Where do Reno’s team loyalties lie?
To serious sports fans, team loyalty can be a deeply personal decision, taking into account factors like family history, respect for a particular coaching/playing style, or even the off-field behavior of the players. And to fans who watch casually, the reasons can be even more varied—like, maybe the mascot is super cool.
Strict geography places most professional teams in the major coastal cities west of Nevada, and with the influx of California transplants to the state over the past decade, support for teams like the Golden State Warriors or the San Francisco Giants is commonly seen on the bumper stickers and apparel of Reno residents.
With a few tectonic shifts in Nevada’s professional sports landscape in the past decade, however, like the establishment of two professional teams in Reno, and another two in Las Vegas, Reno sports fans may have new factors to consider in deciding where their allegiances lie come game day.
Today, professional hockey joins football, basketball and baseball as the big four sports occupying the national attention span. However, this didn’t used to be the case. Die-hard fans have celebrated the high-speed, full-contact sport for decades, but general interest in ice hockey was usually relegated to instances like the national team’s performance in the winter Olympics. However, hockey’s popularity has risen steadily in the U.S. since the 1990s. This is due in part to more professional facilities being built in California and “the Sun Belt” as the National Hockey League has expanded.
The nearest professional team to Reno for years has been the San Jose Sharks, whose home stadium, the SAP Center or “Shark Tank,” is closer to Reno than even the Giants’ Oracle Park. Since the establishment—and record-breaking inaugural season—of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, however, Northern Nevada hockey fans may have to consider their loyalty to their home state in future matches.
“Vegas is my hometown—I was born and raised there,” said Kaitlyn Olvera, a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno who began supporting the Golden Knights after their first season. “I think a lot of it was just having something to, you know—you’re proud of something. Vegas is known for being Sin City, for people going there to gamble. Now we’re known for being home to a team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup in their first inaugural year.”
To Olvera, who grew up familiar with how hockey was played but never followed any NHL teams, the Golden Knights provide a tangible connection to her hometown while she attends school in Reno—a connection she was especially grateful for on Oct. 1, 2017, after Las Vegas became the scene of the worst mass shooting in American history.
“The opening night game was, like, a couple days after the shooting, or a week after the shooting, and they dedicated that game to the victims,” Olvera said. “So, I think that was also something that just really hit home with me because that was my home, and I think the team was able to, you know, kind of raise the city up—give them something to smile about in such a dark time.”
Factors like hometown pride or family culture don’t enter into the equation for some fans, though. To a new generation of hockey fans deciding their loyalties for the first time, or to casual fans just along for the ride, the reasons for supporting a particular team don’t have to be especially meaningful.
“My coworker and I were actually joking around one time because our boss is, like, a hardcore, to-the-death hockey fan, and we always make fun of him for it,” said Laura Cooper, a marketing specialist and newly minted hockey fan. “And so we’re just like, ‘We need a hockey team.’ And then we basically decided, ‘Well, the Sharks are close proximity.’ We really liked the colors, and it would be fun to go to games. ‘So, let’s be Sharks fans.'”
Cooper said she grew up doing individual sports like martial arts and gymnastics, of which she says she is still a “hardcore” fan, and never put much stock in the “winning team” mentality.
“I’m really fascinated and find it humorous, the fact that people are so, like, beyond reality obsessed with people they’ve never met before, to the point where they’re like, ‘We won’ or, ‘Oh, we’re winning,'” Cooper said. “I’m like, ‘No, the players are doing that. You’re just at home watching it.’ … I’ve never been like that or identified with it, and none of my family really has either.”
However, Cooper said she really enjoys live games and will get invested in the action in-person—she just doesn’t care to follow the team’s league standings in her daily life. Since her interest is only casual, and she doesn’t support the Knights because she has no family to ties to Nevada, her primary motivation in supporting the Sharks comes down to getting to watch her team live.
“I have a group of friends who we think that it would be fun to go to a hockey game,” she said. “We’re definitely not interested in just going to a sports bar and watching it on television, so why would we pick a team that’s all the way on the other side of the country that we would never be able to see it?”
