Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The past 12 months will forever be remembered fondly in local sports circles, as they brought a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the debut of two new professional teams and a handful of big fights. What’s in store for Las Vegas’ sports franchises in 2019? Here are our best guesses.
The Golden Knights will ultimately succeed in their quest for a Western Conference playoff spot, but it’s going to be difficult to recapture the magic of last year’s Stanley Cup Final berth. This is still a terrific team, and now that players are getting healthy, it’s not crazy to think the Knights could make another deep run. But it’s improbable, especially when you consider how historically difficult it has been to reach the Final after losing in it the previous season. (Since 1984, only the 2009 Penguins have done it.) It’s hard to say last year’s success was a fluke after seeing the sustained first halves of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Marc-André Fleury and others, not to mention the development of players like Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore. It’s also hard to count on it repeating.
Driven by a defense rebuilt on the fly through a slew of high picks in April’s NFL Draft, the Raiders will show major improvements in their final season before moving to Las Vegas. They’ll fall just short of .500 in the 2019 regular season, and go 7-9 to create some excitement around a young team on the cusp of relocation. It will be just enough for fans to stop fussing over this year’s controversial trades of previously presumed franchise cornerstones Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. A great debate will center on Derek Carr, who will remain a serviceable but unexceptional starting quarterback. He’ll make it through the team’s move to Las Vegas, though the near $60 million and three years left on his $125 million contract will be a bone of contention.
The Runnin’ Rebels are currently in for a rough year, which sets up the 2019-2020 season as a make-or-break season for coach Marvin Menzies. UNLV will return two key frontcourt starters in center Cheikh Mbacke Diong and wing Joel Ntambwe, and they’ll combine with a backcourt of Amauri Hardy and Bryce Hamilton to comprise the most talented team Menzies has had at UNLV. That squad should be good enough to compete with the upper echelon of the Mountain West, and expectations will be raised accordingly heading into the season. The Rebels will finish in the top three, or the program will look to change course—starting with the coaching staff.
After posting a disappointing 4-8 record in 2018, Tony Sanchez knows he has to make a bowl game to save his job. The Rebels will do just that in 2019, winning seven games to automatically qualify for postseason play for the first time since 2013. The majority of the credit will go to junior quarterback Armani Rogers, who will pass for 21 touchdowns, run for 12 and lead UNLV to another Fremont Cannon victory in the final week of the season to seal the Rebels' bowl berth. Sanchez will return for the 2020 season thanks to his star quarterback.
The Las Vegas Lights will take the next step in fulfilling their mission to become the next “American soccer success story.” Owner Brett Lashbrook envisions the team eventually reaching Major League Soccer, but before it follows the path of Atlanta United FC or Orlando City Soccer Club (both jumped from the Lights’ United Soccer League to Major League Soccer) the on-the-field product needs to improve in the franchise’s second season. The Lights finished third-to-last place out of 17 teams last season, denting an otherwise successful introduction into the market. They averaged 7,000 fans, with games resembling gigantic parties featuring food vendors, carnival games and enthusiastic cheering. Cashman Field will become a soccer-only facility in 2019, meaning the Lights’ Downtown party should be even bigger and better. All that’s left is winning soccer, something Lashbrook feels new coach and technical director Eric Wynalda, the former U.S. soccer great, can accomplish.
The Las Vegas Aces already have one of the best players in the league in second-year post player A’ja Wilson. Given another year of experience, Wilson and the rest of the roster—mostly comprised of top draft selections and young stars with potential—will take a huge leap forward and qualify for the playoffs. And coach Bill Laimbeer has proven he can navigate a playoff series better than most. Wilson will dominate the first two rounds, Laimbeer will pull the right strings and Vegas will play for the WNBA championship.
From a business standpoint, the locally based fight promotion group will have its biggest year since the momentous 2016 campaign that led to a $4 billion sale from the Fertitta brothers to WME. Combat sports’ biggest star, Conor McGregor, will fight twice—beating a game contender in the first half of the year before challenging to win back a title at the end of 2019. And those two fights won’t be the UFC’s only blockbusters. A long-awaited fight between two-division champion Daniel Cormier and nomadic pay-per-view draw Brock Lesnar will also take place, with the former knocking out the latter before retiring days ahead of his 40th birthday. Cormier will fight off the temptation to extend his career with a third fight against archrival Jon Jones, who will instead supplement beating Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 on December 29 with a pair of title defenses in the new year.
The Aviators—formerly the Las Vegas 51s—will be a hit in their first season in Summerlin, seeing a spike in attendance as they move into their $150 million, 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark. The facility’s fan amenities are designed to create a festival-like atmosphere in Downtown Summerlin, including a kids’ zone and pool beyond the outfield wall. The franchise averaged 4,746 fans per game in 2018, a number that will surely increase with the move out of Cashman Field. Expect the Triple-A club to be competitive in its initial season affiliated with the Oakland A’s, a big-league team known for having some of the game’s better prospects. Las Vegas might even get to watch two-sport standout Kyler Murray, college football’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.