The NFL goes all in on Las Vegas

It's a dramatic shift for a league that avoided Las Vegas and gambling for decades, even blocking Las Vegas tourism ads from airing during the Super Bowl.
Image: Some of the more than 400 proposition bets for Super Bowl LI between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots
Some of the more than 400 proposition bets for the 2017 Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots are displayed at the Race and Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

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By Ahiza García-Hodges

When a player arrives at the NFL draft on April 23, he will board a boat that will glide across the 22 million-gallon fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas before disembarking to walk across a red carpet.

The draft, which will be televised on ESPN and ABC, is the league's highest-profile off-season event. Soon-to-be NFL stars, some of whom won't be of age to gamble or drink in the city, will be selected by the league's teams.

It's a dramatic shift for a league that avoided Las Vegas and gambling for decades, even blocking Las Vegas tourism ads from airing during the Super Bowl.

"The draft is this sort of rite of passage for new athletes coming into the league. It's about potential, and you're holding it on a giant lake in front of a casino," said David Schwartz, a professor and gaming historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I don't know how you can show you're more OK with Vegas and sports betting than that."

The change in the NFL's stance reflects the broader shift in U.S. laws and attitudes toward sports gambling, which has been legalized and is live in 14 states and is being considered in many more.

Las Vegas is now a major part of the NFL's future. The Oakland Raiders, who were officially renamed the Las Vegas Raiders last Wednesday, will begin playing in their new city this season. The team announced MGM Resorts as its official gaming partner. For the first time ever, the city's tourism authority will also be running a Super Bowl ad promoting the city and run a short ad before highlight clips posted from the NFL's Twitter handle.

Using Las Vegas as the backdrop to introduce its newest players puts the city front and center.

Andrew Kline, a former offensive lineman for the St. Louis Rams who is now managing director of Park Lane, an investment bank that serves the sports industry, said the league's stance on gambling used to be clear.

"You couldn't step into a casino if you played in the NFL," Kline said. "You didn't do office football pools if you worked for the league."

Sports gambling is already a big business. In 2018, the American Gaming Association, an industry group that promotes gaming, estimated that Americans gamble more than $150 billion illegally on sports in a year. A Nielsen Sports study commissioned by the gaming association estimated that the NFL's annual revenue could increase by $2.3 billion a year thanks to legal sports betting.

Sports gambling has had a storied history in the U.S., but it had largely been illegal since the passage of a federal law in 1992 (a handful of states, including Nevada, were exempted). Efforts to overturn the law faced opposition from the NFL as well as from the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL, which sued to block overturning the ban.

But those stances had begun to soften by the mid-2010s as new gambling formats, such as daily fantasy, became popular and public sentiment shifted.

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the 1992 law in May 2018, opening the door for states to make their own rules, leagues were figuring out how to make gambling part of their businesses.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called for sports betting to be legalized but regulated, and the NBA and MLB lobbied state legislatures with plans to implement it.

The NFL wasn't going to embrace Las Vegas until it had a way to profit from gambling that didn't expose it to such risks as player scandals, said David Carter, an expert on sports business at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, where he's an associate professor.

"Hosting the draft in Las Vegas, and doing so in such a high-profile manner, suggests that any concern the league has historically had about gambling has now been far outpaced by the ability to profit from it," he said.

The legal changes also put Las Vegas and its casinos back in play for the leagues. The year the ban was lifted, the NHL, the NBA and MLB all named MGM Resorts as their official sports betting partner. Last year, the NFL announced Caesars Entertainment Corp. as its first official casino sponsor, but the deal excluded sports betting.

The city itself had also been largely untapped. Las Vegas is bigger in population than many cities with multiple professional sports teams, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Miami, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The NHL made the first big move in 2017, creating an expansion team, the Golden Knights, which became the first major professional sports team in Las Vegas.

That helped pave the way for the NFL, which is known as a "fast follower," according to Carter.

In 2015, the Raiders began looking for a new home after Oakland, California, their longtime host city, refused to provide additional public funding for a new stadium. Nevada appealed to the team with the promise of millions of dollars of taxpayer money from Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, to cover part of the cost of a stadium.

"The NFL has really evolved on gambling. The $750 million in stadium funding from the city probably helped," said Schwartz, the UNLV professor.

The expensive new stadium could also help Las Vegas land the ultimate NFL event: the Super Bowl. The 2020 Super Bowl is scheduled for Sunday in Miami; the next four have already been awarded through 2024.

But the NFL has historically wasted little time awarding the game to cities with new stadiums. Two years after the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium was finished, it hosted the 2011 Super Bow. The new home of the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, SoFi Stadium, is set to open in time for this season, and it is scheduled to host the 2022 Super Bowl.

Gambling on a Las Vegas Super Bowl in the near future might not be the worst bet.