Every so often, nature brings together two prospective partners who truly deserve each other. Such a match made in heaven is the alliance of Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the National Football League.
No deal has yet been done, but Adelson reportedly met last week with Mark Davis, owner of the NFL Oakland Raiders, who are hankering to leave their hometown. Adelson's gaming and resort company, Las Vegas Sands, is leading an investment group proposing to build a $1.2-billion domed stadium for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, within a block or two of the Las Vegas Strip. The venue, obviously, would also accommodate a pro team.
Here's the part that makes this a quintessential NFL money grab: According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, two-thirds of the financing would come from the public.
We've written before about the NFL's propensity for conning public entities into putting up the cash to build the palaces in which its billionaire-owned franchises play. The Las Vegas stadium sounds like an especially forthright version of this arrangement. Of the total cost for the 65,000-seat stadium, some $780 million would be provided by taxes, including levies on rental cars, taxi rides and hotel rooms.
One might argue that since these taxes largely fall on tourists, not local residents, this is merely another iteration of that traditional Las Vegas game, soaking the marks. Yet if the state Legislature really believes that another $780 million could be squeezed out of taxing capacity, the question becomes why should it be handed over to Adelson's consortium instead of, say, local schools? (Nevada consistently ranks near the bottom of all states in education spending per student.) Or, for that matter, spent to upgrade UNLV's academic facilities instead of its playing field?
But no. The stadium plan is being pitched as an economic boon, on the argument that Vegas lacks enough tourism draws. "We see a lot more opportunities — conference championships, bowl games, NFL exhibition football, boxing, soccer, neutral site games and music festivals," Sands executive Andy Abboud told the Review-Journal. "There is an entire segment out there."
Then there's the matter of Adelson himself. Although it hasn't been said that he would end up with an ownership state in the Raiders, no one would claim that he doesn't fit the mold of the typical NFL billionaire.
Adelson is one of the most important financial contributors to Republican political candidates, backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and subsequently Mitt Romney in their 2012 presidential campaigns.
Adelson rivals the Koch brothers for known financial contributions to candidates, pouring an estimated $100 million into the 2012 presidential campaign. Top Republican presidential candidates are courting his support for 2016. He's a prominent figure in conservative politics in Israel, where his investments include Israel Today, a free newspaper that is regarded as an unapologetic supporter of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Adelson's most notable recent exploit in Las Vegas was his family's purchase late last year of Nevada's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, for a price considered wildly in excess of its market value. The family's role as the buyer was originally concealed from the public and the newspaper's editorial staff -- until the paper's own reporters unearthed it.
The new ownership has led to concern about whether the newspaper can report independently on a proprietor whose business interests thoroughly permeate the community and the state. Although the newspaper management initially took steps to assure readers that Adelson's role would be fully disclosed in any articles that touched on his financial interests, that pledge appears to have narrowed in recent weeks. Here's a big surprise: An editorial in the newspaper Jan. 30 called the stadium a "must-do" project.
The most intriguing aspect of the stadium proposal involves the relationship between pro sports and Las Vegas. The NFL and other major sports leagues traditionally have been leery of situating a franchise in Vegas, the only jurisdiction in the country that has legalized sports betting.
That ice is beginning to melt, however. The National Hockey League has been actively considering placing an expansion team in Las Vegas. The National Basketball Assn. also has toyed with the idea, and even staged its 2007 All-Star game in town, at UNLV's basketball arena. The leagues have indirectly softened their stand against gambling, too: the NFL actively promotes fantasy league play, which some regulators -- New York State Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman prominent among them -- consider gambling by another name.
Finally, there's the question of what Las Vegas expects to gain from an NFL franchise. Neil deMause, an authoritative critic of what he calls "stadium swindles," questions assertions from Las Vegas Sands that "Las Vegas — Las Vegas — is missing out of tourists because it doesn’t have a 65,000-seat football stadium." Indeed, numerous surveys have shown that football stadiums typically don't pay their own way, even in communities without alternative sports and entertainment options.
It's unlikely, if not impossible, for a city that already ranks as one of the leading tourist destinations in the United States to add a pro sports franchise to the mix without simply cannibalizing its other offerings. It's more likely that a Vegas stadium would enrich the owners of the venue and the franchise.
Among other things, the threat to transfer the Raiders to Las Vegas would give Davis more leverage with Oakland and the league itself in his quest for a better hometown deal. The NFL shot down the Raiders' proposal to relocate to Los Angeles last month, so the team is still looking for an alternative to its current home. What better option than to move into a new stadium for which the public puts up most of the cash?