‘Just win, baby’: On-court success is turning Las Vegas Aces into model for women’s sports
Three weeks before the Las Vegas Aces won their second straight WNBA championship, the league announced it was adding a 13th franchise in time for the 2025 season.
The news might have led Aces owner Mark Davis to break out some additional dance moves.
Given that Davis paid a reported $2 million to buy the Aces from MGM Resorts International in 2021, the team’s valuation in the eyes of sports business experts has dramatically shot up in just two years — especially after the owners of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors agreed to pay a reported $50 million expansion fee to operate the league’s newest team.
“You would think that a two-time defending WNBA champion would have a greater franchise value than an expansion team,” said Patrick Rishe, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the director of the school’s sports business program.
Rishe said other factors that determine franchise value weigh in the Aces’ favor beyond last month’s title-clinching victory over the New York Liberty. He considers the team one of the most valuable franchises in the WNBA.
“Chief among them is the revenue-generating capabilities of the asset,” Rishe said, adding that the Aces “have built up a large fan base in Las Vegas” and often fill the 24-year-old, 12,000-seat Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. WNBA television viewership was up 21 percent this season, and this year’s Finals averaged 728,000 viewers, a 36 percent increase from last season and the most-watched Finals in 20 years.
Beyond the team’s basketball prowess and the civic pride associated with winning a championship, the Aces have become a success story off the hardwood. Spurred by a consistent investment by Davis, owner of the NFL's Las Vegas Raiders, the team has attracted major celebrity support (including legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady becoming the team’s minority owner) and has become a model of how to successfully market and increase the visibility of a women’s professional sports team.
But all of that success wouldn’t be possible without the team following the legendary advice of Davis’ father, Al Davis: Just win, baby.
“The commitment of our fans is pretty phenomenal,” Aces President Nikki Fargas said. “We know everybody is a fan when you’re winning championships. But this community will show its support and get behind you if you bring a quality, professional sports team into the market.”
UNLV economics professor Bill Robinson, who specializes in sports, gaming and entertainment, said the Aces also benefit as one of three WNBA teams not affiliated with an NBA franchise.
“Some WNBA teams are just the [public relations] arm of the NBA team,” Robinson said. “They have not caught on in their market. There are questions about how the league is going to evolve right now. Some teams would like to break away. But you need a rich, interested individual who's going to come in and make them competitive.”
Robinson said Davis’ investment in the team, including signing star players and increasing community involvement, has raised the Aces’ profile — and boosted merchandise sales. Fargas said the league doesn’t track which teams sell the most T-shirts, hats and other gear sporting the Aces logo. She judges the popularity with her own eyes.
“If I'm in the grocery store and see people with Aces gear, I think that says a lot about the fans,” Fargas said. “The community is realizing that there is a women's professional sports team here.”
In July, the team unveiled a $40 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters and training facility in Henderson that was immediately lauded as the first such venue built specifically for a WNBA team in the league’s 27-year history.
The facility has two basketball courts, hot and cold pools, a sauna and a nutrition bar. Among the other features is a state-of-the-art locker room, which includes a television and mini computer at each player stall.
UNLV sports management professor Nancy Lough said the training facility was one reason the Aces were able to sign perennial WNBA all-star Candace Parker at a below-market deal in the off-season.
Despite a foot injury that kept her off the court for the last half of the season, Parker became the first player in WNBA history to win championships with three different teams.
“It’s ludicrous to think that someone like Candice Parker never before this year had a locker of her own to leave her stuff in,” Lough said. “That’s because the WNBA has not treated these players like the professionals that they are.”
Women in charge
Davis could not be reached for comment for this story. However, he told The Athletic last month that his first move after buying the team was to hire “three strong women — and get out of the way.”
Fargas took over the business operations, general manager Natalie Williams built the roster and Becky Hammon, a former WNBA player and NBA assistant coach, took the coaching reins.
Fargas, who participated in a discussion on sports business in Las Vegas at The Nevada Independent’s IndyFest conference last month, said Davis was upfront about wanting the Aces to have the best facilities available.
“Through Mark's vision, we are setting the standard on what it should be to be a WNBA team,” Fargas said at IndyFest, adding that the training facility sent a message to the league that the “players deserve nothing but the best.”
Other teams are taking notice. In February, owners of the Seattle Storm sold a minority stake in the franchise for $151 million, which is helping finance a $64 million, 50,000-square-foot practice facility and business office for the team. The Storm began construction on the venue in the summer.
