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How Las Vegas, once known as “Sin City,” became an unlikely sports haven

Ten years ago, the idea of Las Vegas having a professional football team was unthinkable. Now, the city is home to three franchises and is hosting the Super Bowl for the first time.

What changed to make Sin City one of the biggest sports havens in the country? 

For over a century, Las Vegas has been a city of reinvention, according to Michael Green, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, history professor. As early as the 1850s, people worried that the city had a reputation because of the presence of settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who believed in polygamy. In 1905, a railroad connected Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and laid the groundwork for what would be Las Vegas’ destiny, as it became a railroad town that operated 24 hours a day. In 1931, gambling became legal in the city, and almost immediately, casinos began to pop up, setting the stage for decades to come. 

As time wore on, the city only expanded, with bigger casinos being built, a highway connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and businesses becoming producers for war materials. People came “in droves to work in the plants,” Green explained, and with this boom came organized crime interests that had been chased out of other cities. Soon came a post-war economic boom and jet travel that brought tourists to town, and Vegas’ transformation into Sin City was complete. 

Super Bowl Opening Night
Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs speaks with the media during Super Bowl LVIII Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium on February 5, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

/ Getty Images

“You have these celebrities like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Lewis,” Green said. “All these people coming here. And there was a saying that Las Vegas is where you went to be certified an adult.” 

It was that tourist boom that brought college sweethearts Carolyn and Oscar Goodman to Vegas from the East Coast. As an attorney in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, Oscar Goodman knew there was an opportunity out west, and in 1964, the pair made the move.

“It was a small, nice town,” Oscar Goodman said. He opened a legal practice that would soon take off and even played himself in the 1995 movie “Casino.” In 1999, he parlayed his fame into an unlikely run for mayor. He won nearly two-thirds of the vote. 

As mayor, Oscar Goodman doubled down on his flamboyant public image and focused on cleaning up and reviving the city’s downtown, expanding on the efforts of the previous decade’s building boom, which had created the modern Las Vegas strip. He also focused on building civic and cultural institutions, including state-of-the-art hospitals and a performing arts center.

It wasn’t just entertainment acts that Oscar Goodman wanted, though. As mayor, he began the process of luring professional sports teams to Las Vegas. However, not everyone was on board, and former National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern proved an especially tough sell. 

“He said ‘Over my dead body,’” Oscar Goodman recalled. “He believed that Las Vegas, or any place that had live sports betting, should not have an NBA franchise there.” 

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Oscar Goodman served as mayor for 12 years. When he stepped down, the city elected who he calls “the most beautiful mayor in the history of mayors” — his wife. 

Carolyn Goodman won 60% of the vote in a runoff election and took office in 2011. Under her leadership, Las Vegas finally landed pro sports, with a National Hockey League expansion team. It’s an achievement that means a lot to residents, Carolyn Goodman said. The Golden Knights‘ first home game was just days after the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival killed 60 and injured hundreds. 

“You cannot even ask the question without thinking of one October when we had that horrific slaughter of innocent people,” Carolyn Goodman said. “They became our community. They helped everybody begin the process of learning to know they had to accept that that horrific problem happened, and that forever solidified how a sports team could be involved.” 

Now, the city is a venerable sports mecca. In addition to the Golden Knights, it’s home to two-time WNBA champions the Las Vegas Aces and the National Football League’s Las Vegas Raiders. Super Bowl LVIII will be played at the Raiders’ home stadium. 

“It’s the center of the universe now. It really is,” Oscar Goodman said. “People come from all over. In the beginning, they were limited to the gambling because where they came from did not have gambling. Now they come here for the shopping, and the food is outstanding, you can’t get a bad meal here, with the best entertainment in the world. 

“… As long as we have smart people here, creative people, we’ll always be ahead of everybody else because we’ve set such a high standard for ourselves. That, I believe, is the reason for our success.”

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