How Las Vegas became a hot spot for the NBA

Credit: MSG
Las Vegas does not have an NBA team (yet) but it has become the league's favorite city for some of its newest and biggest events.

LAS VEGAS – Nearly 3 ½ hours before the NBA’s next generational talent took the court, fans already filled the arena. About an hour before Victor Wembanyama made his Summer League-debut, security officials roped off the entrance tunnel where countless reporters, scouts and executives previously stood.

The scene captured the frenetic and excited nature over a sell-out crowd of nearly 18,000 fans eager to witness the San Antonio Spurs showcasing their No. 1 draft pick. It also exemplified the insatiable appetite that both Las Vegas residents and visitors have for basketball.

“We had to cut off ticket sales. We couldn’t sell any more tickets because the fire marshal and building manager said there’s a danger,” Warren LeGarie, the executive director of Las Vegas Summer League, told The Sporting Tribune. “We also have a lot of credentials out that we can’t control. It becomes a ‘Don’t you know who I am fest rather than a basketball fest.’ Everybody wanted to be here for the ‘Wemby’ open.”

It seems as if everybody has wanted to be here for other major basketball events, too.

Summer League has become a host site at the Thomas & Mack Center (since 2007) and also at Cox Pavilion (since 2004) after both have been venues for UNLV’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, respectively. LeGarie estimated “our league grows in attendance from 10% to15%” annually leading into Monday’s championship game (6 pm PT, ESPN). To coincide with that growth, the league hosted its first NBA Con event at Mandalay Bay Convention Center (July 7-9) to showcase live panels, musical performances, exclusive merch drops, meet-and-greets and more than 100 talent appearances.

On the second day of that event, the NBA also announced details about its inaugural In-Season Tournament, which will have its semifinals (Dec. 7) and championship game (Dec. 9) at T-Mobile Arena. That has also been a host site for various NBA and Team USA exhibition games. Meanwhile, Michelob Ultra Arena will showcase this weekend’s WNBA All-Star game (Saturday 5:30 pm PT, ABC) just over 16 years after the NBA hosted an All-Star game at Thomas & Mack Center.

While talk persists on if the NBA will have a franchise here, the WNBA’s defending championship team (Las Vegas Aces) have played at Michelob Ultra Arena since 2018 after relocating from San Antonio.

For the past four years, this city has already become the host site for the G League Showcase. Just like they do at Summer League with young prospects and training camp hopefuls, coaches and executives have congregated here for the past four years to evaluate G League players.

“Given the size and scope of our Summer League and what the Aces have already established as a WNBA Champion and host of this weekend’s All-Star Game, we enjoy an especially large presence in Las Vegas,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in an e-mailed statement to The Sporting Tribune. “We’re now further expanding our footprint here by bringing the Semifinals and Championship of our new In-Season Tournament. This is a terrific destination for our teams and players and an attractive location for our fans.  Those are just some of the reasons we love being part of the sports landscape in Las Vegas.”

How Summer League has grown in Vegas

To think, those in and around the NBA once viewed Las Vegas as a host site with skeptical eyes.

“Everybody was always worried, including — God rest his soul –Commissioner [David] Stern,” LeGarie said. “They worried that Vegas is all about the strip and only bad things are going to happen.”

Silver encouraged LeGarie, however, to seek Stern’s approval. When both lodged at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles for 2004 NBA All-Star weekend, LeGarie waited in the lobby in case he caught Stern in between meetings. Once that happened, LeGarie pleaded to make a five-minute sales pitch. Stern told LeGarie wryly that he will listen as long as he walks fast on their way to his next appointment.

LeGarie spoke as if he oversaw the city’s chamber of commerce. LeGarie touted how Las Vegas became a hub for growing school districts, players’ residences because of tax incentives and a devoted community that lives outside of the strip. LeGarie contended that law enforcement and security officials have a proven track record with preventing and mitigating incidents. And to assuage any league concerns that new ideas would yield to more work, LeGarie said he’d gladly take on the responsibility himself. After allowing LeGarie to speak for about 20 minutes, Stern said, “I’ll get back to you.”

Stu Jackson, the NBA’s former executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, alerted LeGarie two months later that the NBA would approve the idea so long as LeGarie handled the logistics and costs. The NBA would not have signed off on the plan had Silver not encouraged LeGarie to approach Stern.

“Adam Silver: maybe there’s a smarter guy, but I just haven’t met him,” LeGarie said. “That guy sees things around the corner and down the road in the next 10 years. He already could see what this could become. He saw it better than we saw it.”

