How the NFL learned to like Las Vegas, host of the Draft

LAS VEGAS — Just half a decade ago, this betting mecca was still out of reach for the NFL.

In 2015, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo called the league greedy and jealous when he was banned from attending a fantasy football event here because it was held in a convention center attached to a casino. It wasn’t until 2020 that the league allowed the city’s tourism board to run an ad during the Super Bowl. To this day, league employees are not allowed to gamble while on business trips.

But in a matter of a few years, the NFL’s longstanding resistance to doing business in and with Las Vegas collapsed. Team owners were convinced that the city’s many casinos were not a threat to the integrity of professional soccer. 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 toward Sin City will be highlighted Thursday when Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock, kicking off the draft extravaganza, the league’s true coming-out party in Las Vegas. In quick succession, the city has won a football franchise, hosted this year’s Pro Bowl and, in February 2024, will host a Super Bowl.

“Those of us old enough laugh at memories of the NFL not even allowing Las Vegas to advertise during the Super Bowl,” said Michael Green, who teaches history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The draft’s arrival “reflects that the country for the most part is outgrowing the idea that gambling is the ultimate vice and that everyone here is called Three-Fingered Lenny and Ignats the Ice Pick.”

The league’s resistance to the city cracked in late 2014, when the Raiders’ talks with officials in Oakland, California about a new stadium had stalled. Team owner Mark Davis entertained a pitch from Napoleon McCallum, a former Raiders running back who was then working for the Las Vegas Sands, which owns hotels, casinos and venues. He urged Davis to consider Las Vegas.

Davis was not a stranger in town. His father, Al, visited often when he owned the team, and the young Davis bought the domain name in the late 1990s. But Mark Davis knew it would take more to persuade other team owners to join him. to join a relocation there. So in February 2015, McCallum arranged for Davis to meet with Bo Bernhard, the executive director of UNLV’s 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 highly regulated. Davis asked him to write a report that would help him make that case to his NFL teammates. Several months later, Bernhard and other experts produced a 112-page report addressing what they thought were the league’s biggest concerns, from the potential pitfalls of gambling to whether the city was big enough to host a team.

“They wanted to know what safeguards and what procedures, policies and methodologies are in place to give us peace of mind this could be effectively regulated with a team located here,” said Mark Lipparelli, a former Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman who worked with Bernhard on the issue. report. “Our position was, you shouldn’t be afraid of us, you should be afraid of others”, a reference to unregulated gambling operations.

Bernhard said he didn’t know how many owners were influenced by the report, but “it was a moment to start a conversation with a deep and sustained sincerity that hadn’t happened at the time.”

By then, Davis was in talks with Sheldon Adelson, the founder of the Las Vegas Sands, about building a new stadium. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval was also looking for a way to help the Raiders build a stadium in case 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 expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, as well as a $750 million grant to help build an NFL Stadium.

Davis’s talks with Adelson broke down, 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 convention center funding and the stadium.

Davis was betting on Las Vegas at the time, persuaded that he had covered a large portion of the stadium’s construction costs and other team owners’ concerns about melting bets.

Earlier that year, league owners had voted to allow E. Stanley Kroenke to move the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and he derailed Davis’s plan to build a stadium in Carson, California, with Dean Spanos. , the owner of the San Diego. chargers As a consolation, Spanos was given the option to join Kroenke, which he exercised.

That basically left Davis with two options: continue to fight the city of Oakland, which didn’t want to pay to build a new stadium, or embrace Las Vegas, where he was offered a huge subsidy. He chose the latter, and the owners came to his way of 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 with local officials over lunch at the Wynn. Steve Sisolak, who as chairman of the Clark County commissioners championed the effort to lure the Raiders, noted that day that owners were more concerned with the region’s ability to host a team than the stakes.

“I don’t think we had to sell them” in Las Vegas, said Sisolak, who is now Nevada’s governor. “They were quite eager to move here.”

The vote in March 2017 to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas was disappointing: Only one owner, Stephen M. Ross of the Miami Dolphins, voted against the proposal.

The Raiders and Las Vegas quickly went to work looking for ways to maximize their new stadium. Hill asked larger resorts for ideas on how to organize a draft. In April 2018, Hill also went with Marc Badain, then president of the Raiders, to Arlington, Texas, to watch that year’s draft unfold at AT&T Stadium.

The 2020 draft was awarded to Las Vegas, but the pandemic forced the league to delay it by two years. Ultimately, officials decided to make 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, a massive Ferris wheel.

Despite a recent series of high-profile run-ins by NFL players with the law in Las Vegas, the league has said it has no reason to consider the city of particular concern to its athletes. Saints running back Alvin Kamara, Kansas City cornerback Chris Lammons and two other men face criminal charges stemming from an altercation at a nightclub the night before the Pro Bowl.

The Raiders released receiver Henry Ruggs III in November 2021, 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 23-year-old Tina Tintor. .

“Politics is politics, and what we ask our employees to do is as important in Detroit as it is in Las Vegas,” said Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s director of safety, referring to the NFL’s personal conduct policy. league. “We go to great lengths to make sure everyone has all the tools they need to make a good decision no matter where they are.”

Whatever the safety concerns, the allure of the Strip, with its flashy hotels and patina of fun, would add to the size of a growing event and allow the NFL to fully embrace a city it once shunned.

“We look for iconic places everywhere we go,” said Peter O’Reilly, director of events for 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. the market as well.”

immanuel morgan contributed report.

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