When Brad Keselowski won his first Coca Cola 600 over the weekend, his excitement was tempered by something missing: the roar of the crowd.
“I was kind of bummed. I wanted to win the 600 my whole life and wanted to win in front of everybody,” he told reporters after the race. “But that’s not always how it works. I know there are fans that wish they could be in the stands.”
NASCAR and Germany’s top soccer league are among a handful of major sports that have returned to competition without fans. Some Las Vegas sports are set to join them in the coming weeks.
UFC’s Fight Night is scheduled to return to Las Vegas at the organization’s Apex facility the next two Saturdays. Top Rank boxing has announced a June 9 card at the MGM Grand, and the South Point Arena will host a Professional Bull Riders event for four weekends during June.
The combat sports events are subject to approval by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The fight cards for both UFC and Top Rank are on Wednesday’s commission meeting agenda.
What will these events mean for Las Vegas and Nevada as the state begins to reopen after the coronavirus outbreak caused a two-month shutdown?
UFC vice president Marc Ratner said while his organization is still awaiting approval from the state, the return of fights — even without fans — will be a boost to Las Vegas and his sport.
“I think this is a very positive step for the city and the state,” Ratner said. “Apex is a great place for fights. For the people watching on TV, the experience will be just the same as a normal card.”
Ratner said UFC, which held some bouts in Florida earlier this month, has learned from that experience and is implementing extra health precautions for the Nevada fights.
Fighters will be staying at their hotel and have no contact with others outside of team members. They will be tested upon arriving at their hotel and again after weigh-ins. Athletes and cornermen will be required to self-isolate throughout the process.
Top Rank Boxing is planning two three-hour fight nights per week at the convention center adjacent to MGM Grand Garden Arena. Like UFC, Top Rank will have extra safety procedures in place. Boxers will arrive at the convention space via elevator to limit their exposure to other areas.
“We wanted to come back in Nevada because they have a very good commission and their standards are very high,” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum said.
Top Rank’s events will be televised by ESPN.
“I think it will be seamless,” Arum said. “Obviously, any sport is better with fans. But in this phase, we can’t do it with fans. ESPN has been very inventive in how to show boxing for three hours a night.”
Even without fans in the seats, the return of live sports to Las Vegas will give the struggling economy a boost. Nevada, during the pandemic, has seen unprecedented levels of unemployment, and casinos, the state’s lifeblood, have been vacant for more than two months. At the least, the sportsbooks which have mobile apps, will be able to book the fights.
Arum said sports’ return is an important step in getting back to normal.
“Obviously, the coronavirus kicked everybody in the ass,” he said. “We’ve been out of action for two months. I haven’t seen anything like it in my 50 years in the sport.”
Steve Stallworth, the manager of the South Point Arena, said he and his company are “waiting on pins and needles to hear what the governor says.”
Stallworth said most events at the South Point’s equestrian center are not as dependent on fans as other sports.
“I’m in a little niche portion of the sports business,” he said. “About 45 weeks of our year are dedicated to equestrian events, and 95 percent of those are participatory events, not spectator-driven events.”
Because of this, Stallworth was cautiously optimistic that his business could return quicker than some.