Given the NFL’s longstanding position against legalized sports betting, the idea of a franchise in Las Vegas would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Or 25 years ago. Or even five years ago.
But with Las Vegas transforming its image from Sin City to a more family-friendly entertainment mecca that stresses G-rated fun as much as gambling, the city no longer is viewed as taboo. And with the recent approval of a whopping $750 million in public funding for a new stadium and a $650-million loan to Raiders owner Mark Davis, the support for allowing the Raiders to relocate from cash-strapped Oakland was nearly unanimous.
League owners voted 31-1 to approve the move, further proof that cash remains king in the NFL. It happened even amid some lingering concerns about a franchise that will play its games just a few football fields away from the Las Vegas Strip and its gaggle of casinos, many of which offer legalized sports betting.
“The existing size of Las Vegas, the diversification and the growth that it has undergone over the last 20 years combine to make it a midsize market today, but one that is exhibiting significantly above-average growth,” said NFL executive Eric Grubman, who has spearheaded many recent league initiatives, including the relocations of the Raiders, Rams and Chargers during the last 14 months. “Those things in combination, its current size with its above-average growth, combined to give the rest of the ownership confidence.”
But the NFL’s decades-old concerns about gambling aren’t completely gone. NFL stars Paul Hornung of the Packers and Alex Karras of the Lions were suspended by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle for the entire 1963 season when it was determined that they bet on NFL games. Rozelle also suspended quarterback Art Schlichter in 1983 and said he would not be reinstated “until the league can be solidly assured that the serious violations of cardinal NFL rules he has committed will not be repeated.”
Current commissioner Roger Goodell remains firmly against legalized sports betting, and he cited the integrity of the sport when he addressed the Raiders’ move.
“I would probably tell you that I think society has probably had a little bit of a change with respect to gambling in general,” Goodell said at the conclusion of the league’s spring meeting at the Arizona Biltmore hotel. “I think we still strongly oppose it in that room [of owners], and otherwise, legalized sports gambling. The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that.”
What Goodell doesn’t want to see is a situation in which players are unduly influenced by gambling interests. Having a team practice and play in a city with legalized sports betting certainly adds an element of concern, but Goodell believes the NFL can manage the situation accordingly. He also suggested that the NFL won’t petition legalized sports betting books to exempt Raiders games.
Let’s not be naive, though. Despite its public stance against gambling, the NFL benefits tremendously from sports betting. From sports books in Las Vegas casinos and other states where sports betting is allowed, to the local office pool, gambling sparks tremendous interest in the game, greatly enhances football’s popularity and enhances the league’s bottom line. So while Goodell pays the requisite lip service to voice his disapproval of sports betting and make sure NFL players don’t bet on sports, don’t think for a minute that he and the owners don’t profit handsomely from the gambling.
The commissioner prefers to focus more on the fact that the Las Vegas market offers the potential for steady growth, although it remains to be seen if the city can support the Raiders over the long term.
“I believe that Las Vegas is not the same city it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s a much more diverse city. It has become an entertainment mecca. It’s the fastest-growing city in the country. So I think when you look at it today versus what it was a decade or two ago, I think it’s a much different city. And they made a very compelling proposal, which the owners obviously approved overwhelmingly.”
That proposal was music to the owners’ ears, and Davis felt he had no choice but to take the offer, even though he had mixed feelings about abandoning the city his father, former Raiders managing partner Al Davis, nurtured during the team’s formative years. But even the elder Davis once left Oakland, moving the team to Los Angeles from 1982-94 before returning to the Bay Area.
Mark Davis said he felt he couldn’t work out a suitable deal to keep the team in Oakland, in part because he couldn’t get sufficient assurances of what he considered proper financing and real estate arrangements for a new stadium. Translation: With little public money available and with Las Vegas willing to pony up close to a billion dollars in financing, Davis took the cash.
He accepted full responsibility for any ill feelings Raiders fans have and suggested any and all anger be directed squarely at him, not his players and coaches. Rest assured, fans will take him up on that offer, and there are sure to be emotional outbursts at home games however long the team remains in Oakland.
For the players and coaches, it’s a difficult vibe, knowing you’re performing for loyal fans who soon will be losing their team.
“My emotions are mixed,” said coach Jack Del Rio, who grew up in Hayward, California, 15 miles from Oakland. “While I’m sad for family and friends and fans in the Oakland area, I also recognize the tremendous opportunity going forward for our organization. That being said, my mission remains the same: to lead this team here and now. Players and coaches need to understand their defined roles. We all need to bring positive energy every day as we focus on things that we can control.”
Del Rio and the Raiders still will perform in front of the famed Black Hole, that cluster of end zone seats that features rowdy fans dressed in costume and face paint. But game days will be tinged with sadness, given the knowledge that the Raiders soon will be gone, likely never to return.
Like fans in St. Louis and San Diego, who also had their teams wrenched away by owners in search of better deals elsewhere, broken-hearted Raiders fans now must bear a similar burden.
The football world was shocked in 1963 when Paul Hornung, one of the game’s biggest stars, was suspended for gambling on football.
Packers halfback and kicker Hornung, who was nicknamed “Golden Boy,” and Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras were suspended by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for the entire 1963 season after an NFL investigation revealed that both had bet on NFL games.
Rozelle said the investigation showed Hornung bet as much as $500 on NFL games from 1959-61 and that Karras had made at least six bets of $50 or $100.
Five other Lions — Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker, John Gordy, Gary Lowe and Sam Williams — were fined $2,000 each by Rozelle for betting on the Packers in the 1962 championship game against the New York Giants. Green Bay won, 16-7.
Hornung and Karras were reinstated by Rozelle in March 1964. “You know what, looking back, it just [ticks] you off,” Hornung said in a 2012 interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I knew 10 other guys who bet. They didn’t get them all in my day. I wasn’t going to say anything, naturally. But I knew the guys who were betting. They’d brag about it and talk about it. Even back then, they didn’t get everybody who was guilty . . . There was nobody betting enough money to throw a game or anything like that.”
Hornung made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986. Karras played for the Lions through the 1970 season before entering the entertainment industry.