Expert: How the Las Vegas Aces’ championship win changes the game for women & the entire sports industry

For decades, Las Vegas — a city world famous for sports betting — was one of the few U.S. metropolises without a professional sports team. That all changed in 2017 when the NHL’s Golden Knights took a gamble by setting up shop in Southern Nevada, soon followed by the WNBA’s Aces and NFL’s Raiders.

Just a few short years later, the Aces have upped the ante on their “raise the stakes” tagline and became the first major professional sports team to win a championship for Las Vegas.

For perspective on the big win, we checked in with Nancy Lough, a UNLV College of Education sport management professor and longtime Title IX consultant who specializes in sports diversity, gender/race equity in sports, and sports marketing/sponsorship. She’s also a co-director of the UNLV Sports Research and Innovation Initiative, which brings together a multidisciplinary cadre of sports researchers and students from across the university with industry leaders.

What does the Aces’ championship mean to Las Vegas, which is fairly new to the professional sports world?

It’s such a big accomplishment for this city because we’ve become the sport and entertainment capital of the world. To mark that by having one of our first professional teams win a championship in such a short amount of time is pretty unprecedented. 

It’s only been since 2018 that we had professional basketball in Las Vegas and to think here we are four years later and we had a team that actually has won the championship, it’s such a wonderful accomplishment and something that really is fun to celebrate in a city that loves to party. 

How significant is the Aces’ win for women’s sport?

It’s big for women’s athletics in Southern Nevada but it’s big for sport — period. And part of that is because sport is non-gendered. People like to think of it as gendered because we have a WNBA team and we don’t have an NBA team. But the reality is it’s basketball and all genders play basketball and love the game. So little boys as much as little girls can watch A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum and want to modify and develop their own game based on what they’re doing. 

At the same time, both young men and women can look at Nikki Fargas, president of the team, or Becky Hammon, the head coach, and think “I want to do that someday.” It’s not just the impact on little girls. It’s the impact on everyone in this city that they can see themselves in the championship that this team has brought to us.

The Aces have amassed a large and enthusiastic fan base, composed of locals and outsiders alike. Why? 

One of the things that’s really cool about teams of this caliber is that they’ll get adopted by people who previously didn’t have a team. Las Vegas is a city that a lot of people really identify with because they come here, they have a good time. It may not be their home city but they know it. We can go anywhere internationally and say, “I’m from Las Vegas,” and people say, “Oh yeah, I know where that is.” 

The other thing that’s really easy to do is fall in love with the players. A’ja Wilson has one of the best personalities besides being an MVP-caliber athlete. It’s so easy to get energized and inspired watching this team play and that’s one of the kinds of things that — no question — resonates with people. People want to see that level of talent, that level of emotional connection.

Historically, advertisers and others around the globe have cited a supposed lack of interest in women’s sport as a reason for their lack of investment. How have the Aces changed the game?

There’s a number of things happening with this team that are unique. For one, they have an NFL team owner who also owns the WNBA team — and that’s never been done before. So there’s no question that the investment that Mark Davis has made in this team has been unprecedented. Having our million-dollar coach with Becky Hammon shows that he very much sees the value that women’s basketball brings to this city and went out and got the very best coach possible to get us to this place. 

Same thing with the investment he’s made in the facility. WNBA teams tend to not have the same level of investment that other teams have and the way we see that tends to be in the experience for the fan or the experience when you watch sports broadcasts. Now with the investment, you don’t see that kind of level of distinction where it’s “less than.” 

So this is an example of what women’s sport can look like when we invest in it adequately and sufficiently. And, in fact, we should invest in it even more because the return on that investment is far superior to any return on investment we’re seeing on any other sport right now. 

Through your research, you helped develop the concept of “digital disruption” — a model for changing how women’s sport is marketed, sponsored, endorsed, invested in, and broadcast by using social media to bring athletes and fans together. Have the Aces embraced this model?

A key piece of what’s been moving women’s sport forward in the last five years, but especially now, is the presence that female athletes have for their own brand on social media. It’s very powerful. Increasingly we’re seeing athletes like A’ja, like Chelsea,  like Kelsey, like Dearica Hamby who have created on social a following of folks who are fans but also just like who they are as a person. The really important piece in all of that is authenticity, having messages about what resonates with them, what they care about. One of the things that attracts people to Dearica is her little girl Amaya — she’s become a celebrity in her own right. And one of the things with the WNBA is we love the mom factor: We have these athletes who are phenomenal, talented women who are also moms — and that’s such an incredible role model for others to look to and see that they can achieve the highest level in their profession and be successful as a mom at the same time.

How has the WNBA’s continued growth and visibility translated to increased sponsorship and advertising dollars?

This season we’ve seen phenomenal growth in the number of viewers and tickets sold throughout the WNBA, including merchandise. More and more people are becoming fans of the league and its athletes, and this gets the attention of corporate America. One of the places where women’s sport typically has lagged is in the level of sponsorship, which is crucial to take the sport to the next level. 

A  good example: we have Michelob Ultra Arena here in Las Vegas, where the Aces play. Michelob is a brand that has invested very heavily in women’s sport and issued a statement saying that they care very much about seeing it grow. When you have that kind of commitment from brands, you know that you’re going to see it grow. 

Google is another really great example: Now every time you watch a WNBA broadcast, you’re going to see a report from Google saying what’s the most searched thing during this broadcast. Prior to Google getting invested and involved in the WNBA, there were a lot of algorithms that just kept women out of the search process. So if you asked “who is the greatest basketball player of all time,” it would automatically defer to a male athlete. Today it’s possible that they might actually show you a female athlete as one of the best basketball players of all time.

Prediction time: what do you think is next in the Aces’ trajectory?

One of the things that’s incredibly exciting about the investment in the team that we’ve seen is we have a coach whom I believe will stay because she’s committed to seeing what this team is capable of long-term.  

We also have the defensive player of the year, the MVP of the league, the MVP of the championship – we’re talking about all stars all the way across the board and also really young players. Chelsea Gray is the only one prior to this who had won a WNBA championship. Having this experience means they’re gonna be hungry to do it again. 

It’s far more difficult to repeat. But one of the things that’s really cool is Mark Davis came into his love of women’s basketball through the University of Connecticut program, which was a dynasty — and there’s a lot of people today speculating that the Aces could in fact be a dynasty in the WNBA.