Overcoming the Fear and Loathing of Las Vegas

Thursday May 19th, 2016

Two primary issues in the business of football over the past year—franchise relocation and gambling—are now converging as discussion builds regarding a possible relocation of the Raiders to Las Vegas. Although there now seems some traction building, I would hold the calls to the moving vans for a while. Let’s examine.

Third Place to New Place?

The NFL is like many businesses: few actions occur without a reaction. The Raiders’ actions come as a reaction to having placed third in a three-team race for moving to Los Angeles. Throughout that relocation saga, I sensed factions of support for the Chargers and the Rams, with the Raiders languishing somewhere behind.

There were a group of owners supporting loyal league partner Dean Spanos in his bid to move the Chargers to Carson. That group, however, eventually defected to the influence of the “money guys”—Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder, Stephen Ross, Woody Johnson, etc.—and their preference for Stan Kroenke and the Rams’ iconic vision in Inglewood. What about the Raiders? Although an erstwhile partner to Spanos, Mark Davis was largely ignored and encouraged to work out something in Oakland, where he returns to a substandard facility on a short-term lease.

• ALSO ON THE MMQB: As Raiders owner Mark Davis flirts with Sin City, the question has been whether the NFL would ever allow such a move. But anecdotal evidence suggests Vegas’ largest moneymaker—casinos—may be the real hurdle

Like Spanos, Davis received a $100 million consolation prize, with the caveat that it be applied toward getting a stadium deal done in Oakland. While stadium financing discussions progress in San Diego, negotiations between Davis and the city of Oakland appear stagnated, and Davis has not hidden talks with officials in San Antonio prior to this public advance toward a new NFL frontier: Las Vegas.

Davis’s play for Vegas requires two considerable tasks. He must first negotiate terms of a stadium financing plan workable for Las Vegas and his NFL ownership partners. There already seems to be an outline of a plan in place consisting of private and public financing, with the mayor and influential residents on board. Things are in motion on that front. The more daunting challenge for Davis will be to eventually gather—as Stan Kroenke did with his L.A. plans—at least 24 votes from his peer owners sanctioning a move to a venue that, to this point, has represented forbidden fruit.

“Evolved” stance on gambling

It was just a year ago when the NFL shut down a Fantasy Football Convention in Las Vegas with Tony Romo and 100 other NFL players scheduled to attend. The reason for the NFL’s actions, I was told, was not due to any affiliation with fantasy football (more below). Rather, the NFL shuttered the event due to its location in the Sands Expo, a building without a casino but still associated with the Sands Hotel, with a casino. Thus, the mere appearance of an association with a casino was reason enough for the league to shutter the event, leaving a wake of litigation and bruised relationships with its players.

I thought the decision curious from an enterprise that had opened the door to gambling interests and continues to do so. The NFL, knowing what a powerful fan engagement tool that fantasy football represents, had allowed teams to enter into sponsorships with DraftKings and FanDuel, and two of the league’s most influential owners (Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones) are DraftKings investors. Further, several teams have sponsor affiliations with casinos (the Lions had inked a deal with MGM grand that week) and state lottery patches appear on some teams’ training camp practice jerseys.

When I pointed these things out in a column at the time, I received a note from someone very senior in the NFL office saying the column was discussed in deliberations about NFL positioning on gambling and, as he put it, taking a “more evolved” view. Since that time, the NFL’s association with daily fantasy has become even more pronounced and we are now having a discussion about Las Vegas that was recently a nonstarter.

I also have called for an NFL “Gambling Czar” and do so again here, although the league may not yet be that evolved.

Fantasy presents an opening

The NFL, as all major pro sports leagues, has historically held up a large, red stop sign to gambling associations, with the rationale that it flies in the face of the “integrity of the game.” Going back to commissioner Pete Rozelle’s 1963 yearlong suspension of Alex Karras and Paul Hornung for betting on NFL games and associating with gamblers, the league’s relationship to gambling has been, at best, an uneasy one. The discussion of a potential team in Las Vegas now brings this longstanding tension to a boil.

The NFL’s acceptance and investment into daily fantasy has presented an opening. Of course, the NFL knows that there is some element of “gambling” with these services, but claims distance with Roger Goodell’s often-repeated rationale that this “mash-up” of players does not affect team outcomes. Goodell and owners know the valuable fan engagement tool that fantasy football provides—whether season long or daily—and support it despite the attorney general of the state in which the league operates, New York, deeming it illegal.

With that crack in the gambling door presented from fantasy services, the league may not yet be ready for a team in Las Vegas, but has not dismissed the idea. Jerry Jones, influential in moving the owners’ vote toward the Rams’ L.A. project, has given the idea his imprimatur of approval to Vegas, if not to Davis directly. Jones is always looking to take the biggest swings possible, and the bold vision for Inglewood and a team in Las Vegas present fertile revenue opportunities for the NFL brand as a whole.

Could it happen?

The short-term future question is this: will there be 23 owners besides Jones sanctioning a move by Mark Davis and the Raiders to Las Vegas, even assuming a workable stadium financing plan? This would require 1) owners who are indifferent or adversarial toward Davis and his family to now support him and, more importantly, 2) a willingness to embrace gambling in a town built upon the industry.

Usually, when presented with a question such as this, the answer is always the same: follow the money. As Jones knows, there will be plenty of it in Vegas. In this case, however, it is more complicated. The tricky intersection of gambling and the league mantra of “integrity” will have to be personally and professionally reckoned with by NFL owners. “Evolved” is a good first step, but it is a long way to “embraced.”

Do I think there will be an NFL team in Las Vegas in the next 10-15 years? Yes. Time will eventually break down barriers to entry, both with legislation and comfort level by ownership. Do I think that team will be the Raiders and that it will happen much sooner than that? That is a much harder question to answer. Stay tuned for many more chapters in the saga Reaching Las Vegas: The Raider Way.

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

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