Football remains the most popular sport among Americans, with the highest participation rate of any sport at the high school and college levels, according to the National Collegiate Athletics Association. And the National Football League generates about $7 billion annually.
Reno locals have traditionally had their pick of either end of the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers rivalry, dubbed the “Battle of the Bay.” However, the future of the rivalry, fueled by the close proximity of the two cities, could be in question as the Raiders prepare to complete their much-publicized move to Las Vegas in 2020.
“I’m from San Pablo, California, which is an East Bay suburb of Oakland,” said Mike Dunn, who has lived in Reno for the past 10 years. “I’m born and raised there. So, naturally, I’m all about the A’s, Raiders and Warriors.”
Dunn’s allegiance to the Raiders is a matter of family tradition, and the team is a part of his identity. Aside from his Raiders tattoos, he made it to six regular season games last year, and he and his wife Deanna are the admins for the Facebook group Reno Raider Nation. He is also a member of the official Carson City chapter of the Raiders’ national network of booster clubs. Dunn said he and the vast majority of his friends will support the team no matter where they’re located, but the move does provide a logistical problem.
“Being a Bay Area native, Oakland is a lot closer than Vegas—it’s about two hours closer,” he said. “I would prefer that they stay there, but it doesn’t change my love for the team.”
Dunn is pleased that, after leaving California over a decade ago, he and his team will once again call the same state home. But he also has mixed feelings about the $2 billion deal, funded partly by a specialty tax on Las Vegas hotel rooms, to build the Raiders their stadium in Southern Nevada.
“Like most taxpaying people, I don’t really think it’s right that we the taxpayers have to build such glorious things,” Dunn said. “But at the same time, as a Raiders fan—and I’ve been to Vegas within the last year, so I’ve paid that tax—I really think the owners should sponsor their own glory. But, at the same time, it probably wouldn’t get done. So, I’m a little on the fence.”
While the vast Raider Nation will soon call Nevada home, Reno’s relationship to the 49ers was seemingly solidified in 2011, when University of Nevada, Reno alumni Colin Kaepernick signed on as quarterback. In the years since, however, his choice to kneel during the national anthem at games has made Kaepernick the subject of a national debate about the place of protest in professional sports. Subsequently, he and his former team have a polarizing reputation in Reno.
“If you would have asked me two years ago, I would say we were a 49er town,” said Walter Gudiel, president and founder of the Reno Niner Empire booster club. “Ever since Kaepernick, it kind of died down. As a booster club, I went from having 50 members to having 30.”
Gudiel was born and raised near San Francisco and has been operating the club in Reno since 2012. He said that, at first, Kaepernick-fever swelled the Niner Empire’s ranks, but after Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, a move he has said is in response to the shootings of black men by police, new fans started to become disillusioned—but not with Kaepernick.
“They felt like the 49ers disrespected Kaepernick, and they stopped cheering for the team in general,” Gudiel said, referring to the quarterback’s decision to opt out of his 2014 contract to become a free agent. He continues to go unsigned in what he has argued in court is a punitive measure by the NFL.
The politically polarizing nature of Kaepernick’s protest also did much to alienate others who viewed his protest as disrespectful to the military and American tradition. When his protest was first publicized, disgruntled fans took to social media, verbally denounced his message, threatened boycott and even burned his jersey. Even Gudiel, who will continue to support the Niners regardless, is measured in his response to the controversy.
“As a marine, as an American, I’d say it’s his freedom—it’s his right to do it,” he said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
At least from an anecdotal perspective, Reno’s connection to the Giants is hard to argue with. Reno is home to one Jerry Stever, who has made local news multiple time in the past few years as “Reno’s Biggest Giants Fan” for having spent almost $100,000 on custom Giants memorabilia—including a $20,000 interior and exterior job detailing his truck in orange and black. Reno is also home to famed former-pitcher for the Giants and celebrated sports broadcaster, Mike Krukow. (See “Giant voice,” Reno News & Review, April 14, 2016.)
It was the subject of heated online discussion when it was reported that, this season, no Giants games would be broadcast on Reno radio stations for the first time since 1984. One of the few dissenting comments on a March 15 Facebook post by the Reno Gazette Journal on the subject read, “Best news I’ve heard today go dodgers.”
