Monday, July 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The two fiercest rivals in Mexican soccer will play at Sam Boyd Stadium this week in a game that is expected to draw 20,000 fans — and, more importantly, show whether Las Vegas can muster enough enthusiasm to host its own Major League Soccer team.
At the center of attention will be Wednesday’s El Super Clasico, the game between Club Deportivo Guadalajara — more widely known as Las Chivas — and Club America. The teams will meet at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sam Boyd Stadium, where more than 29,000 fans turned out last August when Real Madrid met Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
“When these high-profile (soccer) events come to the city, if soccer fans come out, purchase tickets and fill the stadium, it’s another illustration of support for the sport,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. “Las Vegas has always shown strong support, and throughout the years it has shown it can support soccer.”
No question, there’s a strong fan base in Las Vegas, due partly to a Hispanic community that embraces soccer. But even though the league recently expanded to 20 teams, there have been no discussions of a team coming to Las Vegas.
When it comes to sanctioning new teams, MLS focuses on three major factors: How fans in a prospective league city respond — in ticket sales and TV ratings — to exhibition contests, the interest of an ownership group savvy in sports entertainment and the quality of a venue.
Fifteen MLS clubs are playing in soccer-only stadiums, and a 16th will join them once the San Jose Earthquakes open their 18,000-seat stadium in 2014.
“A stadium plan is a critical part of securing an MLS expansion team,” Courtemanche said. “Generally, we look for a soccer-specific stadium built for a future MLS team, but it’s a case-by-case basis.”
Las Vegas has struggled to find owners interested in bringing a team to the city, as professional franchises are high-risk ventures. Case in point: The Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball team — one of the valley’s professional athletic mainstays — finds itself in a constant struggle to keep a Major League affiliate.
As for building a soccer stadium, no such proposal has surfaced in Las Vegas. Two proposed arena projects — the on-campus UNLVNow stadium and a multipurpose off-campus facility by Majestic — would serve as viable options since they can be configured for a soccer crowd. Both would feature adequate seating, and the projects’ developers have expressed interest in hosting an MLS team.
However, funding is not in place for either, so there’s no telling if or when they will move forward.
That being the case, it might be some time before someone takes the risk of bringing an MLS franchise to Las Vegas.
While fans have little to no control over the presence of an ownership group or a new stadium plan, they can make an impression on the MLS by attending soccer matches that are played in Las Vegas and watching games on television.
El Super Clasico is expected to be a boon for Las Vegas in that respect, with event promoter Tim Luce predicting a crowd of more than 20,000. The teams are the equivalent of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers — the most successful club teams in Mexico with 11 La Liga MX championships apiece. They have immense drawing power, having sold out the famed 100,000-seat Mexican soccer stadium, Estadio Azteca. Luce, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, decided to bring the event to Las Vegas after putting on successful exhibition versions of El Super Clasico in San Francisco, and he foresees Las Vegas as a potential MLS location.
“It’s a test for the Las Vegas market,” Luce said.
A turnout of 20,000 fans Wednesday would be a good indicator that a Las Vegas team could fill a soccer-specific stadium where maximum capacities can range between 18,000 and 27,000 fans. As the stadium proposals remain in limbo, Luce said Sam Boyd Stadium would serve as a suitable temporary location for an MLS franchise, if one were to come. Four current MLS teams play in stadiums that are not designated solely for soccer.
“For the short term, Sam Boyd would be great,” said Luce, who recalled having to lease out the Rose Bowl for L.A. Galaxy games before the franchise received its own stadium in Carson, Calif., in 2003. “It has plenty of capacity, and people would be familiar with it.”
But for an MLS team to be successful in Las Vegas, Luce said it would have to land successful professional Hispanic players and market to the area’s Hispanic community to create a quick fan base.
Alvaro Puentes, program director for Las Vegas’ ESPN Deportes affiliate, said he had no doubt the city could support a franchise. Puentes said the local Hispanic community would provide the core fan base that a team would need to take root here.
Nevada has the 14th largest Hispanic population in the country, growing from 444,718 to 738,295 between 2000 and 2011.
“We are ready for an MLS team in town,” Puentes said. “It’s part of the culture in Mexico, El Salvador. All kinds of countries have fútbol as a passion. Fútbol is passion for people.”
Another soccer match is scheduled July 13 at Sam Boyd Stadium featuring Mexico’s Monarcas Morelia and El Salvador’s Club Deportivo Luis Ángel Firpo (L.A. Firpo), meaning Las Vegas will have two opportunities in a short span to prove it could support soccer.
“The promoters who are bringing these events to Las Vegas, they need to feel the support,” Puentes said. “If the stadiums are empty, they are going to think, ‘We don’t have crowd support for an MLS team.’ ”