LeGarie, a longtime coach’s agent, received commitments from Washington, Phoenix, Denver and Cleveland after leaning on various coaching relationships with those franchises. Orlando signed up after recognizing the benefits with its top No. 1 pick (Dwight Howard) playing in two summer leagues. Boston joined after realizing its own summer league would become disrupted with hotels already booked due to that year’s Democratic National Convention. Albert Hall, the league’s vice president of business operations, helped LeGarie with both the expenses and logistics.

It appeared developments would turn for the worse when NBA’s All-Star weekend here in 2007 coincided with former NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones’ involvement in a strip club shooting. Five months later, however, LeGarie said the league experienced what he called a “game changer.”

After relying for the first two years on a well-known shoe company as its primary sponsor (Reebok), Las Vegas Summer League attracted an emerging tech company as its lead sponsor (Toshiba). The league also showcased a matchup featuring the NBA Draft’s top two picks in Portland’s Greg Oden and Seattle’s Kevin Durant.

“It was an acknowledgement that it could be a legitimate property. They weren’t an NBA partner and here we are doing deals with somebody that is at that level,” Hall told The Sporting Tribune. “That helped us get that credibility factor in a way that we never had.”

By then, the NBA branded Vegas Summer League and participated in what LeGarie jokingly described as “a hostile takeover.” Instead of relying on livestreams on pay-per-view channels, NBA TV showcased the games. By 2018, the league featured 22 out of 30 NBA teams. For the past five years, all 30 NBA teams have participated. Since then, it has become a marquee event both to watch young talent and to network.

Las Vegas Summer League has attracted sell-out crowds to see top prospects, including the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball (2017), New Orleans’ Zion Williamson (2019) and Wembanyama (2023). It annually has also featured head-to-head matchups with top draft picks. And though attendance decreases for less high-profile games following opening weekend, both the NBA and Summer League officials have touted the consistent interest from talent evaluators and fans to watch developing players in one venue at an economical price.

Nothing captured the buzz and the league’s attentiveness more than Williamson’s debut, though. After Williamson impressed the sell-out crowd with his power, the Pelicans-New York Knicks game ended abruptly following a nearby earthquake.

“I didn’t sleep for 36 hours,” Hall said. “We were up all night with an instructional engineer who inspected everything.”

Fitting since Las Vegas is among one of the cities that never sleeps. Officials ensured nothing was amiss and games resumed as normal the following day.

What was NBA Con like?

No wonder then that the league held its inaugural NBA Con here to coincide with Summer League.

“Part of it is we have a long history here with Las Vegas,” Joey Graziano, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Global Events, told The Sporting Tribune. “This is a market we know our global fans are excited to travel. We know we can deliver these custom experiences that allow our fans to get closer to the action and closer to our game here. The combination of that makes for a very special event and one we believe is right for the global stage.”

After all, Graziano estimated that 90% of attendees have traveled from out-of-state , including people visiting from 13 different countries. The city offers direct flights both to large and small airports along with various restaurant and entertainment options. As Graziano estimated,  more than 25,000 fans attended the three-day event. And why not?

Those fans saw various player appearances that included Hall-of-Famers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins, Joe Dumars, Ray Allen, Isiah Thomas), top rookie prospects (Wembanyama, Portland’s Scoot Henderson) and All-Stars (Anthony Edwards, Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyrese Haliburton, Darius Garland, Mike Conley).

They didn’t just make cameos, either. On one panel, Abdul-Jabbar sat with Wembanyama and gave advice on how to thrive as a dominant center. On another panel, former NBA star Carmelo Anthony provided insight to Henderson on making smart business decisions. And on another panel, West detailed his competitiveness by likening himself to a wolf that eats dogs.

“What NBA Con delivered in Vegas will never happen again,” Graziano said. “You will never find that type of talent, not because we won’t be able to have incredible talent in future ones. But the moment will be different.”

Nonetheless, NBA Con will offer familiar staples.

The inaugural event featured live musical performances that included, 2 Chainz, BLXST, AJR, Eslabon Armado, Armani White, Toosii and DJ E Rock. The exhibits unveiled more than 500 exclusive NBA products and merchandise. And the event also presented various pop-a-shots and video game consoles (NBA2K, NBA Jam).  

The NBA plans to showcase NBA Con at other events both domestically  (NBA Draft lottery, NBA pre-draft combine, NBA Draft) and internationally (pre-season games). Is it safe to presume, though, the league will feature NBA Con annually at Las Vegas Summer League?

“That’s certainly our plan: to be able to deliver NBA Con with more frequency as the business continues to mature and grow,” Graziano said. “We got off to a great start with our first event at Summer League. But our plan is certainly to have more to come.”

Will In-season tournament become successful?

Those plans could also entail having an exhibit during the NBA’s In-Season tournament for its semifinals and championship games.

