EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Part II. Las Vegas Lights FC: Owner Brett Lashbrook

What: We talked to Las Vegas Lights FC owner Brett Lashbrook about his new USL team.
Why it matters: Lashbrook has a bold vision for owning a team in a city with a strong Latin presence.

Brett Lashbrook, Owner & CEO of Las Vegas Lights FC (credit: Las Vegas Lights FC via USL)

In February, we had the opportunity to speak with several executives from Las Vegas Lights FC (@lvlightsfc@lvlightsfc_es), the newest team in the United States 2nd division of professional soccer, USL (@USL). For this follow-up interview, we had the opportunity to speak with the man behind this ambitious project: Brett Lashbrook. Brett has worked in the soccer world for over twenty years at both the league and team levels, and he believes that his grasp on the conscience of soccer in this country and his appreciation for Latino passion for the game will guide his club to a fruitful first season. The team opened up its inaugural USL campaign with a 3-2 road victory this weekend, and it will have its first regular season home game at Cashman Field this Saturday against budding rival Reno 1868 FC. The interview below shows that Lashbrook’s ambitions extend far beyond the playing field, and their success will hinge in large part on the club’s ability to tap into the Latin and Hispanic market.

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I believe when I say I want our games to be a slice of Mexico City, a slice of Buenos Aires, a slice of Madrid, and I mean that... what’s our special sauce? Let the fans speak, let them sing, dance, cheer, bring smoke, bring drums, bring tables, bring trumpets: let them be the show.

Portada: Why a USL team? Why a USL team in Las Vegas?

Brett Lashbrook (Owner & CEO) : "One, the financial hurdles to launch a Major League Soccer team… starts at a half billion dollar investment: it’s a testament to the growth of the game that that’s the financial parameters of starting an MLS team…

Las Vegas (@CityOfLasvegas) is not only the second largest market in the world without a professional soccer team; we have a… 10,000 seat stadium in downtown Las Vegas that’s near bars, restaurants, casinos, nightlife, and music. It’s the ideal scenario. If you look at Google Maps at Cashman Field, it is the only baseball stadium in the world that is a square. It’s a perfect square! I don’t know what they were thinking, but it’s absolutely perfect for soccer.

A young family supporting their new local soccer team, Las Vegas Lights FC (credit: LVSportsBiz.com)

We know what the real Las Vegas is. We don’t go out to the Strip every night and drink US $15 beers. That’s not what we are. This has to be one hundred percent a local play. This is not for tourists. Now,I think that we can do a lot of things sports-related with some other events, but the core is “for locals, by locals, of locals.” Then, when you look at Las Vegas, what are we?... I now have the guts to say publicly, “You’re right. A 0-0 game can be exciting, but it’s usually not.” People want to see goals. People want to see attacking soccer. People want to see go, go, go. When you think of Las Vegas, you think of that flash, glitz, and sizzle…

I want to be clear: this is not a Hispanic play: we think there’s a market opportunity. There’s not enough Mexican influence in American soccer… there aren’t Mexican coaches at the professional level. None in USL, one in MLS. You just start to think this doesn’t make sense. We have this huge, diverse player population, but we’re not seeing it in the coaching, and we’re not always seeing that in the stands.

I believe when I say I want our games to be a slice of Mexico City, a slice of Buenos Aires, a slice of Madrid, and I mean that. We don’t have a better jumbo Tron… We don’t have a US $500 million arena. So, what’s our special sauce? Let the fans speak, let them sing, dance, cheer, bring smoke, bring drums, bring tables, bring trumpets: let them be the show. All that I’ll say is that you have to do it in an authentic manner: letting the people speak, letting the people express themselves, letting the true traditions from the grassroots-and-up level create something really cool."

Portada: As you said, you want it to be organic, and you want to expand upon some of the trends and patterns in viewing experiences that have been going on in grassroots soccer. Have you spent yourself a good amount of time going to youth soccer games around Las Vegas and other semi-professional or college games and seeing what the environment is like there as a basis for what you think it could be like for Lights FC?

