If the NFL Wants Vegas, Will Vegas Want the NFL?

Thursday May 19th, 2016

When the upstart United Football League planted its premier franchise in Las Vegas in 2009, team owners organized a series of meetings between casino marketing directors and moguls such as Steve Wynn, and a UFL contingent including commissioner Michael Huyghue and Jim Fassel. The latter, a former NFL coach of the year, would lead the Las Vegas Locomotives at 60 years old, three years removed from his last NFL gig.

Fassel led the effort to court casino partnerships. His request for each casino: Buy 100 tickets for each home game and parse them out to your guests.

“It was a unanimous no,” Fassel says now, four years after the UFL shuttered its doors. “They said, No, no, no, we’re not doing that. We want to keep people in the casinos.

At the end of last month, Mark Davis met with the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee and pledged $500 million to a stadium project that would send the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas, pending a host of factors, including approval from at least 24 team owners, and the go-ahead on $750 million in public money from local tourism taxes. The Las Vegas Sands-Majestic Realty partnership has pledged an additional $150 million toward a proposed $1.4 billion stadium.

• INSIDE AN NFL FRANCHISE RELOCATION: On the road with the Rams’ rolling caravan en route to Los Angeles

None of those factors are certain to pan out in favor of Davis, one of the NFL’s least wealthy owners, who signed a one-year lease to play the 2016 season in Oakland after a failed bid to move to Los Angeles and numerous failed efforts to secure funding to build a new venue in northern California.

Yet there remains a more basic, fundamental uncertainty about the future of football in Las Vegas: Does Sin City really want a football team? If so, at what cost?

Fassel and the rest of the UFL’s failures to build meaningful relationships with casinos come with a caveat, of course. They were selling minor league football, while the Raiders are bringing The Show. Still, Fassel learned something about Vegas in his four seasons as coach (during which he relocated to the region permanently).

At the end of the day the casinos are thinking selfishly. They certainly aren’t thinking about what’s good for Las Vegas or the global economy or the spread of football.

“This isn’t really a sports town,” says Fassel, who was an assistant coach for five NFL teams and head coach of the Giants from 1997 to 2003. “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.”

There are competing schools of thought as to whether the casino management community would ultimately be on board with an NFL team in town. The other option for public funding is a larger convention center that would necessarily attract more visitors than an NFL team would; NFL fans are paying weekend hotel rates and NFL ticket prices, whereas business travelers are often staying in paid-for rooms at weekday rates with wads of cash burning holes in purses and pockets.

Battle lines were drawn this spring with a pair of polls on the topic of stadium construction that seemed to relay two very different sentiments. The Sands, which would invest money in a new team and stadium, commissioned the Washington-based polling center Morning Consult, which found that 60 percent of Nevadans would support construction of a stadium funded by hotel room taxes. MGM Resorts International commissioned a poll by Global Strategy Group which found that 67 percent of voters would support a convention center expansion and only 38 percent would support a publicly funded stadium plan. MGM president Bill Hornbuckle joins a rep from The Sands and four other major casino groups on the infrastructure committee that would approve a stadium recommendation to the governor’s office.

The Vegas strip always has been a hotspot for NFL fans, who flock to the sportsbooks to watch games—and wager on them.
Brian Jones/Getty Images

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, is the chairman of the committee which was formed during a period when casino income plateaued. Nevada yearly gaming revenues have hovered around $10.5 billion since 2011. Hill is optimistic about a stadium and believes the public and the business community will be behind the project. The committee is required to make its recommendation by the end of July.

“The results of those polls are virtually the complete opposite of one another, so nothing much came from that effort,” Hill says. “You can push those polls any direction you want depending on how you ask questions.” (Writer’s note: MGM declined to make available the wording of its poll questions. Wording in The Sands poll can be found here.)

“We talk often about public money and if you ask the public what they think about contributing public money, they’re not very receptive,” Hill says. “But a hotel tax is a little different than general public money, and I doubt the public at this point understands that.

“If we get to the point where there’s consensus from the committee, I would think the entire business community would get behind it.”

But would the locals? What would a game in Las Vegas look like? Las Vegas would enter the league as its fifth-smallest media market, just ahead of the franchises in Green Bay, Buffalo, New Orleans and Jacksonville. Of the roughly 603,000-plus people who live in Las Vegas, close to a fourth are employed in the casino industry, which doesn’t keep the tidiest hours.

“The problem is a bulk of the people are working on the weekend,” Fassel says. “If they’re playing on Sunday, that’s their workweek, Friday to Monday. Those people won’t be able to come out.”

Still, the Vegas Locomotives were the UFL’s most popular team over the life of the league, with better attendance than teams in Hartford, Omaha, Sacramento, Virginia Beach and Orlando, according to Huyghue, the former commissioner who resigned in 2012. Huyghue operates a law firm in Jacksonville and consults with professional sports teams, agents and sports-related properties.

“It’s a very transient market, because the vast majority of tourists that are there, are there for other entertainment,” Huyghue said. “Because their gaming revenues have decreased, they’re not focused and supportive on outside entertainment. Because it’s the NFL there will always be a market, but I don’t think you do as well with so many people being tourists.”

“At the end of the day the casinos are thinking selfishly. They certainly aren’t thinking about what’s good for Las Vegas or the global economy or the spread of football.”

The whims of the casino magnates would be rendered moot by an NFL ownership vote against a move. The subject is expected to come up at the spring league meetings among owners May 23-25 in Charlotte. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who spearheaded the effort to send the Rams to Los Angeles—denying the Raiders’ and Chargers’ plans to move there together—is expected to support the Las Vegas bid.

Davis in that late-April meeting promised an “offer the NFL can’t refuse” but the stigma of sports betting remains an obstacle. While the league has embraced daily fantasy sports—an industry which fights daily battles across the country against lawmakers and interest groups that would have it classified as illegal online gambling—it forbade Tony Romo from hosting a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas last July that would have connected fans with players, including Patriots tight and Rob Gronkowski and Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. And in previous seasons, the NFL has prohibited league employees from being on casino property. 

“It’s impossible to consider Las Vegas without examining the gambling interest and specifically, the sportsbook,” said Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s new executive vice president for communications and a former White House press secretary for the Bill Clinton administration. “The commissioner’s been very clear that protecting the integrity of the game is first and foremost.”

Supporters will argue the pervasiveness of sports betting, legal and otherwise, across the NFL landscape. And they’ll point out the unique ability of Las Vegas to regulate it.

“Ten years ago this would’ve felt like a pipe dream,” Hill says. “I think there’s an opportunity here that makes the effort worth it.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.