Makes sense. ESPN aired “NBA Today” at NBA Con last week when it unveiled details about the league’s inaugural In-Season tournament. The panel unveiled all six of the five-team groups in front of about 4,000 fans, which either cheered or booed during each announcement.  

Group 1: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons

Group 2: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets

Group 3: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic

Group 4: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers

Group 5: Denver Nuggets, Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets

Group 6: Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs

“Because of the way that the regular season is played, we wanted to have additional consequence,” Byron Spruell, the league’s president of basketball operations, told a small group of reporters. “Even now with the Play-In [tournament], there is also that element. We think this is going to add yet one more dimension for additional games of consequence.”

The NBA’s announcement coincided with some teams recently deprioritizing the regular season through load management and some fans becoming less interested until the playoffs start. Yet, league officials stress the NBA has brainstormed this idea for the past 15 years. Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told a small group of reporters that the league considered launching the Play-In tournament and In-Season tournament to commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary last season until the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 halted those plans.

Instead, the NBA launched the Play-In tournament during the 2020 season restart in the “NBA bubble” to give contending teams a chance to make the playoffs following the three-month layoff. Amid its popularity, the NBA kept the Play-In tournament in hopes to reduce tanking. As Wasch said about last season, “it was the single-most competitive season in the history of the NBA.”

Those around the NBA have mixed feelings on whether the In-Season tournament will make the regular season games more exciting, though.

Young teams may find the games more important than teams that have already competed for NBA championships. Those that want to seriously compete in the In-Season tournament may prioritize rest in the other regular-season games. The NFL and college football may overshadow the tournament itself that starts with group play (Nov. 3, 10, 14, 17, 21, 24 and 28) and the quarterfinals (Dec. 4 and 5).

Nonetheless, league officials said they received player and team input to mitigate various concerns.

To create incentives for the In-Season tournament, each player will earn additional money on the NBA Cup’s winning team ($500,00) and losing team ($200,000), on the semifinal losing teams ($100,000) and on the quarterfinal losing teams ($50,000).  Outside of the championship game, all of the In-Season tournament games will count in the regular-season standings. To minimize conditioning issues, non-contending teams will play on the non-game days of the In-Season tournament. Though football may overshadow the NBA’s In-Season tournament, officials abstained from scheduling it later in the season since it could disrupt both NBA All-Star weekend and the promotional lead-in.

“All of the players I’ve spoken to, they’ve been very supportive of it,” Joe Dumars, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, told a small group of reporters. “There’s a reason that you take your time to present this to the players. The worst thing you can do is go present something like this to the players and you haven’t thought it out completely. The fact that so much time has gone into this, I think it made it easer for the players to digest it.”

Although the NBA has kept its options open on where to host future In-Season tournaments, the league concluded it would be easier for all parties involved to start the inaugural semifinals and championship game in Las Vegas.

“It really is a great mecca of basketball for the NBA that has yet to have games of consequence in the NBA,” Wasch said of Las Vegas. “We have Summer League. We’ve had an All-Star [weekend] here. But to have competitive games that count for the regular season and for this championship, we thought it was a unique opportunity.”

Is NBA expansion next?

That leads to the inevitable question. Will Las Vegas ever have an NBA team?

“We are not engaged in that process now,” Silver said at the Associated Press Sports Editors convention this week at the Flamingo Hotel. “We’re not taking meetings right now with any potential groups. What we’re saying to everyone privately is the same thing. I’m saying publicly that there’ll be a very open process at the time we’re ready to consider expansion. But that’s not yet; that’s not now.”

That’s because the NBA has prioritized on negotiations involving its television rights deal, which expires after the 2024-25 season. Those around the league  suspect Las Vegas won’t have an NBA team imminently for other reasons, too.

Would expansion initially dilute the revenue-sharing pie with the league’s 30 other teams? Would an NBA team play in an existing venue or would it require a new arena? If so, would it become publicly subsidized or privately funded? Would Seattle have a franchise first after it relocated in 2008 to Oklahoma City? Or would the NBA expansion include both Seattle and Las Vegas franchises at once? Nonetheless, Lakers star LeBron James said on “The Shop: Uninterrupted on HBO” he wants to own an NBA team in Las Vegas. Following the Lakers’ pre-season game against Phoenix at T-Mobile Arena last year, James reiterated that he “would love to bring a team here at some point.”

Therefore, those around the league expect it is eventually inevitable that Sin City will have its own NBA team.

“It’s not a sure thing, but as I’ve said before, I think it’s natural that organizations grow over time,” Silver said at the APSE convention. “We will look at [Las Vegas]. There’s no doubt there’s enormous interest in Seattle. That’s not a secret. There are other markets that have indicated interest.”

Perhaps not as much interest as Las Vegas, which already has become a hub for major NBA events.

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