SBJ/April 3-9, 2017/Leagues and Governing Bodies

In Vegas, NFL gets glitz, uncertainty

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Raiders’ Mark Davis
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“It’s nothing personal,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis, as two key owners — the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney II and the Houston Texans’ Bob McNair — shuffled away quickly from a podium without taking questions last week shortly after announcing that the Silver and Black are Vegas bound.

Their hasty retreat may not have been personal, but the momentous decision to relocate to the gambling mecca from the booming Bay Area did not fit the typical NFL model, nor was it one that league officials or owners relished speaking about during their annual meeting last week at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix.

Shifting a team from a large market to a small one, something the NFL strenuously avoided for two decades, all the while skating a thin line on sports gambling, made the subject an awkward one for owners. When they commented, they usually went with the blanket term “opportunity” and expressed the obligatory regret for Oakland fans.

It’s not just the league’s opposition to sports gaming, but a host of policies emanating from that stand that are now overly complicated. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said league rules prohibiting players from entering casinos with sports books, as well as casino advertising, will not change.

“We did not change any of our gambling policies in the context of the Raiders relocation,” the commissioner said. “It wasn’t necessary, and the Raiders didn’t ask us to do that. We don’t see changing our current policies.”

Whether that is realistic is another matter, given that casinos are the lifeblood of the Raiders’ soon-to-be home.

New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch countered that clearly the NFL must revisit its rules.

“Now that this is pretty much a done deal, I think the league internally must look at the existing restrictions and rewrite some of them,” he said.

Could the ban on casino advertising be lifted?

“It is going to be discussed,” Tisch said. “This is all so new. Can casinos market the shows [at the Raiders’ stadium]? The concerts? The fights? It’s a whole new conversation.”

League rules on sports gambling were not the only fog shrouding last week’s decision. Officials and owners bent over backward to characterize Oakland as not having a plan, which if true would justify departing one of the world’s top centers of wealth creation.

Rooney, for example, cited the presence of the A’s on the land where the Raiders could build a stadium as an issue he could not get around. But he didn’t stick around to answer why it’s not a problem in other NFL markets that have a baseball and football stadium near each other.

Asked the same question, Tisch replied, “I can’t address that because I didn’t really dig down that deep in terms of the opportunity or the options that Oakland was offering.”

Indeed, the relocation proposal sailed through with nary a question from the floor in a little over an hour. One NFL official, when asked about Oakland’s financier Fortress Investment agreeing to lend on traditional bank terms — which would appear to solve the league concern about the fund seeking a high rate of return — responded simply that it was not Fortress’ business to lend like that. In other words, it was dismissed out of hand, without any effort to gauge whether this was truly a significant shift.

For every uncertainty the NFL cited for Oakland, one could point to murkiness for Las Vegas: the market, with the second-lowest average disposable income among major American cities, and its exposure to economic downturns; the dependence on fans flying in to attend games; the slim corporate base; having the team play as a lame duck for two seasons with no place to play yet in 2019; and, most important, the lack of a lease so far.

Of course, it’s also not hard to understand the lure: $750 million of subsidies for the construction and an additional $200 million for capital improvements. Perhaps that’s why owners who did comment kept using the term “unique” to describe Las Vegas, though they often meant the conventions and shows that have made Vegas an entertainment as well as a gambling hotspot.

Still, that’s an unprecedented amount of public contribution, and one that left Oakland with an impossible climb.

That did not keep one owner, Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins, from voting no, because he did not think all options had been exhausted in Oakland.

In saying so, he is implying the league violated its bylaw requiring that all options be examined before a relocation. Those close to Ross said he believed that the league needed to halt the surge of relocations, which now number three in 15 months, and that it was a bad move to abandon the booming East Bay market.

But Ross was alone (though it’s unclear whether more owners might have voted no had the vote been by secret ballot).

Mark Ganis, a sports consultant with ties to the NFL, spoke of owner fatigue with the relocation issue and a desire to move past it.

“Every now and then … topics just keep coming up, and keep coming up that sometimes are distractions, a little bit of paralysis associated with it,” Ganis said. “This whole relocation, Los Angeles, what is going to happen, the competition among the three teams, different teams having different owners supporting them, that has gotten old.”

And some owners are truly jazzed about the potential of Vegas to grow more beyond its gambling core.

“Las Vegas has evolved arguably into a family destination,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. When a reporter sarcastically repeated “arguably,” he quickly retorted, “That’s not your father’s Las Vegas.”

Perhaps, but within a day of the vote, a Nevada brothel owner announced he would open a Raiders-themed outlet. Inevitably this led to the surreal moment when Goodell, commissioner of a sport that regularly promotes an advertising campaign called “Football Is Family,” twice got asked about brothels at his closing news conference.

The NFL gets the Las Vegas market and its nearly $1 billion of subsidies, but it gets everything else, too. And that may mean many years of awkward questions for the commissioner and league owners, whether they want to talk about it or not.

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