B.L.: "The short answer is yes, but I was seeing the exact same things when I was CEO in Orlando or when I was special advisor to the commissioner of Major League Soccer in these communities. We are a soccer nation; it’s not like ten years ago… One of the biggest surprises of this project is how little I’ve had to explain to people what we’re doing. This sport has taken off so much… it’s almost a decade now that MLS is outdrawing on a per-game basis the NBA and the NHL. It’s been the number one participation sport for 30 years, the old cliché. Those kids now have families, they now run businesses… they’ve grown up with the sport.

 I’m incredibly bullish about the opportunity for soccer’s growth America, and I think USL is perfectly positioned to do that. It’s not all about money, but it’s a half a billion dollars to get into the billionaires’ game in MLS, and you have to go find land… that’s hard. Go ask the people in Cincinnati, Sacramento, in Miami, that’s hard. It’s really hard! That’s why 7 of the last 11 expansion teams have come from the 2nd division: it’s an opportunity to prove what we know is already there."
I really think that we can build this year-round platform by using soccer as a driver for tourists as well, which fits right in with the core of what Las Vegas is.

Portada: Cashman Field is really well located, and you’re obviously making the playing surface top-notch, but how are you addressing some concerns by the previous Minor League baseball tenant?

An electric atmosphere at Cashman Field: (credit: Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal)

B.L.: "We think this is a wonderful hidden gem. It is a 10,000-seat stadium with a club level, all the locker rooms, all the storage, it is a comprehensive stadium. Is it old? Yeah, but I think soccer can breathe new life into it… On that grass, we have to continue to switch between soccer and baseball because we’re sharing for one year with baseball, and that’s a real cost. You could just go play the game in the outfield... but it’s not a good, authentic fan experience. At our cost, you only get one chance to make a first impression."

Portada: At some point, do you have plans to host other events there and generate revenue through those means?

B.L.: "One hundred percent. We are in Las Vegas… Lights FC is a hyper local project. But, now that we have a 10,000-seat stadium, that is expandable up to 50,000 seats… we think we can create a lot of really cool new events. The one we are most focused on now is Major League Soccer Spring Training. My goal is to start with three teams this year, which immediately starts to grow… so that every night in downtown Las Vegas in the month of February there’s another Major League Soccer game going on… The other ones where I think there’s a real opportunity… is in the summer: getting the Mexican club teams to come here during their preseason in the month of July.

All these European teams, all these EPL teams, for instance, want to come to America. This is the last frontier, they’re going to brand themselves… Look at some of those second and lower tier teams in the Premier League or LaLiga, etc.; look at the markets that they’re playing in, because they want to come to the United States so bad…

At the base of this cake we have these 20 USL games and this community asset, etc., but now it’s February, and we’ve got Major League Soccer teams. In July, we’ve got international teams from Mexico. December and January, we’ve got German teams. I really think that we can build this year-round platform by using soccer as a driver for tourists as well, which fits right in with the core of what Las Vegas is."

[Chelís] had that great quote at his press conference, “I want players that smell like Las Vegas.” He gets it. I have been incredibly pleased with Chelís, and I think he’s the perfect leader for this project.

Portada:  There’s a lot of excitement around Chelís. As you said, at least at first, your priority is putting on a highly entertaining product with the style matching the city. Sure, you want results, but entertainment comes first. How did those conversations go with Chelís when you were hiring him, and do you think he’ll have a different kind of leash in terms of what managers usually have in terms of results?

Las Vegas Lights FC Manager Chelís yells alongside fans after being ejected (credit: Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal)

B.L.: "The first answer has a great story. I met Chelís late in the process. I had gone through a lot of interviews, and I was telling people what I was trying to do. You could tell within 30 seconds with some of these guys: 'Nope. No way. Not going to do it. That’s not the way it’s played. I like goals too, but you’ve got to have five defenders.' You just knew they weren’t going to be the right fit for Las Vegas.

My first interview with Chelís was late in the process and was via Skype call… He said, “You know, this is very risky. Spectacular soccer is not easy to play. To be spectacular is very risky.” I told him I understand but we’re committed to doing this, to finding a leader who can do this. He leaps towards the Skype camera and says, 'I love you. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Let’s do it.'

