Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Last year, when the powers that be announced this Saturday night’s Formula 1 Grand Prix in Las Vegas, the question was how the famous Strip would be transformed to accommodate a 3.85-mile track.
The media conference on the fourth-floor pool level of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort hotel was at night—just like the race with its 10 p.m. PT start time, so it will begin during the early morning hours on TV in Europe. Looking down toward the lights and car and foot traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard, the project seemed unimaginable.
“How this will happen is a mystery,” Stefano Domenicali, F1’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview at the time. “It’s a big project. It will create one of the longest straightaways in Grand Prix history.”
The track has been constructed, solving that mystery. The real mystery is how successful the race will be this weekend in a city home to 656,274 people that is swiftly becoming the sports capital of the world, capitalizing on the 32 million tourists who annually visit. It’s the first year of a three-year agreement between F1, Las Vegas and Liberty Media, so they have two more years to get it right.
Has the city, which is ranked as the 24th largest in the country in population—there are only 3.1 million people in the entire state of Nevada—and the 40th media market in the country, bit off more than it can chew?
Ticket prices, television exposure and interest in the race have fluctuated. The event got off to a chaotic start. A water valve cover came loose on the track eight minutes into the opening practice on Thursday night, causing extensive damage to Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and delays to the opening night schedule. An estimated 77% of all U.S. TV households will be asleep when the race airs on ESPN, limiting its national exposure. Traffic downtown will be at a standstill, mimicking the 2007 NBA All-Star Game played at nearby Thomas & Mack Center. Former mayor Oscar Goodman called that “a disastrous weekend” as human and car traffic choked the Strip, contributing to about 400 arrests and one person paralyzed after he was shot.
The F1 event is part of a huge explosion in professional sports since the National Hockey League awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise in 2017.
Looking for teams? Vegas has teams.
The A’s are moving to Vegas from Oakland, MLB said Thursday. A new $1.5 billion 33,000-seat retractable-roofed ballpark on the Strip is expected to be ready by 2028. It’s a private-public project, with Nevada already committed to $380 million of taxpayer dollars.
“We look forward to being in Las Vegas. There’s tremendous support for having the A’s there,” commissioner Rob Manfred said at press conference Thursday after the 30 owners voted unanimously for the relocation at their meeting in Arlington, Texas. “We do believe that over the long-haul Las Vegas will be a great asset for MLB.”
The NHL’s Golden Knights are defending their first Stanley Cup at T-Mobile Arena, which cost $380 million to build, mostly on private funds. They sellout every game and this year are playing at an NHL-leading 103% of capacity at just over 18,000.
A $2 billion privately funded casino-hotel-arena complex is planned for south of the Strip as the possible home for a yet-to-be committed NBA expansion team.
The NFL’s Raiders are in their fourth season in Vegas at recently built Allegiant Stadium, which cost $1.9 billion, including $750 million of public money. When COVID hit in 2020 and fans were barred from attending Raiders games because of health and safety reasons, the state had to dig into the central fund that year to pay off the bonds and make up for the lack of ticket and concession revenue after the move from Oakland. They’re currently playing to 100.3% capacity, 63,312 a game.
Twice per year, Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity races.
And the WNBA‘s Las Vegas Aces, who call Michelob Ultra Arena home, won the title in 2022 and 2023, becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles in 21 years.
Events? Vegas has events.
The Grand Prix will be followed by the semifinals and finals of the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament, slated for T-Mobile Arena on Nov. 7-9. Then there’s the first Las Vegas Super Bowl on Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium.
Too much too soon?
The race itself is being staged at a cost of $500 million. At $2,000 for an average ticket, it’s the most expensive race on this year’s 24-race Grand Prix international schedule, including other U.S races at Miami and Austin, Texas.
The first two U.S.-based races sold out and were immensely popular. The Las Vegas race still has a chance to be profitable despite the immense cost, said Greg Maffei, the president and CEO of Liberty.
“We’ve seen some one-time and start-up costs that may have been larger than anticipated,” he said. “But remembering how this is impactful to us, not only directly, but indirectly, this is a very profitable race for us. It will increase once we get past some of these initial start-up costs. Let’s be clear, this year, we optimize for being there, being on time and having a great race.”
Local hotels purchased large ticket blocks, including them in entertainment packages ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. Fans balked at the prices. But some predicted that by race time all tickets would be sold out.
“Formula 1 has a certain positioning with regard to the kind of sport it is,” Domenicali said this week. “We are going to deliver the greatest spectacle in the world as a statement of F1. That needs to be recognized and in terms of price positioning we are going to be on the top side because this is Las Vegas and that is the nature of the customer coming to Las Vegas.”
As far as that track is concerned, it is now less of mystery than it is an oddity, with about a mile and a half of it running right through the Strip. F1 reportedly sought very high licensing fees for businesses right on the track, threatening to erect barriers if those fees weren’t paid. F1 eventually decreased the fees.
Liberty had to purchase $240 million worth of property for a permanent pit building and a paddock area, a sunken cost that won’t have to be repeated next year.
Since it’s Las Vegas, the event will be glitzy, no matter what.
Max Verstappen, the tour’s best driver and already the 2023 champion, said Wednesday he wasn’t happy with that at an event, which was as much a Las Vegas casino show as it was a media conference.
“I just like to always focus on the performance side of things. I don’t like all the things around it, anyway,” he said. “I know, of course, in some places they are part of it, but let’s say it’s not in my interest. I’m looking forward to trying to do the best I can, but I’m not looking forward to [the show].”
In Las Vegas, at least, that show is the main event, among perhaps too many at this point.