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April 21, 2019

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Brighter days lie ahead for the Las Vegas Lights

Lights FC fall to Phoenix Rising 2-0

L.E. Baskow / Lights FC

The LV Lights FC versus the Phoenix Rising for a USL game at the Cashman Field Saturday, August 18, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Brett Lashbrook will never call an eight-win soccer season a success. He refuses to look at the standings, where his Las Vegas Lights finished in third-to-last place out of 17 teams, and consider it a job well done.

Innovating promotions set the Lights apart

• The king of all promotions: At a game late in the season, a helicopter dropped $5,000 in cash—mostly $1 bills—onto the pitch at Cashman Field for 200 fans to grab. They wore pink latex gloves, after owner Brett Lashbrook read that people wearing pink are less likely to be violent. Sure enough, the event produced no injuries. One fan walked away with an event-best $137.

• A close second: Season ticket-holders who had already renewed for next season were allowed to take one kick from the circle from the 18-yard box. If that shot hit the crossbar, the fan would receive his or her 2018-19 tickets for free. A few hundred supporters combined to buy about 3,500 seats in the first year—and 18 have hit the bar for free tickets next season.

• Viva Mexico: At the Cinco de Mayo game, the Lights gave fans lucha libre masks, showing the heavily Latino fanbase that its new soccer team was all in on celebrating its culture.

“We have to improve the on-field product; it’s that simple,” says Lashbrook, the team’s owner, who doesn’t hide his criticism of the Lights’ underachieving maiden season.

In the next breath, though, Lashbrook raves about what happened off the field. His team consistently drew fans to Cashman Field, whether it was in the heat of the summer, on a holiday or when there were other significant entertainment options in town—reaffirming his belief that Southern Nevada is a prime market for his product.

The Lights averaged 7,000 fans per game during their inaugural season, which ended October 13. That included many Latino families who reside near Downtown. Some were face-painted diehards who stood chanting, waving flags and sending smoke bombs into the air on game days to transform Cashman Field into a massive soccer party. It was everything Lashbrook had envisioned.

“I am incredibly happy,” he says. “Did we get everything right? No. Did we get more right than wrong? Yes.”

Lashbrook realized the best way for the Lights to make their mark on the local sports landscape was to be creative in their approach. Seemingly each week, they did something unconventional. Lashbrook took a simple tailgate and transformed it into a pregame festival complete with games for children, food trucks and live music. He partnered with two thriving Southern Nevada industries—cannabis and sports gambling—signing them on as sponsors and even displaying in-game betting odds from bookmaker William Hill. Another sponsor, the Plaza, awarded players up to $30,000 for home victories.

“We embraced being from Las Vegas,” Lashbrook says. “People would wonder about that next crazy thing we are going to do. We aren’t going to apologize for being unique and forward-thinking.”

Of the Lights’ many supporters, two are especially noteworthy: Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Zappos CEO and Downtown developer Tony Hsieh. “Cashman is a party zone for those home matches, and you can feel the excitement building,” Goodman says. “We know that soccer is the world’s sport, and I think it will continue to grow in popularity in Las Vegas.”

The growth will include permanently converting Cashman Field from a baseball facility to a soccer-only stadium this offseason, as the Las Vegas 51s relocate to Summerlin. The new look will provide Lashbrook with additional options for in-game entertainment and amenities to further complete his vision. There’s no telling what he has in store.

“We found a niche the city didn’t have,” Lashbrook says. “We brought a slice of Mexico City [and] a slice of Buenos Aires to Downtown. We accomplished 99 percent more than anyone expected of us.” And now, he wants to bring Major League Soccer to Las Vegas

Click to enlarge photo

During a Las Vegas Lights game with LA Galaxy II FC at Cashman Field on Saturday, September 8, 2018, fans competed against each other to pick up $5,000 in cash dropped from a helicopter above.

Before the NHL’s Golden Knights arrived in 2017, Las Vegas wasn’t home to any major-league professional teams. Now the city also has a WNBA team in the Aces, with an NFL team, the Raiders, set to arrive in 2020. Major League Soccer could be another good fit, especially considering that several franchises approved for MLS expansion, including 2019 newcomer Cincinnati, have come from the Lights’ United Soccer League.

First, though, the Lights have to win more than eight games. “The best way to get on the MLS radar is to prove ourselves,” Lashbrook says.

With that in mind, Lashbrook wasted no time in making a coaching change during the offseason. A few days after the final game, he parted ways with Isidro Sánchez. A few days later, he hired U.S. soccer great Eric Wynalda as the Lights’ coach and technical director. The feeling is that Wynalda’s reputation in soccer circles will add credibility, and his knowledge and dedication could have the Lights moving up in the standings sooner than later.

“I know my job—give this city a winning team,” Wynalda says. “I know what I’ve gotten into, and we’re gonna have some fun.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.