How the Super Bowl Is Affecting Las Vegas (and Carrot Top)

How the Super Bowl Is Affecting Las Vegas (and Carrot Top)

On Tuesday morning, Scott Thompson, the comedian known as Carrot Top, was sipping tea in his dressing room at the Luxor Hotel and Casino, where he has been a headliner for 18 years. Ahead of an afternoon full of appearances on Radio Row, which is the mecca for sports talk radio stations during Super Bowl week, Mr. Thompson was reflecting on the game’s effect on Las Vegas.

“I think this is the biggest event we’ve ever had,” Mr. Thompson said.

How big? He was wearing a baseball cap with a handmade sticker that read “Need Tickets” across the front. Yes, even Carrot Top has had trouble scoring tickets to the game on Sunday between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

“That’s what everyone says: ‘You’re Carrot Top! You own this town!’” Mr. Thompson said. “But I really can’t get one.”

It can be challenging for even the glitziest events to make an impression on Las Vegas, a technicolor oasis in the Nevada desert embodied by the Strip — a vast collection of hotels, casinos and restaurants that lies just outside city limits and has the manic energy of a pinball machine.

But Las Vegas seems spellbound by the Super Bowl, which is making its first appearance in a place that the N.F.L., not so long ago, avoided to the point of parody. Now, ahead of the big game, the league has effectively wallpapered its image onto Las Vegas.

“We’ve hosted a lot of events outside of sports, but this is on another level,” said Vashti Cunningham, an Olympic high jumper and lifelong Las Vegas resident whose father, Randall, was an N.F.L. quarterback. “It feels like there’s a lot of momentum.”

The city’s enthusiasm is embodied, in a distinctly Las Vegas way, by the Strip’s phosphorescent topography. The Sphere, a 360-foot-tall amphitheater, has put its 1.2 million LED screens to use by transforming itself into an enormous football helmet. Caesars Palace is displaying a Super Bowl-themed video projection on its facade every evening.

The N.F.L.’s relationship with Las Vegas has changed dramatically. Consider that, in 2015, the N.F.L. barred players from attending a fantasy football convention that Tony Romo was hosting in the city because it was at a casino property. The event was canceled.

The Raiders, who moved to Las Vegas in 2020, now play their home games at Allegiant Stadium, which is within walking distance of about a gazillion slot machines and craps tables. The N.F.L. has forged lucrative partnerships with sports betting companies. And on Sunday, Mr. Romo will be back in Las Vegas — this time to help broadcast the Super Bowl for CBS.

“We could not afford to pay for the value of the media exposure that we will get,” Mary Beth Sewald, president and chief executive of the Vegas Chamber, said.

Terry Fator, a ventriloquist whose eponymous show is playing at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino, said he always got a jolt when driving past the football stadium, which opened in 2020. (Taylor Swift, a high-profile N.F.L. fan, had a pair of concerts there last March.)

“The city is a different place than it was a few years ago,” Mr. Fator said. “For many, many years, Las Vegas was: ‘I’m going to gamble, and that’s it.’ Well, now there’s so much more to do here.”

The Super Bowl, he said, is merely the latest example, albeit an important one. Mr. Fator, 58, typically performs on Sundays but is taking the day off so that he can watch the game on his 160-inch projection screen with his wife, Angie Fiore Fator.

“It really is horrible when you have to do a show and you miss the last few minutes of the Super Bowl,” Mr. Fator said. “We’ll let the city celebrate, while we celebrate in our own home.”

When Formula 1 made its long-awaited return to Las Vegas for a race in November, it was more headache than spectacle. A monthslong construction project to prepare the course resulted in road closures, traffic jams and big losses for small businesses. Ticket prices for the race itself were exorbitantly expensive, and many hotels erred by charging too much for rooms.

“The high-end properties did well, but the average joe suffered,” Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of race and operations for Westgate Resorts, said. “Even though they’re F1 fans, they were just priced out. And when other properties tried to reduce their pricing, it was too late.”

Aside from the scarcity of tickets, the N.F.L. does not seem to be causing the same types of problems for residents. The roads are open thus far (most of them, anyway), and the league knows how to market its marquee event.

“The Super Bowl is for everyone,” Mr. Kornegay said. “It’s for football fans. It’s for singles. It’s for married couples. It’s for the young and old. And the venues that we have around here can accommodate those widespread demographics.”

The Super Bowl has long been an important weekend for Las Vegas, with the city typically drawing 300,000 visitors, regardless of where the game is played. And that number has been more than enough for the city’s 154,000 hotel rooms to “sell out every Super Bowl weekend,” according to Jeremy Aguero, an executive with the Las Vegas Super Bowl host committee. This year’s event has more buzz, more events and more logistical hurdles but will most likely translate to only around 10 percent more visitors, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Still, more people, and more excitement, means more money. Jeff Benson, the director of operations for Circa Sports, a sports-betting operator, said he was anticipating a “record handle,” or amount of money wagered, over the weekend.

“The N.F.L. is king,” he said. “And the Super Bowl is king.”

Vicki Barbolak, a comedian who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” has felt the Super Bowl’s impact. She has a regular act at Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club on the LINQ Promenade, but her shows were canceled this week because of “Super Bowl prep,” she said. She later learned that Verizon had rented out the space for a promotional event.

“The good news is, they’re still paying us,” said Ms. Barbolak, 66, who splits her time between Las Vegas and San Diego. “I want to go in there and pretend I left something in the storage room so I can get some free shrimp and stuff. It must be fancy.”

Ms. Barbolak’s father, Pete, who died in 2006, spent a season in the N.F.L. as an offensive tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers. She said he would have gotten a kick out of Las Vegas hosting the Super Bowl.

“He would’ve been there, no doubt,” she said. “He loved football and he loved gambling. Who doesn’t?”

Along the Strip, it is Super Bowl 24/7. Over-the-top? Of course. A nuisance? No more than usual.

“Formula 1 was hated by the locals because all it did was ruin our lives,” Ms. Barbolak said. “Nobody wanted to go anywhere near it. Servers and bartenders lost huge amounts of money for three weeks. I saw a couple of hot Italians walking around, but other than that there was nothing for any of us. But the Super Bowl? Everyone is so proud and excited.”

Ms. Barbolak plans to watch the game at the Composers Room, a vintage bar east of the Strip that is staging a special event of its own: the “Super Nacho Bowl.”

Wayne Newton, the 81-year-old entertainer known as Mr. Las Vegas, recalled the old days, back when a phony businessman struggled to lure patrons out of the casinos to a horse-racing track. (It closed in 1954 shortly after opening.)

On Monday, a pair of showgirls escorted Mr. Newton to a dais for a news conference so that he could christen a week full of Super Bowl-related festivities. Given the city’s history, he never imagined that it would one day host the game, he said.

“Las Vegas was pretty set in its ways,” said Mr. Newton, who, unlike Carrot Top, knows exactly what his plans are for the weekend. “I think I have some pretty good tickets.”