'Sin City' Super Bowl crowns Vegas' sporting makeover

The Allegiant Stadium gears up to host the Super Bowl, the latest major sporting event to be held in Las Vegas (Ethan Miller)
The Allegiant Stadium gears up to host the Super Bowl, the latest major sporting event to be held in Las Vegas (Ethan Miller)

Once regarded as a no-go zone by the NFL, Las Vegas is preparing to stage a neon-lit Super Bowl spectacular that will mark the crowning glory of the Nevada gaming haven's transformation into a global sporting hub.

For years, the National Football League and other major professional sports, with the notable exception of boxing, kept Las Vegas at arm's length, wary of being associated with gambling and the city's free-wheeling, anything-goes image.

In 2002, when the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority sought to spend $2 million on a Super Bowl ad which leaned into the city's raunchy appeal with the slogan "What happens here, stays here", the NFL refused to air it.

NFL officials cited rules that prohibited gambling-related adverts in its television contract, even though the ad in question never mentioned betting.

But 22 years and one pivotal US Supreme Court ruling later, the landscape has changed.

From being a sporting pariah, Las Vegas is now firmly entrenched as a burgeoning sports city.

The National Hockey League was the first of North America's major leagues to establish a franchise in the city, with the Vegas Golden Knights making their debut in late 2017.

The same year, the NFL decided to join the party, greenlighting the Oakland Raiders' move to the city. The Raiders' futuristic Allegiant Stadium, nestling in the heart of the city just across the Vegas strip, hosted its first game in 2020 and will stage Sunday's Super Bowl between Kansas City and San Francisco.

Formula One returned to the city last November, the first race of a 10-year deal which includes $500 million spent on a permanent F1 paddock.

The Allegiant meanwhile will host games in this summer's Copa America football tournament and has already successfully staged CONCACAF Nations League 'Final Four' matches.

Other sports are in line to follow suit. Baseball's Oakland Athletics received approval to move to Vegas last November and are expected to start playing in a new purpose-built stadium in 2028.

- 'Sportstown USA' -

National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver meanwhile is on record as saying that Las Vegas will be among the cities given consideration if and when the league decides to expand. LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal have expressed a desire to invest in any new Las Vegas franchise.

"I think adding an NBA franchise here would just add to the momentum that's going on in this town," James said in October.

So what is behind the shift?

Steve Hill, the chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), says changing attitudes to sports betting and the city's rising population have driven the trend.

"When I moved to Vegas 36 years ago there were two places in the United States where you could go and place a bet on a sporting event – one was here, and the other was Atlantic City," Hill told AFP. "Now you can place a bet on your phone."

Las Vegas's dramatic population shifts over the past two decades, increasing the potential fan base, also mean that the city is more viable as a home to sports franchises.

"We've grown up into a good-sized city," Hill said. "We're not a city that competes in size with the LAs and New Yorks of the world, but we're big enough."

The other engine of change though is Las Vegas's enduring popularity as a tourist destination, attracting some 40 million visitors in the 12 months to March 2023, according to local authorities.

"The city is basically built to put on events," Hill said. "It's what we do. The city's done a fantastic job of structuring itself that way – we have offerings at a scale that no other city has.

"Vegas is the only city in the world that can treat a stadium of 65,000 people like they're all VIPs."

The NFL meanwhile couldn't be happier with its decision to embrace Las Vegas.

The league's shift in attitude accelerated in the wake of a 2018 US Supreme Court ruling which struck down a federal prohibition on sports betting outside of Nevada.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who in 2012 testified that: "I do not think gambling is good for professional sports", has long since cast aside such reticence.

While the NFL continues to take a hard line on gambling by its employees and players -- a player can be suspended for one year for betting on an NFL game, and two years for betting on a game involving his own team -- Goodell says Las Vegas has effectively become "Sportstown, USA."

"People used to say this is just a gambling town, this is just an entertainment town," Goodell told reporters on Monday. "But this is a sports town. It's an event town, and we're seeing that with the Super Bowl."