With the fast-evolving Las Vegas sports landscape growing stronger by the day, the latest arrival into the Sin City mix comes in the name of the National Lacrosse League’s Las Vegas Desert Dogs, led by an ownership group that includes San Diego Seals/Brooklyn Nets/New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai, along with sports luminaries Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash and Dustin Johnson. The club will play its home games at the 12,000-capacity Michelob ULTRA Arena, located on the southern edge of the strip, at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
On a day-to-day basis, the NLL’s newest team will be run by CEO Mark Fine and Head Coach/General Manager Shawn Williams.
“We feel that once people get out to a game, they will see a great product. An exciting, fun, fast-paced product that fans will want to be a part of,” said Fine.
The Desert Dogs have already sold over 2,000 season tickets without playing a home game yet. Fine believes that most of the fans attending the home opener on December 16 will be witnessing their very first lacrosse game in-person.
For eons, the Las Vegas sports landscape largely focused on three distinct areas of competition, boxing, minor league baseball and UNLV athletics, particularly during Jerry Tarkanian’s decades of success as coach of the Runnin’ Rebels men’s basketball program.
Fast-forwarding to the 2020’s and Sin City has experienced a stunning boom in professional sports representation, thanks largely to the mainstreaming and wide spread legalization of sports betting, along with the Southern Nevada region gaining nearly two million residents since 1980. Las Vegas is now the proud home of NLL, NHL, NFL and WNBA franchises, the potential future home of MLB and NBA clubs, while currently serving as the undisputed summer headquarters of professional basketball.
Super Bowl 58 will be played at Allegiant Stadium (home of the Las Vegas Raiders) in 2024.
Starting a team from scratch always comes with any number of challenges. These obstacles grow exponentially in a desert sports and entertainment mecca that has experienced limited exposure to lacrosse. With this in mind, the Desert Dogs are dedicated to simultaneously growing the franchise’s brand and the sport itself.
“This is a very community representative team. And that’s something we’ve really tried to live by,” explained Fine.
Approximately 1,000 children (17 and under) play lacrosse in Nevada. In an effort to boost those numbers, the Desert Dogs distributed team pinnies to young people in every corner of the state, donated goals to existing local lacrosse programs and equipment to 10 Las Vegas area schools. They introduced the sport to gym teachers in the surrounding area and are providing free tickets to Indigenous communities throughout the Southwest. In addition, the team’s acquisitions of American-born players like Jack Hannah, Charlie Bertrand and Connor Kirst are intended to show the youth sports community that they too can make it big in lacrosse.
“40 million people come in and out of Las Vegas on an annual basis,” said Fine, a former Brooklyn Nets executive. “But for the team to achieve ultimate business success, it must operate as a locally based and community-oriented team.”
Fine later added, “When Las Vegas is talked about from a professional sports lens, we want to be a part of that conversation.”
While the Desert Dogs are hyper focused on building a local fan-following, the franchise is positioning itself to take advantage of not only residing in America’s vacation playground, but also the unique circumstance that comes with playing home games within the confines of a mega hotel property. Fine believes that Desert Dog games will serve as an attractive proposition for visiting fans who have the option of staying just a few steps from the venue.
“You can go from your hotel room, take an elevator and be in the arena, and in your seat in about five minutes. That’s an incredible advantage that we have,” noted Fine.
The Desert Dogs and NHL’s Golden Knights are even teaming up with their NLL and NHL counterparts in Calgary to host a travel package that includes lodging at Mandalay Bay, along with tickets to the Golden Knights vs. Flames on February 23 at T-Mobile Arena and the Desert Dogs vs. Roughnecks on February 24 at Michelob ULTRA Arena.
While Fine is leaving no stone unturned in building the business side of the Desert Dogs operation, the all-important role of putting a winning product on the field belongs to NLL Hall of Famer, Shawn Williams. Williams worked diligently to put a roster together that combines high character players and veteran leadership.
“Rob Hellyer and Zack Greer are bonafide all-stars throughout their careers and are both taking on huge leadership roles,” explained the first-year coach.
Williams also quickly put to rest any concerns he may have regarding distractions that will inevitably come with playing lacrosse in Sin City.
“It’s about the character and leadership piece that we were able to add to our team. They all get it. I want them to enjoy the city and all the great things to do, but they know our focus is to put wins together,” expressed the six-time all-star.
“Hopefully the other teams coming in will run into the issues. We’ll take any two-point donations,” Williams later joked.
The inaugural home game for the Desert Dogs is on December 16 against Panther City, who they took on in their first game last weekend. John Wagner scored the first goal in team history seconds into the game but the Desert Dogs would fall to PCLC in a competitive game, 11-13. If you can’t make it to the game in person, make sure to watch on ESPN2, ESPN+, and TSN.ca.