Fandom: A Virtual Reality
Far from the sidelines, social media groups connect fans with their favorite Las Vegas pro sports teams — and in some cases offer a needed support system
WHEN THE LAS VEGAS LIGHTS debuted in 2018, they were welcomed by excited soccer fans eager to support their new hometown team. Among the loudest and most animated was Joaquin Aztorga.
At the Lights’ first game on a cold February evening at Cashman Field Downtown, Aztorga immediately made his presence known as he banged a drum and screamed so loud that the entire crowd took notice. By the second game, Aztorga had amassed a small posse armed with instruments, banners, bullhorns and flags.
With that, the Luz y Fuerza (“light and strength”) support group was formed. Today, as many as 75 rabid Luz y Fuerza fans can be found behind the net at any given game.
“It just grew,” Aztorga says. “People became captivated by what they saw.”
Word wasn’t just spreading at games. The Luz y Fuerza fan page on Facebook quickly gained hundreds of followers. Today, their private Facebook group has almost 750 members who post about events and meetings, share chants and help fundraise for other Luz y Fuerza members. “When somebody needs help, we do a kermés,” Aztorga says. “People will make food to raise money and support. It’s kind of like Las Vegas’ Latino GoFundMe.”
With Las Vegas now a bonafide sports city, fandom is being expressed everywhere — and that, of course, includes online. Social media fan accounts and groups contribute to the communal atmosphere by revving up fans before games, debating player performances, connecting people all over the country and, in some cases, helping grow the teams’ fan bases.
Take, for instance, the @VegasAcesFans Instagram page, which Ray Villalobos launched in 2020 to support our WNBA franchise.
A lifelong basketball fan, Villalobos started a Vegas Lakers Fans, page in 2010, so he was already familiar with how to use social media to generate camaraderie. Villalobos noticed there wasn’t a lot of online fan engagement surrounding the Aces despite the team’s success (the squad moved from San Antonio in 2018, has qualified for the playoffs each of the last four seasons, and recently claimed the 2022 WNBA title). So, he started a page to connect fans, share highlights, and boost the team’s profile. Now he’s got more than 750 followers, some from as far as Florida.
Among those engaged followers: Roscoe Wilson Jr., father of A’ja Wilson, the Aces’ superstar power forward who this season earned her second WNBA MVP award.
“He would comment on the posts all the time,” Villalobos says of Roscoe Wilson. “Eventually we met at a game and became friends. He loves my son Benji and treats us both like family.”
Villalobos’ work also has attracted the attention of the Aces organization, which occasionally supplies him with tickets for online giveaways.
While Villalobos’ Instagram page is a place for Aces fans to interact and learn more about the team, another local sports fan has leveraged social media — and our status as a legitimate sports town — to make a different type of impact.
Known by Vegas Golden Knights fans as “VGK Wolverine” for his uncanny resemblance to actor Hugh Jackman in the X-Men movies, Jason Griego retired to Las Vegas in 2016 after 24 years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force. A Colorado native and mental health advocate, Griego cofounded the Vegas Veterans Hockey Foundation (VHHF) with Jay Graunstadt.
The VVHF brings together local veterans for two primary purposes: play hockey and open up to one another in a support group-like setting. “What happens inside the locker room is better (therapy) than you can get from any doctor’s office,” Griego says.
Thanks in large part to its Facebook page, Griego’s nonprofit has ballooned to 128 members. Beyond the hockey rink, the VVHF provides mental health resources, hosts charitable events and gives back to families.
The odds of such an important group materializing had the Golden Knights never landed in the desert five years ago? Slim.
“Part of it blowing up,” Greigo says, “was the excitement of the Golden Knights.” Φ