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What happens in Vegas… | The Future of NFL in ‘Sin City’

THE RACE TO Las Vegas has been won by the NHL. So why is the NFL making most of the headlines in the city?

While it emerged in June that the National Hockey League will place an expansion franchise in America’s betting capital – providing those behind the bid can come up with at least $500m (€445m) as a fee to join the league – as it often does, the National Football League has shoved aside other US sports.

It has done so even though everything surrounding pro football coming to ‘Sin City’ has been speculative.

Even with the NHL poised to expand to Vegas, the far more impactful news is that with the Raiders NFL franchise unable to reach anything close to an agreement for public funds to help build a new stadium in Oakland, team owner Mark Davis is eyeing Nevada.

Never mind that under the guidance of his late father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Al Davis, the Raiders had moved from Oakland to LA in 1982, then back to the Bay Area in 1995.

Culture

The Raiders have been as much a part of the culture of Northern California as the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown. Their fans are among the rowdiest in all of sports and their ageing coliseum features a ‘Black Hole’ that visiting teams’ supporters enter at their peril.

But, without luxury boxes and modern conveniences, the Raiders operate at a distinct disadvantage in Oakland. When they were denied relocation to LA by other owners – the Rams were approved to move from St Louis and the Chargers were given an option to join them down the road if they can’t work out a deal in San Diego – Davis began to have discussions.

San Antonio showed interest, but it was Vegas that immediately grabbed Davis’ attention.

“I’m excited about it,” Davis says. “It’s a new market. It’s got the potential to be a really exciting market. The Raiders fan in Northern California gets upset a little bit when we talk about going to Los Angeles and the LA fans get a little ticked off at the fans in Northern California. So it seems like Las Vegas is a neutral site that everybody’s kind of bought into. It will unite the Raider nation more than divide it.

“I’ve given my commitment to Las Vegas and if they can come through with what they’ve talked about doing, then we’ll go to Las Vegas.”

What they have talked about doing is building a $1.4bn domed stadium near the famed Las Vegas Strip. Davis pledged $500m towards the project, much of which could come from an NFL loan should owners approve this move.

“Vegas needs to come up with a valid stadium plan,” says Associated Press columnist Tim Dahlberg, who has covered the city’s news and sports scene for nearly four decades. “Right now they have one with a lot of moving parts that need to come together to make it happen. “

The tourism committee will forward a recommendation to the governor by July and then the state legislature would have to hold a special session to ‘okay’ new taxes to pay for it. If that happens, then the NFL must vote for the move.”

As Dahlberg notes, Davis might have an ace to get all of this done.

“The big thing is Sheldon Adelson’s involvement,” Dahlberg says of the billionaire owner of the Sands Hotel and a powerbroker in Nevada.

“But he will need to sweeten the pot and lessen the tax increase a bit to make it happen.”

The Sands and Majestic Realty have joined to pledge an additional $150m to the project. That leaves $750m from taxpayers, likely through a hotel tax.

“Las Vegas offers glitz and glamour,” says Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd, a highprofile sports consultancy and a keen observer of the NFL.

“It offers one of the most significant tourist destinations on the planet. It has one of the world’s wealthiest people (Adelson) firmly behind the project. It includes the prospect of visiting teams travelling with their fans to games in Vegas.

“So there is some serious level of excitement and glitz that would come with a Las Vegas Raiders franchise.”

Hurdles

Of course there are some huge hurdles too before the Raiders or any other NFL team could land in Las Vegas.

Not everyone in the sport agrees that Vegas belongs in the NFL club. Some cite the city not being a large market like the Bay Area. Yet it is the largest US metropolitan area without a professional sports team.

Jim Fassel, who coached the Giants to a Super Bowl and recently was in charge of a minor league pro football team in Las Vegas, wonders how much the city actually would embrace the Raiders.

“This isn’t really a sports town,” Fassel says. “It’s a sports town in a different way. It’s not going to games, but being able to gamble on them and watch all of them in a party atmosphere.”