Fargas said the owners of the Phoenix Mercury and the New York Liberty are considering similar practice venues. In the announcement for the Bay Area expansion team, ownership said they will build a practice facility and headquarters for the future team in Oakland.
A former college basketball coach at UCLA and Louisiana State University before joining the Aces, Fargas said the team’s fan base has “grown tremendously” in two seasons, in part because of affordable ticket prices that attract families.
According to Ticketsmarter.com, the lowest-priced Aces tickets last season ranged from $30 to $40. Seats midcourt in the upper levels can cost up to $60. Lower-level seating ranged from $80 to $120.
This season, the Aces saw the league’s highest increase in average attendance — more than 66 percent year over year — averaging a league-high 9,551 fans per game.
A scheduling conflict forced the Aces to play their final regular season home in September at the much larger and newer T-Mobile Arena, where the team drew 17,406 fans for a win over the Phoenix Mercury — setting a franchise record for single-game attendance.
“Those are the kind of moments that change the mindset of people to understand this is not like some secondary, non-professional equivalent of the Vegas Golden Knights,” Lough said. “It's damn hard to win a WNBA championship. They've done it twice in a row. They're going to keep doing it, and the city is the beneficiary.”
From San Antonio to Las Vegas
All of the Aces’ recent success harkens back to December 2018 when MGM Resorts International acquired the financially troubled San Antonio Stars. A purchase price was not disclosed.
The casino operator renamed the franchise the Las Vegas Aces, with the team playing its home games at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The acquisition was part of MGM Resorts’ growing relationship with the NBA that dated back to the development of the $375 million T-Mobile Arena, a facility that could house an NBA team.
Former MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in October 2016 that he was actively pursuing an NBA team he could bring to Las Vegas to join the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights as anchor tenants at the arena, which was being developed to NBA specifications.
It was thought the purchase of a WNBA franchise could serve as a trial balloon for a possible NBA team in Las Vegas. The team improved under MGM’s ownership and the drafting of future WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson in 2018, and played for the WNBA title in 2020, losing to the Seattle Storm.
Davis’ acquisition of the team in 2021 and MGM’s multi-year naming rights agreement with Anheuser-Busch to rechristen the Mandalay venue as the Michelob Ultra Arena helped give the team more prominence within the WNBA.
“The reality is when you have a great culture, a great coach and a place to support players, you see how the Aces just bonded as a team,” Lough said. “That can weigh heavily in the decision of the player as to where they want to play.”
Future growth may be on the horizon. Fritsche said name, image and likeness (NIL) deals signed by women’s college basketball players make them desirable to WNBA teams. Two Louisiana State players, Angel Reese ($1.7 million) and Flau'jae Johnson ($1.1 million) have the largest NIL agreement, according to On3.com, a resource for college sports and recruiting. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has signed NIL deals with State Farm, Buick and Nike.
“The point is that the WNBA is now tapping into the stardom of these college women that is fueled in part by NIL and social media profiles, now more so than ever,” Fritsche said.
Lough said the growing fan base for women’s sports through soccer and basketball, both on the college and professional levels, needs to be addressed by sports media. She noted traditional broadcast outlets devote just 4 percent of their coverage to women's sports — something she termed “a complete travesty.”
A new business model
In August, Forbes ranked the valuation of teams in eight professional leagues: NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, two international soccer leagues, Major League Soccer and Formula One.
The WNBA was not included in the list.
But cracks are starting to appear in that glass ceiling. In February 2022, the WNBA completed a $75 million capital raise, the first in the league’s history. At the time, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league’s valuation was $1 billion, which placed the average value of a WNBA team at nearly $44 million.
Still, Robinson said most of the WNBA teams “are not moneymakers.” He questioned how the league would evolve in the next few years, asking which interested individuals are “going to come in and make them competitive?”
Lough and Robinson cited a successful example outside of the WNBA — Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
The Los Angeles-based team is owned by an A-list lineup from the entertainment industry (Natalie Portman, Christina Aguilera and Gabrielle Union) and former U.S. Women’s Soccer team members (Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach). The expansion franchise’s initial valuation was $100 million, according to Sportico.
Last month, the publication said the team was now valued at an estimated $180 million because of ticket sales and an increased public profile.
“A whole lot of women invested in a team and completely changed the model of how to market, promote and even draft an entire team,” Lough said.
She said women currently working in men’s sports leagues could step in and help change the model for women’s professional sports.
“They know what they're doing and they know that they have to do it differently, truly innovate and keep up with this new generation of fans,” Lough said. “This is the new economic model.”
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