However, as the Reno Aces, the city’s professional AAA baseball team, is currently celebrating its 10 year anniversary, its worth reconciling a simple question: can Aces fans also be Giants fans?
“When we started in 2009, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the first team we were affiliated with, and, obviously, now we have been [here] for, this will be our eleventh season,” said Jackson Gaskins, communications manager for the Reno Aces. “We see a lot of the Diamondbacks top prospects come into Reno, whether it be a rehab stint, guys that are on the Major League roster and just need to come down and get healthy, or they’re up-and-coming prospects that are just on the cusp making the Major Leagues.”
As the official feeder team for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Reno Aces supply talent for one of the Giants’ National League West competitors. And while the distinction between major and minor league play is crucial, baseball purists might object to supporting AAA players who could potentially field a better team than the Giants when they get called up.
“I was born and raised in Sacramento, and, by proximity, I grew up a San Francisco Giants fan,” Gaskins said. “Obviously, now I root for the Diamondbacks, because that’s who I work for and that’s who I’m affiliated with. That being said … [fans] fall in love with a certain player. If you sit on the first base side, you got to watch Christian Walker [play] 70 times a year and win the MVP award, then you’re going to root for him when he goes to the Arizona Diamondbacks. And you might be a Giants fan, but you also love the Reno Aces and your local team.”
Gaskins also mentioned Braden Shipley, who played for UNR before being drafted by the Diamondbacks in 2015 as an example of how loyalty in baseball can be multi-faceted.
Carrie Chamberlain, who has been an Aces season ticket holder since 2015, is not a Giants fan (although her workplace is full of them, she said) but faces a similar predicament in supporting the Aces. However, she reconciles her support with a strict hierarchy that puts the love of the game before even her own team, the Atlanta Braves.
“I’m a baseball fan first,” Chamberlain said. “When the Braves play the Diamondbacks, I struggle that whole series. I root for the Braves to win, but for the individual Diamondback players to have good games—the ones that I know from here.”
As a baseball fan, Chamberlain said she values having the Aces in her backyard even though her allegiances vary between the minor and major league. However, as she points out, the Aces also present any fan with the opportunity to root for the minor league affiliate of their chosen team, if they so choose, when they come to town.
“I have friends that are Brewers fans and they come to the games when we played the Brewers Triple-A affiliate, I can’t remember who they are right now because I think they just moved,” Chamberlain said. “They follow baseball, so they support baseball.”
Discourse about basketball in Reno has, for the last year at least, been dominated by the UNR men’s basketball team, which spent most of the regular season undefeated—briefly securing a spot as the sixth best team in the country—before losing 70-61 against Florida in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. With few of the Wolfpack’s starters returning next season, the conversation around the sport may return to the lull Reno has experienced since the Bighorns relocated to Stockton, California last year.
Founded in 2008, the Reno Bighorns were the G-League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings—the geographically closest team to the city. After changing ownership three times since the team’s inception, it was finally bought out by its parent team in 2016. Current Wolf Pack Coach Eric Musselman also had a turn at the helm of the Bighorns, and during the 2010-2011 season, he led them to a record breaking 34-16 wins and losses.
Even during its best seasons, though, the Bighorns often struggled to draw large attendance. While Reno’s standing as a college town might better position it’s citizens to follow the NCAA, the Bighorns might have had their parent team to share part of the blame in not drumming up the crowds. A Feb. 2018 article from the Sacramento Bee summarized the team’s reputation with the headline “The Sacramento Kings have been the most consistent—and worst—NBA franchise this decade.”
Anecdotally, Reno’s basketball allegiance is a mixed bag. With Bay Area transplants rightly proud of the Golden State Warriors securing the national championship in 2015, 2017 and 2018, and with Northern Nevada not far enough east to escape the Lakers’ all-encompassing shadow, native Nevadans have little reason to back the Kings (other than perhaps spite for the cities with which the aforementioned teams are affiliated). When it comes to which brand of Californian basketball Reno prefers—it’s a toss-up.