The Raiders would be abandoning the fourth-largest television market in America for one ranked 40th. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area is among the most affluent and growing markets in the nation. It is a more diverse region than Las Vegas.

“[There would] likely [be] no benefits and perhaps a small detriment to the NFL from its base revenues from broadcasting,” Ganis says, “simply due to the small market as compared to the [Bay Area] market.”

Plus no league is more staunchly against legalised wagering on sports events than the NFL. It has fought movements in a variety of states that have been seeking to add revenue by allowing sports betting.

The idea of placing a franchise in ‘Sin City’ has been, for decades, an untouchable subject – even though the league readily schedules more and more regular-season matches in London, where legalised gambling is a major industry.

Dahlberg dismisses such opposition as “hypocritical,” with some prominent major league franchise owners having reportedly started out in illegal bookmaking.

Still, some owners will swallow hard before embracing Las Vegas, citing moral reservations. This has been viewed by some as a dubious perspective, considering how the NFL – not to mention other major US sports – has embraced fantasy gaming.

One key owner shrugs when asked about such opposition.

“I came into the league in ‘94,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told USA Today. “Back then any exploration of that market was dismissed out of hand. I’m looking where we are today and thinking of the last 10 to 15 years, and the emergence of new media, with Google and Facebook and the like. We’re just living in a different world, technology-wise. The risks in Vegas are no longer exclusive to Vegas.”

So maybe getting support from his fellow owners might not be as dicey a proposition for Davis as once believed. Several powerful owners have spoken out strongly in favour of the Las Vegas Raiders.

“I bet you every visiting team would have a lot of fans going there for weekends,” Kraft says. “If he’d like to move there and the city is supportive, and Oakland doesn’t do what they should do, then I’m behind him.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones adds that “the right ownership” can make a major influence. “For me, I think that certainly the fact that Las Vegas has a gambling aspect to it is far overshadowed by the entertainment value,” he says. “So it does not have disfavour with me, in my opinion, relative to being an NFL city.”

Venue

There is also the issue of a temporary venue before the planned stadium is ready. Not that the Rams were bothered by transferring to the outdated LA Coliseum until their home in nearby Inglewood is built. However, the Raiders would have to play in Sam Boyd Stadium, a facility in Henderson that does not remotely meet NFL standards. With a capacity of only 40,000, it is small, aged, located a long way from the tourism of the Strip and some of the parking lots are still made of dirt.

That could be a bit much and Davis has broached the idea of remaining in Oakland as a lame-duck franchise before moving to Nevada. This is hardly an enticing prospect, as the Raiders would have little or no link with the Oakland/San Francisco community, where fans would be well aware the team was heading elsewhere as soon as possible.

Professional team owners try to avoid such a status by not making their relocation plans public far ahead of time. Davis is already well beyond that point.

Then again there is the prospect of Vegas, where anyone can turn a pig into a prince.

While Davis and the Raiders now so strongly entertain the notion of hitting the Vegas jackpot, the NHL and NBA had hesitated in the past few years. However, the NHL is at last prepared to roll the dice, particularly with the T-Mobile Arena in place and prospective team owner Bill Foley having received more than 13,000 season-ticket deposits.

Oddly, although the NBA runs a summer league, has held its All-Star Game in Las Vegas, and is considered the most progressive and proactive of American sports organisations, it has backed off on Nevada.

In a city of big-time players, though, the Raiders would be among the biggest.

“It is important to note that the previously-held absolute bar to an NFL team in Las Vegas appears to have lowered meaningfully,” Ganis says. “The commissioner has publicly made statements that indicate that Vegas is not automatically disqualified as an NFL city. Some owners have made comments, which may or may not be shared by a super-majority of their fellow owners, who have been generally supportive of the notion that the gambling issues in Las Vegas are not automatic disqualifiers.

“However, Mark handled himself very graciously when the decision was made to allow the Rams’ relocation effort to proceed that he gained many points and has a lot of sympathy on his side of the ledger. I expect that will play a role in a final decision by the owners if they are presented with a relocation application for the Raiders to move to Las Vegas.”

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