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Aviators’ four decades in Las Vegas provided a road map for the Golden Knights

Some 28 minor league sports teams have come and gone because they couldn’t replicate the Triple-A baseball team’s successful business model.
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
A's stadiumEconomyLas Vegas AviatorsSports
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More than two dozen minor league franchises — including Silvers, Outlaws, Thunder and Gladiators are on the headstones in Southern Nevada’s sports graveyard. 

But not the Las Vegas Aviators. Without its $150 million stadium anchoring Downtown Summerlin, the Triple-A team — which has been known as Stars and 51s — might have followed.

Howard Hughes Corp., along with an $80 million, 20-year naming rights deal with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority created the nearly 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark, which opened in 2019. 

Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas, which is 41 years old, “probably lost its fastball in the early 2000s,” Aviators president Don Logan said using an expression that describes a pitcher at the end of his career. “Major League Baseball wouldn't have allowed us to continue at a facility like Cashman.”

The new stadium changed the business model for the members of the Pacific Coast League. The franchise celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2023 and saw a three-fold jump in season ticket sales from the final year at dilapidated Cashman. More than 20 luxury suites that accommodate groups of 20 to 60 fans, opened a new revenue stream for the team.

Logan, who has been with the franchise since 1983 and served as president since 2003, said Las Vegas has room for minor league sports. However, 28 minor league teams in hockey, basketball, arena football and indoor soccer have come and gone. 

In the last three years, Las Vegas has seen minor league franchises start up in hockey, arena football, women’s volleyball and indoor lacrosse. Logan suggested the teams need to invest time and money into Southern Nevada to build a fan base to succeed.

“The Aviators are part of the community, and that’s why we’ve succeeded where other models haven’t,” Logan said. “We’re affordable and through the years, we have become a good partner [to local businesses and nonprofits].”

The biggest change to the sports landscape has been Las Vegas’ elevation as a major league sports market. The city became home to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, which won the Stanley Cup as NHL champions in 2023 and the two-time WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, which relocated from San Antonio in 2019. Three years ago, the Oakland Raiders relocated to the 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium and became the Las Vegas Raiders, bringing with it the nation’s most popular professional sports league. 

None of the teams has been direct competitors for the Aviators’ fan base.

Logan said the team has survived 41 years partly because baseball “runs through everyone’s blood. It’s got a connection to people more than any other sport.”

When it arrived in 1983, the team wasn’t viewed as a business rival to the UNLV men’s basketball program. The “Runnin Rebels” were the only sports attraction in Las Vegas. Led by head coach Jerry Tarkanian, the team made four appearances in the NCAA’s Final Four from 1977 to 1991, winning its lone national championship in 1990.

Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher, right, and Las Vegas Aviators President Don Logan converse before a press conference at Las Vegas Ballpark on March 8, 2024. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

On deck: The Las Vegas A’s

In 2028 the Aviators are expected to see the Oakland Athletics, their Major League affiliate, move into a planned $1.5 billion, 33,000-seat stadium on the Strip. The A’s have a 10-year player development contract with the Aviators and both franchises see benefits of being in the same market, such as moving players seamlessly between the teams.

With the A’s playing 81 home games and the Aviators hosting 75 games at Las Vegas Ballpark, there will be some overlap.

“It’s going to be a little more challenging, but our price points are going to be so much less than Major League Baseball,” Logan said. “We have a great venue in a great part of town and it’s always about 5 degrees cooler up here. I think [having the A’s in Las Vegas] will impact us but I don’t think it will put us out of business.”

Logan is in constant contact with the A’s management. The A’s have played spring training games at Las Vegas Ballpark. He suggested the A’s might play a few regular season games in Las Vegas during the next three years while the team temporarily relocates to Sacramento as its stadium is being built.

UNLV economics professor Bill Robinson, who specializes in sports, gaming and entertainment, said the Aviators' four decades in Las Vegas present more of a challenge for the A’s to build a following during the next three years. 

“The A's don't really have a fan base, even in Oakland,” Robinson said. “The A’s will be on the Strip and it's not easy to get to. You're going to have to pay for parking and that’s going to be very expensive. The locals might still prefer to go to the Aviators games.”

He said the onus is on the A’s because of the “differentiation between what attracts the locals and what attracts the tourists.”

Embracing the community

As a testament to the Aviators' staying power, the team has operated under three names (Stars, 51s and Aviators), four ownership groups (including downtown casino owner Derek Stevens)  and affiliations with five major league teams (San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets and the A’s). 

