LAS VEGAS – Barely half a decade ago, this gambling mecca was still largely off limits to the NFL
In 2015, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo called the league greedy and jealous when it banned him from attending a fantasy football event here because it was held at a convention center attached to a casino. It wasn’t until 2020 that the league allowed the city’s tourism bureau to take out an ad during the Super Bowl. To this day, league employees may not gamble while on business trips.
But in a matter of a few years, the NFL’s long resistance to doing business in and with Las Vegas crumbled. Team owners were persuaded that the city’s many casinos were not a threat to the integrity of professional football. They were also won over by the generous public subsidies that helped pay for the Raiders ’new stadium when the league approved the team’s move here in 2017.
The new attitude towards Sin City will be highlighted Thursday when Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock, kicking off the pageantry of the draft, the league’s true coming-out party in Las Vegas. In rapid succession, the city gained a football franchise, put on this year’s Pro Bowl and, in February 2024, will host a Super Bowl.
“Those of us who are old enough chuckle at the memories of the NFL don’t even allow Las Vegas to advertise during the Super Bowl,” said Michael Green, who teaches history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The arrival of the draft “reflects the country for the most part of getting over the idea that gambling is the ultimate vice and that everyone here is named Three-Fingered Lenny and Ignats the Ice Pick.”
The league’s resistance to the city cracked in late 2014, around the time the Raiders’ talks with officials in Oakland, Calif., Over a new stadium had stalled. Mark Davis, the team’s owner, entertained a pitch from Napoleon McCallum, a former Raiders running back who by then was working for Las Vegas Sands, which owns hotels, casinos and venues. He urged Davis to consider Las Vegas.
Davis was no stranger to the city. His father, Al, had visited frequently when he owned the team, and the younger Davis bought the domain name LasVegasRaiders.com in the late 1990s. But Mark Davis knew he’d need more to sway other team owners to rally around a relocation there. So in February 2015, McCallum arranged for Davis to meet Bo Bernhard, the executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute, and several other executives.
At the meeting, held on the UNLV campus, Bernhard explained to Davis that the league had little to fear in Las Vegas because gambling was so heavily regulated. Davis asked him to write a report that would help him make that case to his NFL peers. Several months later, Bernhard and other experts produced a 112-page report that addressed what they thought were the league’s biggest concerns, from the potential dangers of gambling to whether the city was big enough to support a team.
“They wanted some knowledge about what assurances and what procedures and policies and methodologies are in place to give us comfort this could be effectively regulated with a team located here,” said Mark Lipparelli, the former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board who worked with Bernhard on the report. “Our position was, you shouldn’t be afraid of us, you should be afraid of the other guys,” a reference to unregulated gambling operations.
Bernhard said he didn’t know how many owners were swayed by the report, but “it was a moment of starting a conversation with a profound and sustained sincerity that hadn’t happened at that point.”
By then, Davis was in talks with Sheldon Adelson, the founder of Las Vegas Sands, about building a new stadium. Nevada’s governor, Brian Sandoval, was also seeking a way to help the Raiders build a stadium should they move to Las Vegas. He asked Steve Hill, who led the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, to find a way to use a proposed increase in the hotel bed tax to pay for the expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center as well as a $ 750 million subsidy to help build an NFL stadium.
Davis’s talks with Adelson dissolved, but after many hearings and criticism that the bed tax could be used to pay for more pressing needs, the state legislature in November 2016 approved the bed tax and funding for the convention center and stadium.
Davis was all-in on Las Vegas at that point, persuaded by getting a big chunk of the stadium’s construction costs covered and other team owners’ concerns about gambling melting.
Earlier that year, the league’s owners had voted to let E. Stanley Kroenke move the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and scuttled Davis’s plan to build a stadium in Carson, Calif., With Dean Spanos, the owner of the San Diego Chargers. As a consolation, Spanos was given the option of joining Kroenke, which he exercised.
That left Davis with basically two options: continue fighting with the city of Oakland, which did not want to pay for the construction of a new stadium, or embrace Las Vegas, where he was being offered an enormous subsidy. He chose the latter, and the owners were coming around to his thinking.
In late 2016, Goodell and several prominent team owners, including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Robert K. Kraft of the New England Patriots, flew to Las Vegas to meet local officials over lunch at the Wynn. Steve Sisolak, who as chairman of the Clark County commissioners championed the effort to lure the Raiders, noticed that day that the owners were more concerned about the region’s ability to host a team than they were about gambling.
“I don’t think we had to sell them” in Las Vegas, said Sisolak, who is now the governor of Nevada. “They were pretty anxious to move here.”
The vote in March 2017 to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas was anticlimactic: Only one owner – Stephen M. Ross of the Miami Dolphins – voted against the proposal.
The Raiders and Las Vegas quickly got to work looking at ways to maximize their new stadium. Hill asked the biggest resorts for ideas on how to host a draft. In April 2018, Hill also went with Marc Badain, then president of the Raiders, to Arlington, Texas, to see how the draft was produced that year at AT&T Stadium.
The 2020 draft was awarded to Las Vegas, but the pandemic forced the league to delay it for two years. Ultimately, officials settled on making the most of the Strip, with a red carpet event in front of the Bellagio and the main event at Caesars Forum, a convention center next to the High Roller, an enormous Ferris wheel.
Despite a recent series of NFL players’ high-profile run-ins with the law in Las Vegas, the league has said it has no reason to consider the city particularly troubling for its athletes. Saints running back Alvin Kamara, Kansas City cornerback Chris Lammons and two other men are facing criminal charges stemming from an altercation at a nightclub the night before the Pro Bowl.
The Raiders in November 2021 released receiver Henry Ruggs III, who faces two felony counts of driving under the influence and two felony counts of reckless driving after he crashed his car into the vehicle of Tina Tintor, 23.
“The policy is the policy, and what we are asking our employees to comply with is as important in Detroit as it is in Las Vegas,” said Cathy Lanier, NFL’s chief security officer, referring to the league’s personal conduct policy. “We put a lot of effort into making sure everybody has all the tools they need to make a good decision no matter where they are.”
Whatever security concerns, the allure of the Strip, with its flashy hotels and good time patina, would supersize a growing event and allow the NFL to fully embrace a city it once rejected.
“We look at iconic locations wherever we go,” said Peter O’Reilly, the head of events at the NFL Las Vegas has been a destination, a big event market, a big convention market, but now it’s becoming a big sporting event market, too. ”
Emmanuel Morgan contributed reporting.