Two of Canada’s most famous athletes are investing alongside billionaire Joe Tsai in the National Lacrosse League’s new Las Vegas franchise.
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and basketball Hall of Famer Steve Nash, who currently coaches the Tsai-owned Brooklyn Nets, are both co-owners of the new indoor lacrosse team. They’ll be joined by golfer Dustin Johnson, who is Gretzky’s son-in-law.
The team, which doesn’t yet have a name, will debut next year and play its home games at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena, a 12,000-seat venue located inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Mark Fine, head of marketing at the American Dream mall in New Jersey, will be its first CEO. A formal announcement of the ownership group and home venue took place this afternoon in Las Vegas.
Speaking at the official announcement in Las Vegas, Tsai said the NLL is a great place to experiment with new technology, particularly as it pertains to media and sports betting. He said he’s helping the league negotiate new media deals across North America that could have carve-outs from streaming options geared at younger viewers.
“We’ll look at gamifying content and putting it on gaming platforms like Twitch,” he said.
Tsai is co-founder of ecommerce giant Alibaba and chairman of BSE Global (parent of the Nets, their development team and their arena.) He reached an agreement to bring an NLL team to Las Vegas last month. Though financial terms weren’t released, Tsai told Sportico at the time that the all-in cost, including the expansion fee and operational runway, will be in line with the recent price for the Saskatchewan Rush. That club, according to people familiar with the matter, sold for more than $10 million.
*watches on repeat for hours*@WayneGretzky @joetsai1999
— NLL (@NLL) June 21, 2021
The Vegas franchise is the latest lacrosse asset for Tsai, who played at Yale in the mid-1980s. He is an investor in the Premier Lacrosse League, the sport’s main outdoor circuit, and also owns the NLL franchise in San Diego.
Long considered one of the country’s fastest-growing sports, lacrosse core participation jumped 16% in the five years from 2015 to 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That growth is fueled by the spread of the sport—at its youth, high school and collegiate levels—from its elite East Coast roots to new parts of the country, particularly out West.
That’s been reflected in the composition of the NLL, which had nine teams in 2017-18 and will soon be at 15 following the recent addition of teams in San Diego, Dallas/Fort Worth and now Las Vegas. The expansion has been modeled off the quick growth of MLS, NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz (a former MLS team exec) wrote in a Sportico op-ed earlier this year.
The franchise is also the latest in Las Vegas’s quick transition into a pro sports city. Long considered off-limits because of its proximity to gambling, Las Vegas added an NHL team in 2017, and welcomed the NFL’s Raiders in 2020. It is also a potential site for MLS expansion and MLB relocation.
Nash, who was hired as the Nets coach in 2020, is also a minority investor in the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps and Spanish soccer team RCD Mallorca.
Gretzky was a minority owner with the Arizona Coyotes and was most recently an executive with the Edmonton Oilers. He said this lacrosse team might be the start of a wider business collaboration with Tsai.
“We’ll start here,” Gretzky said. “When Joe gives you advice, you listen. He’s pretty sharp.”
(This story has been updated with quotes from the official announcement in Las Vegas.)