LAS VEGAS — A meeting scheduled in the 1980s between the NFL and sportsbook directors sparked hope in Las Vegas that their relationship would soon take a much more positive turn after decades during which the league kept the city at arm’s length.
When all it turned out to be was a league official telling the casinos they would each be charged $25,000 a year to televise NFL games, longtime sportsbook director Jimmy Vaccaro knew the relationship would remain frosty for the foreseeable future.
“In the long run, we thought there’s no sense fighting these people because they can turn off the switch and there are no games on,” Vaccaro said. “So you just have to eat it and go from there.”
Now the NFL can’t get enough of Las Vegas. The Raiders have been playing near the Strip at Allegiant Stadium since 2020, and on Sunday the stadium will host the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, the most visible sign that the league has come to embrace both the city and the growing gambling industry. The city has also hosted the NFL draft and two Pro Bowls.
“The relationship developed very quickly,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at Westgate Las Vegas. “To us, it felt like it was a 180-degree turn. For decades, it was a precarious type of relationship. We talked to each other a number of times over the decades, but it was very clear their stance on sports gambling, and we certainly respected that.”
Las Vegas bookmakers, business executives and government officials largely took a pragmatic view when it came to how they worked with the NFL, a key reason the transition to a much warmer relationship has been smooth.
They could’ve taken the NFL’s snubs much more personally, and in fact, the league made two decisions that especially didn’t sit well.
One was in the 2003 when the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority asked to run a TV commercial during the Super Bowl touting the city. The NFL refused to air the ad, even though it didn’t mention gambling.
Authority CEO and President Steve Hill wasn’t in charge of the agency at the time, but in speaking with several people about the ad being nixed, he learned some were genuinely surprised and insulted.
But Hill added, chuckling, “I also think there was a fair amount of feigned surprise. It just plays wrong. Hey, this is going to draw free attention to us, which it did. And we played it up. It’s not the end-of-the-world kind of thing, so let’s play hurt and get some free media.”
The famous Las Vegas slogan “What happens here, stays here” was in the rejected commercial. It debuted that year, and Hill said the Super Bowl ad controversy was especially fortuitous in driving home the idea for tourists craving a place with relaxed rules and no judgement.
Then in 2015, then-Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was scheduled to headline a fantasy convention at the Venetian that the NFL put the kibosh on because it was on casino property. Romo, who as CBS’s No. 1 game analyst will be calling this Super Bowl, unsuccessfully sued the league.
Las Vegas bookmakers, in the meantime, forged ahead and even worked with the NFL and other leagues when they discovered suspicious bets or line changes.
“They liked it when we told them what we thought when they wanted to question something, but that meant nothing after that,” Vaccaro said.
Two events swung the pendulum the other way.
NFL owners in 2017 approved the Raiders’ plans to relocate from Oakland, California, to Las Vegas. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, opening the door to legalized sports betting beyond Nevada.
Suddenly, the NFL had a much different relationship with Las Vegas.
“It’s a totally new world,” UNLV history professor Michael Green said. “It’s a complete flip-flop.”
At a Super Bowl event in December, league Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wouldn’t have imagined being in Las Vegas to promote the league’s premier event 10 years ago.
“You’ve become Sports Town USA, you really have,” Goodell told the crowd. “That vision was set out. That vision was clear. We wanted to be a part of it, and I think when that happened, everything seemed to change.”
The crowd was polite as Goodell spoke, but the change in demeanor came from the NFL’s side. Las Vegas never relented on its commitment to legalized sports betting.
Goodell was correct, however, about the steps the city took to become a major player in the sports world. In addition to the Raiders’ move, Las Vegas joined the NHL and WNBA and won a combined three championships in both leagues. Baseball’s Oakland Athletics are on their way, and LeBron James has spoken openly about wanting to own an NBA team here.
Getting the Raiders was the key to the improved ties between the league and city. A secretive 2015 meeting that included Bo Bernhard, then the UNLV International Gaming Institute executive director, and Raiders owner Mark Davis planted the seed. Bernhard ended up producing a white paper that Davis took to the league to show Las Vegas would be a valuable host city.
“I was just there at the beginning, like the coin toss in ,” Bernhard said. “A lot of really powerful people got it to the goal line.”
One of those was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who made the case to his peers to open the Las Vegas market. “He felt pretty strongly that this was going to be a success,” Hill said.
The owners approved the move by a 31-1 vote. Only the Miami Dolphins’ Stephen Ross voted against it.
“It’s a great sports town, a great city,” Jones said. “It has borne out to be one of the most successful things that we’ve done was joining Las Vegas with the NFL.”
When the Supreme Court overturned PASPA, suddenly states beyond Nevada were lining up to legalize sports betting. Now it’s legal is 38 states, and in 2021 the NFL announced it had partnered with four sports-betting companies.
“I saw this coming,” said Baird Fogel, a California attorney who works with the sports betting industry. “That’s why I got into it. I’m not saying I’m Nostradamus, but the amount of revenue we’re talking about couldn’t be ignored anymore.”
David Highhill, NFL general manager of sports betting, acknowledged the league had little choice but to embrace the new reality. The Super Bowl not only is in Las Vegas, but sports-betting ads will air during the game.
“It was our job to make sure we react to the world around us,” Highhill said. “I think what we really focused on were what were our key priorities. So, No. 1, continue to protect the integrity of the game.”
He said the fact there were several player suspensions in 2023 for violating the league’s sports-betting policy highlights the NFL’s commitment to ensuring games are on the level.
Las Vegas sportsbook directors have long argued protecting the integrity of events was equally important to them, and legalized betting makes it easier to detect if there are suspicious wagers or line movements.
So now the NFL and Las Vegas have embraced each other after decades of a strained relationship and Goodell said this Super Bowl likely won’t be the last in Nevada.
Still, the idea of the NFL’s biggest game being next to the Strip is one that is still hard for many to believe.
“I would’ve lost that bet,” Vaccaro said. “There’s no way. And you know what, it will be a monster week.”
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