For decades the NFL wanted nothing to do with Las Vegas. As the city boomed in the Nevada desert and other professional team sports at least dabbled with the idea of a Las Vegas franchise, the world’s most lucrative league stayed away. Even talking about Las Vegas meant opening the door to gambling and the NFL wasn’t going down that alley.
But now that Nevada has $750m of public money to offer the Oakland Raiders for a gleaming new stadium, the NFL is embracing Sin City. Even championing it. When the league’s owners approved the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas on Monday, their 31-1 vote was a formality. The NFL had already signaled their full acceptance of America’s gambling mecca.
This transformation is remarkable. As recently as 2009, the NFL opposed legalized sports betting in Delaware in part because they feared every official’s bad call would be questioned. “Betting on the outcomes of our games is something that we will oppose vigorously,” commissioner Roger Goodell vowed to the Washington Post at the time. A lot has happened since, however, including partnerships that nearly half the league’s teams cut in 2015 with the daily fantasy website DraftKings. Now, with gambling seemingly available anyway and Nevada offering a mint, the league that refused to have any part of legal sports betting is setting up just blocks from the Las Vegas Strip.
The NFL’s addiction to free public money is so intense that Goodell didn’t bother listening to Oakland’s final attempt to keep their team, shooing away the city’s mayor and declaring to reporters on Sunday night: “I think we will have a positive vote, I think we are in pretty good shape.” The commissioner who fought like hell to keep legal sports gambling from the tiny state on the freeway between Baltimore and Philadelphia has gone running for the blaze of America’s sports gambling capital.
Really, they have no choice. Oakland was never going to have the money to build a stadium as grand as the one Raiders owner Mark Davis is getting in Vegas. No league plays leverage like the NFL. And with the Raiders the last team left in a 23-year shakedown of more than $5bn in public funds for stadiums, Oakland had served its purpose as ballast against Vegas’s riches: its usefulness was done. The Raiders pending move – which may not happen until 2020 – is about far more than a simple franchise transfer. The NFL is selling its long-held opposition to gambling in exchange for a football palace capable of holding Super Bowls, possibly becoming a solution for a tired Pro Bowl and maybe a future draft destination. To the modern NFL searching for their next revenue river, Las Vegas is an opportunity.
Lost in the bombast of the Raiders’ announcement is the not-so-subtle admission by the league that their opposition to gambling always seemed pointless. This was, after all, a league built on gambling: grown on the dual draws of betting and fantasy football. In the days before the internet, any NFL beat writer could detail the bloodlust for both as their voice mailboxes often filled with the frantic calls of gamblers and fantasy addicts hunting for any hint of injury information.
It’s not as if a powerful owner like New England’s Robert Kraft, who had a DraftKings partnership, was going to stand in the way of the league moving into a lucrative new market. There’s money to be made in the Raiders move, maybe less than the bounty the league will pull in from the transfer, but rather in future value to everybody else. Now that the final pieces have been played in the NFL’s leverage game, taking the last great counterweight – Los Angeles – off the table, the league is going to have to look for a new public stakes game. The answer will probably come in the form of stadium renovation. Owners will no longer have the threat of an LA move but they will see the luxury options of Las Vegas’s fantastic new stadium as well as Stan Kroenke’s in Los Angeles and plead for the funding of new palaces for themselves.
In a way, Las Vegas becomes a Los Angeles of their own, a stake by which other cities will have to measure their commitment to their football teams.
No city has had a sports rise quite like Las Vegas’s. Once the domain of the headline boxing fight, the city no sports league or college conference would touch, it is the regular home of three college basketball tournaments, soon an NHL team and now an NFL franchise. One of those conference tournaments, the West Coast Conference, plays inside The Orleans Hotel and Casino. Another, the Pac 12, uses the same arena as the new NHL team, the Golden Knights, located in the middle of the city’s strip of casinos. The Raiders’ stadium will be close enough to the Strip to be bathed in its glow. Any fear of sports gambling is gone.
Las Vegas is not a huge city, its metropolitan population of 2.1m makes it the nation’s 29th-largest market, which is still bigger than eight other NFL cities. There is a risk in the NFL and NHL in making a rush for a transient city that is not overly wealthy. But Goodell wasn’t racing for a population boom on Monday, he was running after the last big pot of free money: $750m of it.
And the hope that Las Vegas might let the NFL keep their public financing machine humming along for decades more to come.