One of the big stories of the 2018 USL season thus far has been the success of Las Vegas Lights FC.
Despite being a brand-new franchise, the team has showed strong home attendance in both exhibition and league matches. Over three exhibition matches against MLS competition in the preseason, the team drew more than 23,000 fans. In five home games thus far in USL play, Lights FC is averaging 8,175 fans per game — enough for fifth highest in the league — significantly outpacing many of its more established teams.
An expansion team this season, the team is playing its home matches at downtown Las Vegas’ Cashman Field. Home to baseball’s Las Vegas 51s (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), the facility has been the focus of some criticism in Minor League Baseball circles, but Lights FC owner Brett Lashbrook is thrilled with the stadium.
Lashbrook, a former legal counsel and special assistant to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and former chief operating officer of Orlando City FC, says that the conversion to soccer is going more smoothly than he anticipated. Unlike many of the minor league ballparks that are being used for soccer, the configuration of Cashman Field is perfectly suited for soccer.
According to Lashbrook, “When Cashman was built, it was actually built with soccer in mind. It is the only baseball stadium in the world that I’ve ever seen that has center field at a right angle and all the foul territory behind first and third base are equal distance…. The 10,000 seats at Cashman are all front row seats for soccer.”
Lashbrook feels that stadiums built like Cashman Field represent the future of small stadium design. Minor League Baseball fields can be great economic drivers in a community, but they sit empty half the summer while baseball teams are on the road, when they could be used additionally for soccer matches to fill in the schedule.
“It’s the future,” Lashbrook said. “There are 180 some professional baseball markets in the US and Canada, but there’s only 40 or 50 professional soccer markets. If I’m going to make a bet on a sport in the next 30 years, I’ll take soccer over baseball any day of the week…. Soccer, if these stadiums are built smartly, is proving to be a great dual-use opportunity.
“There’s a real opportunity for the next generation of sports architecture to really build with soccer fan experience in mind and put that experience on equal footing with what the baseball fan experience is.”
Among the specific elements Lashbrook suggest will be important to that endeavor are seats that face the field but not home plate, limited foul territories, and less curved outfield walls.
In the case of Cashman Field, it won’t be dual use past this season. The 51s are moving to Las Vegas Ballpark in 2019, a $150 million dollar, 10,000-seat park being built in nearby Summerlin, and Lights FC will become the primary tenant. The club has a 15-year lease with the City of Las Vegas, and after the 51s move out, the club has the ability to remodel the stadium as a soccer-only facility at their expense.
This provides a great opportunity for Lights FC. The site is a pad ready and the club could build out the stadium as it sees fit. Lashbrook said they’re not quite sure yet what improvements they may make. “You could tear down the right and left field walls and add 10,000 seats, you could build suites, you could build add a beer garden or add a dog park” – the opportunities are essentially limitless.
Vegas is in the midst of a building boom in sports facilities. In addition to Las Vegas Ballpark, the Raiders are also building a new $1.8-billion-dollar stadium to be shared with the UNLV football program. Las Vegas Stadium broke ground on 62 acres west of Mandalay Bay last fall and has a completion date of 2020.
Despite that, however, Lashbrook emphasized that the club has no interest in leaving Cashman Field and downtown Las Vegas. Because of its central city location, he call it a “hidden gem,” and “soccer’s version of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.”
“We love downtown Las Vegas!” Lashbrook said. “Soccer stadiums work best in the urban core. It doesn’t work as well when you’re out in the suburbs surrounded by a big parking lot…. Before the game you want to drink and eat, after the game you want to drink and eat, and in our case, gamble and music and everything else, and we have that just a quarter mile away on Fremont Street.”
Lashbrook believes passionately that Cashman Field is the key to the team’s success so far, and that it will be well into the future. “Soccer continues to grow in the US, but the most difficult thing is venues. You need that authentic soccer experience – you sing and dance and cheer for ninety minutes, and you can hear the crowd – playing in an NFL stadium doesn’t give you that.”
The early returns for Las Vegas Lights FC are certainly an indicator that he is right. If the team continues to draw fans, it may eventually have a strong case for an MLS expansion bid.
Lashbrook recognizes that several teams have made the jump from USL to MLS, but he’s focused on USL competition first and foremost. “There are 101 possible good outcomes for this franchise over the next few decades, but what they all have in common is a strong USL start. Before we start talking about dessert, let’s make sure we get the meal right.”
The success we’ve seen thus far from Las Vegas Lights FC may in fact be only an appetizer. But with seasoned ownership and an urban stadium with the potential to be remodeled to suit the club, the meal is looking good. MLS may represent the best possible “dessert” scenario, but with Lashbrook in charge, it is definitely on the menu.
Images from April 27 home match by L.E. Baskow / Lights FC
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