Monday, June 21, 2021 | 6 p.m.
One of the fastest growing sports cities in the world has added a new major-league professional team partly via a trio of famous athletes.
Las Vegas will be home to the 15th franchise of the National Lacrosse League starting in late 2022, a star-studded ownership group announced in a news conference Monday afternoon at Mandalay Bay’s Michelob Ultra Arena where the team will play. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai heads the group, which also includes hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Nets coach Steve Nash and two-time golf major winner Dustin Johnson.
“I grew up loving lacrosse and developed a nice relationship with Joe, who happens to be a really wonderful man and is really excited about this whole thing,” Gretzky said. “When you have somebody like that driving the ship who’s really, really enthusiastic and excited about it, I knew this was going to be a lot of fun. You can’t beat a partner as nice as he is, and this is a great, wonderful sports city.”
The National Lacrosse League has operated since 1987 but has recently expanded by adding five new teams in the last five years. It’s the highest professional level of indoor, box lacrosse, which is traditionally faster paced than traditional outdoor, field lacrosse and often compared to hockey.
Gretzky played the sport as a child and pointed out that box lacrosse, not hockey, is actually the national sport of Canada. To cap the news conference, he picked up a stick and tossed around a ball with Tsai to show he still had some lacrosse skills.
“I was so excited, so thrilled and so honored to come on board and be a part of this,” Gretzky said.
The success of the Vegas Golden Knights is part of the reason NLL Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz earmarked the valley as a new market. Tsai, a billionaire who played lacrosse as a high schooler, was intrigued by the idea and wanted to be involved even though he already owns the NLL’s San Diego Seals.
Having previously brought his sons to Heritage Park in Henderson for a tournament, he knew there was already a local lacrosse community. Market research made him more convinced that Las Vegas could support another pro franchise to go with the likes of the Golden Knights, the Las Vegas Raiders and the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.
“There’s like 2.7 million people here and like half of them, like 1.3 million, are sports fans,” Tsai said. “That’s what we saw.”
Sakiewicz linked Tsai with Gretzky, and the two hit it off. Gretzky inadvertently lured Johnson, the father of his grandchildren, when the 2020 Masters champion overheard one of his conversations with Tsai.
“(Johnson) said, ‘Well, can I get in too?’” Gretzky recalled. “So I called Joe back and Joe said, ‘Of course.’”
Tsai pulled in Nash, thinking he might be interested in a spot, given box lacrosse’s popularity in the former two-time NBA MVP’s hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. But Tsai was unaware how big of a fan Nash was as he said the current Nets’ coach accepted immediately and began talking about how he grew up with the sport.
Nash was conducting end-season news conferences and player meetings with the Nets on Monday and therefore unable to attend the local event. Likewise, Johnson was preoccupied traveling from the U.S. Open in San Diego to the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn.
But both provided video messages expressing anticipation and promising to visit Las Vegas soon.
“I’m honored and excited to be able to play a role in bringing box lacrosse to the great sports fans of the city, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be at the event today in person,” Nash said in his video.
No financial details were disclosed, though Sportico reports the cost will be more than $10 million — similar to the price tag the Saskatchewan Rush NLL franchise recently sold for. Sakiewicz said NLL franchise values have increased 600% in the last five years with revenue growing at a rate of 700%. Tsai is bullish that the NLL will continue heading upwards.
“Our first goal is to come in, be a part of the community and help to grow the game,” he said. “We want to be known as your home team and hopefully we can put on a good show every weekend during the season for you guys to enjoy.”
To that end, the ownership group has held off on naming the team. Instead, they launched a form on lasvegaslacrosse.com where fans can submit their choice for the team name and a chance to win prizes.
Tsai said there were also plans for fans to help pick the logo, jerseys and mascot. Also owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Tsai spoke highly of the Aces and looked forward to sharing a venue with the now Raiders-owned franchise.
The team’s seasons will not overlap, as the WNBA annually runs from May to September with NLL typically going from November to April. That means Michelob Ultra Arena will have a major-league tenant year-round to further establish Las Vegas as one of the current sports hotbeds.
“We’re always known as the Entertainment Capital of the World, but when we brought the Golden Knights to Las Vegas in 2017 and the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, I think a lot of people didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Chuck Bowling, Mandalay Bay president and chief operating officer. “But I think that question has long been answered: We’re a world-class professional sports city.”