How the NFL learned to love Draft-host Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — Barely half a decade ago, this gaming 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 being held at a congress adjoining a casino. It wasn’t until 2020 that the league allowed the city’s tourist office to run a commercial during the Super Bowl. As of now, league employees cannot play while traveling on business.

But within a few years, the NFL’s long resistance to doing business in and with Las Vegas crumbled. Team owners believed that the city’s many casinos posed no threat to the integrity of professional football. They were also won over by the generous government grants 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 on full display on Thursday when commissioner Roger Goodell announces the Jacksonville Jaguars are in, kicking off the draft pageantry, the league’s true exit party at Vegas. In quick succession, the city has acquired a football franchise, hosted this year’s Pro Bowl, and in February 2024 will host a Super Bowl.

“Those of us who are 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. from Nevada to Las Vegas. The arrival of the draft “reflects in large part that the country has overcome 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, around the time the Raiders’ talks with officials in Oakland, Calif., about a new stadium stalled. Team owner Mark Davis received a speech from Napoleon McCallum, a former Raiders running back who then worked for the 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 him frequently when he owned the team, and young Davis bought the LasVegasRaiders.com domain name in the late 1990s. But Mark Davis knew he would need more. to convince other team owners to go along with a move 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, which was held on the UNLV campus, Bernhard explained to Davis that the league didn’t have much to worry about in Las Vegas because gambling was so heavily regulated. Davis asked him to write a report that would help him make that point to his NFL peers. Several months later, Bernhard and other pundits produced a 112-page report that addressed what they believed to be the league’s biggest concerns, from the potential dangers of the game to whether the city was big enough. to support a team.

“They wanted knowledge of the insurance and the procedures, policies and methodologies in place to reassure us it could be effectively regulated with a team located here,” said Mark Lipparelli, the former Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman 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 influenced by the report, but “it was a moment to start a conversation with a deep and sustained sincerity that hadn’t happened then.”

At that time, Davis was in talks with Sheldon Adelson, the founder of 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 if they moved to Las Vegas. He asked Steve Hill, who headed the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, to find a way to use a proposed hotel bed tax increase to pay for the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion as well as a $750 million grant to help build an NFL Stadium.

Davis’ talks with Adelson dissolved, but after numerous 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 the time, persuaded to cover much of the cost of building the stadium and other team owners’ concerns about the meltdown in gambling.

Earlier that year, league owners voted to let E. Stanley Kroenke move the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and scuttled Davis’ 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 opportunity to join Kroenke, which he exercised.

That left Davis with essentially two options: continue to fight with the city of Oakland, which didn’t want to pay for the construction of a new stadium, or embrace Las Vegas, where he was offered a huge subsidy. He chose the latter, and the owners agreed with him.

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, noticed that day that owners were more concerned about the area’s ability to host a team than the game.

“I don’t think we should 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 got to work finding ways to maximize their new stadium. Hill asked the larger resorts for ideas on how to host a draft. In April 2018, Hill also went with then-Raiders president Marc Badain 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. In the end, officials decided to make the most of the Strip, with a red carpet event outside the Bellagio and the main event at Caesars Forum, a convention center next to the High Roller, a massive Ferris wheel.

Despite a recent string of high-profile NFL player run-ins with the law in Las Vegas, the league said it had no reason to view the city as particularly troubling for 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 day before the Pro Bowl.

The Raiders released receiver Henry Ruggs III in November 2021, who faces two counts of driving under the influence and two counts of reckless driving after crashing his car into Tina Tintor’s vehicle, 23 years.

“Policy is policy, and what we ask our employees to follow is as important in Detroit as it is in Las Vegas,” said NFL chief safety officer Cathy Lanier, referring to the personal conduct policy. of the league. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure everyone has all the tools they need to make a good decision, wherever they are.”

Regardless of security concerns, the allure of the Strip, with its flashy hotels and good-weather patina, would expand a growing event and allow the NFL to fully embrace a city that she had once rejected.

“We look at iconic locations everywhere we go,” said NFL events manager Peter O’Reilly. 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 report.

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