race playoff.

“The whole sports scene here has been revolutionized, between getting a second date at the speedway, getting ourselves an NHL team, (likely) getting an NFL team to come here,” said Gallagher, 27. “I’ve always wondered, to myself, why such a big market like Las Vegas has never had a professional sports team. This is fantastic. I finally get a stadium to go to and someone to root for.”

Former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian first gave locals a taste of the big time at the end of the 1980s and into the ’90s. There were barely half a million residents in the metro area when the Runnin’ Rebels drew overwhelming support. Thomas & Mack Center averaged more than 18,000 fans in three of those seasons. In the title-winning campaign of 1989-90, a record 303,597 patrons turned the stiles.

Today, the Las Vegas metro area boasts more than 2 million residents. In 2016, nearly 43 million people visited. Major players have noticed.

“I’m happy for this town,” said veteran race car driver and Vegas native Brendan Gaughan, 41. “Las Vegas has always been amazing. Right now, it’s the entertainment capital of the world. Well, what is the largest form of entertainment in America right now? Sports.”

Gaughan’s father, Michael, son of Las Vegas legend Jackie Gaughan, built the Orleans hotel and casino. The family provided a home to a minor league hockey franchise, the Wranglers, by attaching a horseshoe-shaped arena to the property. Previously, the lower-level Thunder had been popular and successful.

Steve Stallworth, who 30 years ago backed up quarterback Randall Cunningham at UNLV, managed Orleans Arena. He set the stage for today’s college hoops euphoria by signing defending national champion Florida and Kansas to play in his barn in November 2006.

In 2001, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board had eliminated the prohibition of betting on UNLV or Nevada teams in the state’s sports books. Pairing the Jayhawks and Gators against each other in an arena attached to a casino was another landmark event. Stallworth, who runs South Point Arena for Michael Gaughan, also happens to be a longtime Raiders fan. He daydreams about visiting tailgate bashes in RaiderDome parking lots in his custom black-and-silver golf cart with the huge eye-patch logo on the front.

Colorful former mayor Oscar Goodman also influenced the boom. He first met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in September 1999. And throughout 2004, Goodman promoted the transfer of the Montreal Expos to Las Vegas. He sauntered into baseball’s winter meetings, at the Hilton in Anaheim, Calif., with a showgirl, flaunting flamboyant feathers and other assets, on each elbow, an Elvis impersonator in tow.

A public relations whiz, Goodman always saw this sporting wave coming.

Mike Villa, 37, a real estate agent who vividly recalls attending those electric UNLV basketball games, is another die-hard Raiders aficionado. It will be a “straight-up fairy tale,” he said Friday at the track, the day his team becomes the Las Vegas Raiders.

“And RaiderDome will be the cherry on top, the crowning of Vegas as a global force. For someone born and raised in Las Vegas, it’s a mind-blower. My happiness is off the charts.”- by Rob Miech, USA TODAY