‘We have no history’: Can casino-chip bonuses and llamas turn Vegas into a soccer city?

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    The Las Vegas Lights CEO says the citys swagger and Hispanic population can make his club into a success story in the Nevada desert

    Theres not much of a soccer legacy in Las Vegas. The extent of it is the Quicksilvers, the itinerant team that only lasted for one NASL season in 1977. They had been the Baltimore Comets before transferring cross-country and becoming the magnificently-named San Diego Jaws. Then came the move to Nevada before they eventually returned to San Diego as the Sockers. It was all very Spinal Tap.

    That solitary campaign in the desert was astoundingly underwhelming, notable only for the presence of an aged Eusebio in the Quicksilvers attack, his chronic knee problems ensuring he was little more than another faded Vegas attraction.

    Still, its the lack of a soccer past thats helping fuel the citys latest attempt at developing and maintaining a professional team.

    We have no history, says Brett Lashbrook, owner and CEO of the Las Vegas Lights. We have a blank sheet of paper. In other countries, you dont start new teams. For better or worse, youre handcuffed by 100 years of history. Its taking advantage of what we have over so many other teams around the world.

    This is the Lights first year of operation and the process has been radical. Plying their trade in the United Soccer League (USL), effectively the second-tier in the North American pyramid, theyve certainly stood out.

    Before the season started, a partnership with the Plaza Hotel was unveiled: each player would receive $100 in casino chips if the team scored three or more goals at home. Then, in April, the club announced a sponsorship with Nuwu Cannabis Marketplace, a local marijuana dispensary.

    But its on game-day when everything gets ramped up a notch. Inside the dressing room, theres a live DJ entertaining the players and staff. A pair of llamas – Dolly and Dotty pose for pre-game photos and act as unofficial mascots. Before the season opener in March, one of the animals used the field as its own personal bathroom. The teams actual mascot is Cash the Soccer Rocker, described previously by Lashbrook as a Hispanic Elvis Presley, with a little Johnny Cash, driving on a Harley Davidson.

    Inevitably, there were dissenting voices, those who claimed the project is all just one big marketing gimmick. Earlier this year, Lashbrook poured more petrol on the flames by confirming the Lights were keen on signing Usain Bolt (the sprinter is now attempting to start his soccer career in Australia).

    We hear the sniggers. I get it. But bring it on, says Lashbrook. Were not running from it. Were not afraid of it. Its good to have teams that are different. Whether you love us or hate us, were going to make you smile at some point. Youre going to want to tune in and see whats next. You know when you come to Vegas that youre in for a show and were going to do things differently.

    The Lights are attempting to capitalize on an inexplicable purple patch for the citys previously non-existent relationship with pro sports. The citys biggest success story in 2018 was the Vegas Golden Knights and their run to the Stanley Cup finals. But for much of the NHL season, some critics flippantly dismissed the expansion side as a gimmick and waited for the collapse.

    Lashbrook wants something similar for the Lights.

    Im an incredibly big believer that sports is also entertainment, he says. Vegas is 24/7, fast-paced, sexy, glitzy, a little gaudy, a little kitschy. And were fine with that. Theres no one in Las Vegas thats embarrassed by Las Vegas. So weve found a way to have a swagger that you just cant get in any other American city. And we think thats our x-factor and were proud of it. Im from Kansas City they couldnt pull off what were doing here.

    The
    The Golden Knights, Vegass first Big Four franchise, have been a surprise NHL success, reaching the Stanley Cup finals in their first season. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    So, what took so long? Why did Vegas remain on the fringes if the potential for growing successful, professional sports franchises in the city was so obvious?

    The pure hypocrisy of American pro sports and its relationship with regulated sports gaming, Lashbrook replies, instantly. For so long there was this taboo, this pure silliness of not wanting to bring pro sports to Vegas because of this outdated view of how gambling would affect it. Gambling is fully regulated here. Anytime theres an issue its on the black market, not here. We bring it into the open.

    Much like the city itself, its been a season of extremes for Lashbrooks squad, which includes one-time American prodigy Freddy Adu. For a while, the playoffs seemed achievable but the optimism has tailed off and finishing in the top-eight of the western conference will require a rapid upturn in results. Still, there have been positives.

    Crucially, fans have consistently come through the turnstiles. Cashman Field, the downtown ballpark that doubles up as the Lights stadium, has a capacity of about 10,000 and, on average, its been three-quarters full for home games – no easy feat when fixtures take place on a Saturday night, around the same time Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, The Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey are taking to stages just half an hour away on the Strip. It means the team is one of the best-supported in a league where feverish fan culture (Cincinnati is the best example) makes Major League Soccers top-brass stand up and take notice.

    Las Vegas was the second-largest city in the world without a professional soccer team, Lashbrook says. It didnt take a genius to see there was a market opportunity. And just like any small or medium-sized business, its location, location, location. I realized there was a stadium in downtown Vegas thats within walking distance of bars, casinos, nightlife, music. And this is a very young and a very working-class population of more than 2.2 million people.

    Lashbrook admits the Vegas Golden Knights have provided his club with a road map but feels soccer presents more opportunities than hockey to make a wider social statement – something hes been keen to develop from the very start.

    God bless the Golden Knights, he says. What theyve done is absolutely amazing and were fully supportive. But they and the sport of hockey is not as diverse and does not speak to a diverse community as much as soccer does. Bringing professional soccer to Vegas, we now have the ability to take that suburban soccer Mom in a mini-van, that downtown millennial hipster and that north Las Vegas working-class family and on Saturday night for 20 bucks, everyone can stand shoulder to shoulder and cheer for a team that has Las Vegas on its jersey and it means something.

    Previously, Lashbrook worked at MLS headquarters and then became Chief Operating Officer with Orlando City SC as they transitioned from the USL to the big leagues. He saw things he felt could be improved upon. He kept hearing about a new America but he thought there was no meaningful commitment, just tokenistic gestures.

    From day one, I didnt just want to pander to a Hispanic audience or to ingratiate them – I wanted to include them, he says. It was very important to me to find a coach who was bilingual and who could provide some authenticity. It wasnt going to be a traditional American soccer team. With our proximity to the Mexican border, theres a large population of Mexican-Americans in southern Nevada and I think weve found a real market opportunity of bringing soccer in both countries closer together. Were hosting a World Cup with Mexico, they are our neighbours to the south, they are a true soccer nation.

    In North American soccer, the Lights Isidro Sanchez is a rarity: a Mexican head coach. His father the fiery, charismatic and vastly-experienced Jose Luis (better known as Chelis) serves as the clubs technical director. There are 10 Mexican-born players in the squad while four are natives of Las Vegas.

    You can bring people from across the valley together, Lashbrook says. Soccer has the ability to do things that other sports just dont.

    Becoming an MLS franchise is the objective but Lashbrook is realistic. He can only bring the team so far and knows only a sustained product will lead to making that step up. As much as it goes against the Vegas ethos, slow and steady will win the race. But, just like any other show in town, the immediate concern is getting bums on seats and keeping them there.

    I dont have the money to write that big cheque, he says. I can get this machine started and have this great, sustainable second division club but we would need the communitys support to take it to the next level. Theres been a lot of interest in our initial success. Theres not been a shortage of people interested in supporting and working with us. But how do we get to MLS? Buy more tickets from me. It sounds so self-serving but its also the truth. If we fail in the USL, Major League Soccer is going to have no interest in coming here. Theres no doubt in my mind that if we put a compelling bid together they would be very keen. But weve got to take it one step at a time.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/aug/22/las-vegas-lights-soccer-club

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