“We are damn proud to be from Las Vegas. We are damn proud of who we are. We are Sin City, and we ain’t embarrassed about it,” asserts Brett Lashbrook, owner and CEO of Las Vegas Lights FC, the first professional sports team to partner with a cannabis business, the neighboring NuWu Cannabis Marketplace.
Lights FC plays in the United Soccer League Second Division out of Cashman Field, and the team, along with their presenting sponsor, Zappos.com, is leading a renaissance in downtown Vegas. “Las Vegas is a truly working-class town, and families from Vegas don’t go to the strip — the locals go downtown,” maintains Lashbrook. In some ways, the town is a city divided; there are tourists who are happy to pay twenty bucks for a beer during a night out on The Strip, as well as more than two million permanent inhabitants of Sin City looking to go somewhere local on their night off. “Bringing professional sports provides an intangible identity and benefit to this community,” argues Lashbrook.
Being located in downtown Vegas, Lashbrook continues, “allows us to do things differently.” This includes having two llamas as mascots, as well as a Harley Davidson-riding combination of Johnny Cash, Elvis and the entire ‘50s Vegas period named “Cash the Soccer Rocker” who gets the crowd pumped during games. Players are even rewarded for wins with poker chips. As Lashbrook puts it, “It’s just soccer, we’re not curing cancer here — let’s have some fun.”
Cannabis Sponsorship in Pro Sports
While three of the four major sports — the NBA, NFL and MLB — ban cannabis consumption among athletes (curiously, the NHL doesn’t list cannabis among banned substances, yet the level of in-game aggression is noticeably higher), the likelihood of cannabis sponsorship entering our ballparks, stadiums and arenas appears unlikely.
“Partnerships between cannabis brands and professional sports teams, leagues or athletes is something I’d expect to see more of,” admits Taylor West, senior communications director at Cohnnabis, a digital marketing agency out of Denver, Colorado. “Plenty of athletes have already discovered the benefits of cannabis for training and recovery. And aligning your cannabis brand with an elite athlete or sport is a great way to break through well-worn stereotypes about cannabis consumers and communicate something unique about your products.”
Destigmatization and normalization are common terms heard from advocates and those within the cannabis industry, but milestones such as the partnership between Lights FC and NuWu are a true measure of therapeutic cannabis’ recent mainstream success.
“While the ink was drying on the deal, we didn’t realize that the rest of the world isn’t doing what we were doing,” reveals Chris Spotted Eagle. Spotted Eagle is the chairman of the Southern Paiute Tribe of Nevada. The Paiute operate NuWu, the world’s largest dispensary, in downtown Vegas. “Being a Southern Paiute, my family is extremely traditional — we practice our traditional ways, we practice traditional spirituality, we sing our traditional songs — and we do that in an urban environment. It’s not easy, but it keeps me grounded.” As the first tribe to be issued a dispensary license in Nevada, Spotted Eagle carefully navigated the permit process with Nevada officials: “We knew if we [didn’t] get this right, every tribe after us [was] going to have a much more difficult time.”
Spotted Eagle first became aware of Lights FC when Lashbrook spoke at a Las Vegas Valley dispensary association meeting. “I pulled up [the] maps [app] on my phone — I pointed to Cashman Field on the map and said ,‘That’s you,’ then pointed the few blocks that are in between us and said, ‘That’s me.’ The very next morning, the Lights FC execs came over to see our facility and were completely blown away. He was like, ‘We’ve gotta make this happen.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that looks like.’ He said, ‘Me neither.’”
The Green Monster
While cannabis remains federally illegal, prospects for cannabis sponsorship in the major sporting leagues seems a remote possibility. We contacted major sports organizations including the NBA, NFL and MLS for comment on cannabis sponsorship policies, but each league remained silent. “I assume there are at least morality clauses that would prevent them from engaging with anything that violates federal laws,” states Catherine Halaby, senior strategist at Fullscreen Media. “And, of course, due to banned substance sensitivities in all sports, I’d guess it’s a no-go.”
Still, CBD was recently lifted from a list of banned substances, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, meaning that a cannabis company whose products consist exclusively of medicinal CBD should have the same right to sponsor teams and athletes as any other health-focused company. Are the CBD Seahawks coming anytime soon? Likely not, but as sports medicine begins to realize medical marijuana’s benefits in regard to athlete recovery and performance, the gains may become more important than adhering to decades-old stigmas.
99 Problems — and Cannabis Ain’t One
After the partnership between Lights FC and NuWu was announced, “the pushback we got was minimal,” recalls Lashbrook. “And the pushback we got was from outside the state.”
“People ask me if my players are allowed to smoke cannabis,” Lashbrook continues. “I can’t help but roll my eyes. We’re starting a professional sports team in Las Vegas — we’ve got 99 problems that [don’t include] worrying about if our players are smoking cannabis. They’re professional athletes. They’ve played in the U.S., Mexican [and] Japanese national teams. Played in some of the biggest leagues in the world. These are professional athletes full-time, year-round — I know they’re going to do whatever they need to, to get their bodies right to perform at their highest level.”
Being in a division two league may be the reason that MLS has yet to express an opinion on the partnership. Lashbrook has a history of building successful MLS teams, and the league may have to make a comment either way if the Lights FC someday enter the top tier of U.S. soccer. “Not a single other owner has called and expressed concern,” remarks Lashbrook. “I think everyone understands the unique aspects of the Las Vegas market.”