The only thing from the soccer thing that I said I’d get involved in is that I said I wanted to be the first professional team in American history to guarantee at all times, every year, at least one local kid. It’s not a charity case: there are 2.2 million people here… I told Chelís I needed one. Chelís said, 'Why only one? Can I have two? Three? I love this!' And then he had that great quote at his press conference, 'I want players that smell like Las Vegas.' He gets it. I have been incredibly pleased with Chelís, and I think he’s the perfect leader for this project."

Portada: You said that the club’s mission is to break the traditional American sports model. You’ve mentioned some already, but are there are other ways that you think your club is doing things drastically different than most American teams?

B.L.: "We let the fans pick our name. We let the fans help design our logo. We are going to unveil the most fashion forward jersey you have ever seen. There’s everything about Chelís: smoking on the sidelines and being who he is. It’s having this Las Vegas swagger about us and not being afraid of where we’re from.

We’re going to be the first professional sports team in the United States to fully embrace sports gambling… It is regulated by great institutions here in Nevada, and we would never do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the game, but the reality is that people enjoy betting on sports… and we are going to be the first team that actually steps forward and says we have a betting partner… All these other teams can’t do it: we’re going to fully embrace it…

No other team has guaranteed a local player a roster spot. I was just speaking to the Latin Chamber of Commerce (@lvlcc). I told them about Chelís, and they said, “Oh, that’s nice.”  When you talk about Julian Portugal (@portujulian) from North Las Vegas who went to UNLV, and he’s on the team, I get a round of applause! The reaction to the local player has been better than I ever expected."

I think it’s intangible. In one year, when people talk about Las Vegas sports, do they think of us the same as the Golden Knights and the Raiders? We want to become part of this community from Day One.

Portada: We asked this question to your fellow executives as well: what would have to happen to call Las Vegas Lights FC a success in Year One?

Las Vegas Lights FC scores against Vancouver Whitecaps FC (credit: Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal)

B.L.: "That’s a good question. I think it’s an intangible. In one year, when people talk about Las Vegas sports, do they think of us the same as the Golden Knights and the Raiders? We want to become part of this community from Day One. We think we have the sport to do it. We think we have the price point to do it. We think we have the stadium to do it. We think we have the market demographics from being young and diverse. That’s what I’ll be measuring. It manifests itself in many different ways. Some of that is butts in seats, but, also, it’s just that feel. Do we see this momentum building? Do we know we’re tapping into this Las Vegas pride?  When you have those intangibles, good things are going to happen.

People ask me a lot of times, 'What’s the future? What’s the next big thing in soccer'” I don’t know the answer to any of that, but I do know that all roads start with a successful 2018 season at the USL level… We need to come out of the gate and prove what we already know: we are a soccer city… We can do this, we deserve this, and as long we continue to feel that in the community, we’ll have success in Year One."

Portada: Is there anything else you would like to add?

B.L.: "The only other thing that I would add is soccer is fun. Las Vegas is fun. We’re the entertainment capital of the world... I say this with a smile on my face: our jersey has to be fun. We are not afraid, we are not embarrassed, and we will not shy away from being from Las Vegas. We love Las Vegas, this is a town we call home, and we embrace Las Vegas fully."

Brett Lashbrook could be the new face of soccer ownership in America: young, extremely energetic, opportunistic, creative, and keenly aware of under-appreciated areas in the US marketplace. It will be interesting to see whether or not he and his club will be strategic and patient enough to properly execute on enough of their plans to carve out a lasting space for themselves in the Las Vegas and national landscapes. There is a general sense in US soccer, though, that it is time to take the next step in the evolution of the game here in this country; Brett’s fearless, unabashed commitment to providing a fan-friendly experience that is infused with Las Vegas’s identity could be a wake-up call for how soccer ownership and marketing should be viewed moving forward. Lashbrook and Las Vegas Lights FC is a story worth following throughout 2018 and beyond.

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David Goldstein @dmgold24

David is from Miami, Florida, where he grew up immersed in a vibrant Hispanic and Latin culture. His professional experiences include coaching Division I soccer and interning for Atlético Nacional S.A. in Medellin, Colombia. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy and is currently enrolled in the Columbia University Sports Management Master's Program.

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