How Las Vegas overcame the NFL’s fears to win the Raiders
Oscar Goodman is one of this city’s best-known civic boosters, a lawyer who made his career defending homegrown mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Nicky Scarfo, a mayor who for more than a decade was the consummate pitchman for all things Vegas.
Goodman traveled the world — sometimes flanked by showgirls — and reveled in promoting Sin City as a place where virtue is a vice. Let other cities brag about world-class theater and great art museums: Vegas had gambling, bright lights and a 24-hour party.
Deep down, however, Goodman believed something was missing.
No more, baby.
NFL owners voted Monday to let Mark Davis move his Oakland Raiders franchise to Las Vegas. The 31-1 vote felt like an exclamation point to Goodman — capping a decades-long effort to move the city beyond its somewhat disreputable past and win legitimacy as a professional sports town.
The move comes just as the city’s first National Hockey League team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, is set for its debut season in the fall.
“We grew up,” Goodman said. “We matured overnight.”
For years, the four major professional sports leagues steered clear of Las Vegas despite its almost unparalleled ability to promote and sell virtually anything. The leagues feared their images might be tainted by widespread gambling, and they’d see participants enticed by the lure of big gambling payouts.
Now Las Vegas is getting not just one but two major sports teams — unthinkable just a few years ago, but perhaps not so unremarkable given that much of the country has slowly robbed Las Vegas of its uniqueness as the epicenter of gambling in America.
Decades of organized crime helped fuel a fascination with the city as a surreal outpost of glitz, danger and decadence. It was an image it struggled to shake — and, to be fair, sometimes embraced — amid Hollywood films and television shows that amplified its colorful history.
But while the city was able to capitalize on its lawless image, drawing tourists by the millions, it found itself unable to find traditional anchor brands seen in other U.S. cities.
The four major professional leagues wouldn’t even consider Las Vegas as a landing spot.
Vegas-style sports were one-time, splashy affairs like Muhammad Ali beating Floyd Patterson for a boxing title, an NBA All-Star Game or bizarre feats like Evel Knievel’s Caesars Palace fountain jump. Las Vegas sports teams appeared and quickly washed out, as seen in the brief stints of the Locomotives in the United Football League and the Outlaws from the XFL. Both leagues folded.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city’s premier sports team was the UNLV Running Rebels basketball team under Jerry Tarkanian.
Danny Tarkanian, who played for his late father when Thomas and Mack Center was built in 1983, said recently that the enthusiastic support the city showed for its hometown college team was a key turning point — proof that Las Vegas had a fan base.
Goodman — and later his wife, Carolyn Goodman, who is the city’s current mayor — itched to get a pro team to take a gamble on the city. He recalled meeting with NBA Commissioner David Stern as late as 2000, when he broached the subject.
“It was like talking to an iceberg,” Goodman said. “He said over his dead body would there ever be an NBA franchise in Las Vegas as long as he was the commissioner, that he would fight it vigorously and that he didn’t want anything to do with a place that had bets on sporting events. He was intransigent.”
Many of the fears were holdovers from the days of the mob — worries of fixed games, fights and point-shaving scandals. But the issue reared up as recently as 2007 when an NBA referee pleaded guilty to providing inside information to gamblers on games with which he was involved. Major League Baseball banned Pete Rose from the league because of his gambling problems, including betting on games while he was a manager.
Las Vegas still needed to prove itself.
Steve Sisolak, a Clark County commissioner who has lived in Las Vegas for 40 years and worked on bringing the Raiders to the city, said one of the key moments on the path to landing a professional team happened in 2001.
Gov. Brian Sandoval — who in 2001 was chairman of Nevada’s powerful Gaming Commission — presided over a measure to end the ban on bets on UNLV games. Sisolak said it demonstrated the state’s confidence that no game would be tampered with, and the ensuing years have reinforced the point.
“It was a wise move to do that,” Sisolak said.
The NFL had remained skittish toward Las Vegas and shied away from any ties to it — even going as far as to reject a Super Bowl ad for the city in 2003. As late as last year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he continued to oppose gambling on sports and fretted about the proliferation of money put on fantasy teams.
David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said the rest of the world had caught up with Las Vegas, and gambling was no longer unique to Nevada. Boisterous nightlife is accessible to athletes in many major cities with professional teams.
“Gambling is widespread and the stigma is gone,” Carter said. “Getting arrested outside of a nightclub on the Sunset Strip or the Vegas Strip — the immediacy of the media has equalized it. Las Vegas is no longer a scarlet letter at this point.”
It took the NHL, however, to finally break the city’s losing streak of being one of America’s most high-profile places without a pro sports team.
Last year, the Golden Knights expansion team announced it would kick of its inaugural season this year at the new T-Mobile Center on the Strip. Deposits were put on its entire stock of 16,000 season tickets.
Bill Foley, the Golden Knights president and chief executive, said in a statement Monday after the Raiders announcement that the city was joining an elite group of locations with both an NFL and NHL team.
“This alone should be a great source of pride for our community and our fans,” Foley said. “Las Vegas has always been one of the most popular destination cities in the world and it is now emerging as a premier location for major league professional sports.”
Throughout the day, as news spread of the Raiders’ impending arrival — probably in 2020 when a new stadium is built at a yet-to-be-determined location — people tried to make sense of its historical significance.
On ESPN Las Vegas radio, Mitch Moss and his co-host Mike Pritchard of the “Mitch and Stitch” show debated whether Monday’s NFL owners’ vote was on par with the dedication of Hoover Dam.
An NFL team brings a whole new economy to the city and spurs economic growth, they argued. One caller suggested the Raiders gave the city a soul.
At Legends Sports Bar and Grill — home of the Las Vegas Raiders Boosters — some fans gathered as early as 4 a.m. to await the results of the owners’ vote.
They wore their Raiders jerseys, waved Las Vegas Raiders flags and cheered for local television cameras when asked how they felt about the arrival of the team in a few years. One man cradled a baby as the news came down.
“Where’s the nearest tattoo shop?” a voice yelled out from among the two dozen gathered in the bar.
John Baietti, who has lived in Las Vegas for more than two decades, said he never lost faith in the process — even when billionaire Sheldon Adelson backed out of the deal after spearheading it — and figured it was finally time for the city to get an NFL team.
Dressed in a fleece Raiders jacket, he leaned on a pool table while televisions showed a news conference with team owner Mark Davis. Baietti had predicted a landslide vote by the owners and said the news “felt like Christmas times a thousand.”
Jose Archuleta, a 59-year-old retired police officer, said he was going to try and get season tickets as soon as they were available. As he held a beer and the lights from the television cameras flashed on, the crowd in the bar began to cheer again. He hoisted his drink in the air.
“We’re on the map now,” he said.
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