Logan spent 45 minutes discussing the Aviators' role in Las Vegas with The Nevada Independent. Early in the conversation, he was interrupted by a phone call from a corporate marketing executive checking on tickets to a game the team was donating to an upcoming customer event. 

It’s that type of community interaction that he said other minor league sports failed to capture.

The Golden Knights embraced that role from the outset. 

President of Business Operations Kerry Bubolz said Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and the team’s leadership knew it had to not only introduce hockey to Southern Nevada but immerse the franchise and players into the Las Vegas landscape. 

The team located its practice and training facility and corporate headquarters in Summerlin adjacent to where Las Vegas Ballpark was subsequently built. The facility offers fans free access to watch the team’s practices and a second sheet of ice is set aside for youth hockey.

Bubolz said when the team arrived in 2017, there were 93 players in youth hockey leagues. Today, that figure is more than 6,000. They play on ice sheets in Summerlin, Henderson and North Las Vegas, where the team took over operations of the former Fiesta Rancho ice arena. The Knights also are building a second youth ice skating facility in Henderson.

A key move was to bring an American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate to Henderson after having a team in Chicago during the Knights’ first two seasons. 

Minor league hockey had a history in Southern Nevada. The Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League played from 1993 to 1999 at Thomas & Mack Center, leaving when UNLV refused to negotiate a new contract. Similarly, the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL played at the Orleans Arena from 2003 to 2015, folding after its deal with Orleans operator Boyd Gaming Corp. fell through.

The Knights acquired San Antonio’s AHL team and the franchise was relocated to Henderson and rebranded as the Henderson Silver Knights for the 2020-21 season.

“From a development standpoint, it was an easy decision,” Bubolz said. “A player call-up is just  20 minutes rather than a three-hour plane ride. Our scouts can watch every player in the AHL right here in our home market.”

The concern was taking business away from the “primary brand” in a market that was still being developed. Instead, Bubolz said the Silver Knights, who played their first two seasons at Orleans Arena, became a more affordable ticket for hockey fans who couldn’t pay the higher prices to see the Golden Knights play at T-Mobile Arena on the Strip.

Season tickets for the Silver Knights are advertised at $31 to $129 per game. Last season, Vegas Golden Knights tickets averaged $152 per game. 

“We came to realize there was another hockey fan base out there,” he said.

The Las Vegas Aviators manager Fran Riordan leads a meeting on the mound during a game with the Reno Aces at Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin on April 5, 2022. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

New teams and new sports

What also helped build the team’s presence was the development of what is now the $84 million Lee’s Family Forum, a nearly 5,600-seat arena the Knights built in a 50-50 partnership with the City of Henderson. The Knights control the building’s operations.  

In addition to the Silver Knights, the arena is the home venue for the Vegas Knights Hawks, an indoor football team owned by the Knights and that began playing in 2022. The privately owned Vegas Thrill, a women’s indoor volleyball team, completed its inaugural season in the seven-team Pro Volleyball Federation in May at Lee’s Family Forum.

When the Las Vegas Desert Dogs begin their third season next year in the National Lacrosse League, the team will move to the venue, leaving Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. 

Gabe Mirabelli, chief business officer for the minor league teams owned by Foley Entertainment Group — the parent company of the Golden Knights — suggested the lacrosse team operators believe it will be easier to draw locals to the Henderson arena rather than the Strip.

“We’re an organization that has people running the Henderson Silver Knights getting input from the Vegas Golden Knights,” Mirabelli said. “You have a level of business acumen and expertise and, frankly, a megaphone that can announce this thing from the rooftops. We've got ways to promote all our brands.”

The arena has scheduled UNLV home basketball games in December when Thomas & Mack is unavailable because of the National Finals Rodeo. The venue is also home to the Big West Conference basketball tournament in the spring as well as concerts and other special events throughout the year.

Robinson said having the support from Foley Entertainment for the Knights and Knight Hawks, plus controlling the venue in Henderson, provides a strong business model.

“The Knights have gone out and have been adventuresome in terms of what they've done and how they've done it,” Robinson said.

Bubolz said he isn’t concerned that additional minor league sports might try to enter the market.

“If there's a product that's out there, that has good ownership, has good operators and a reasonable [ticket] price, then it will do well,” he said. “You got to have those pieces in place.”

Updated at 6:04 a.m. on 7/8/2024 to correct the name of the ECHL.

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