The odds were against Las Vegas from the start — the round-the-clock gambling, its Sin City reputation and a population deemed too small to adequately support a pro football team. For decades, the NFL steered clear of putting a franchise there.
But all that changed Monday.
The NFL, in a resounding 31-1 vote, overcame all its objections and gave the Oakland Raiders approval to move to Las Vegas and build a $1.9-billion domed stadium. This marks the NFL’s third relocation in the last 14 months, coming on the heels of the Rams and the Chargers moving to Los Angeles, and is seen as an extraordinary development for a league that has championed the stability of its franchises.
Despite the last-ditch efforts of Oakland politicians to keep the team, the Raiders and the NFL argued there were no viable stadium options in that city, and that the club had to move for its financial well-being.
“We needed to provide certainty and stability for the Raiders as well as the league,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said after the vote.
Over the last year, the NFL had been studying the Las Vegas market, along with the Raiders’ evolving stadium plan, and ultimately warmed to the idea. A major factor was the $750 million that the Nevada Legislature committed to the project in October.
The league’s long-standing discomfort with being formally associated with gambling had evaporated in recent years with the ubiquity of online gambling, and the NFL’s infatuation with London, where sports gaming is a massive industry.
“I think the owners’ and the league’s attitude toward the [Las Vegas] market has changed over time and their willingness to accept it for what it is, a great entertainment city,” said Joe Ellis, president and chief executive of the Denver Broncos. “Yes, it has gambling, but there is less of an emphasis than there used to be on that. I think there is more acceptance perhaps of the city overall.”
Vegas may be a mid-size market now, said Eric Grubman, an NFL executive vice president whose focus is stadiums and markets. But it is “one that is exhibiting significantly above-average growth.”
The Raiders will not be moving right away. In an awkward arrangement akin to a divorced couple living under the same roof, the team will remain in its current home for two and possibly three seasons and still go by the Oakland Raiders. Las Vegas does not have a stadium that can play host to NFL games.
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘lame duck,’” said Raiders owner Mark Davis, whose plan calls for the stadium to be finished in time for the 2020 season. “We’re still the Oakland Raiders, and we represent the Raider Nation. … There’s going to be some disappointed fans and angry fans, and it’s going to be up to me to talk to them and let them know why, how and what has happened.”
If fans stay away in Oakland, could it be financially crippling to the Raiders?
Unable to find a stadium solution after 22 years in Oakland, the late Al Davis in 1982 relocated the Raiders to Los Angeles. In 1995, arguing the NFL had sabotaged his plans to build a stadium at Hollywood Park, Davis moved the Raiders back to Oakland. In a twist of synchronicity, after another 22 years in the East Bay, his son won approval to move them again.
“My father used to say the greatness of the Raiders is in its future,” the younger Davis said. “And the opportunity to build a world-class stadium in the entertainment capital of the world is one opportunity that will give us the ability to achieve that greatness.”
The Raiders would have had the option to join the Rams in Los Angeles had the Chargers not done so. The team still has a large following in Southern California, and fans routinely fly up to games in Oakland. Now, many of them will simply re-route to Las Vegas.
The Raiders appeared to suffer a devastating setback in early February when casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and investment banking giant Goldman Sachs backed away from the project in Vegas and said they would no longer be involved. But earlier this month, the Raiders revealed that Bank of America had stepped in to shoulder the financing burden.
Under the reworked financing plan, the $750 million generated by an increase in the hotel tax levied by Clark County would be augmented by about $500 million total from the Raiders and the league. Bank of America would provide a construction loan for the rest. According to the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, the estimated cost for the entire project is $1.9 billion, including a $100-million practice facility and $100 million for contingency expenses.
In a letter to the league last week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf shared detailed renderings of a $1.3-billion football stadium on the Coliseum site. The plan would have involved a $600-million contribution by Fortress Management Group, a New York hedge fund.
Before the vote, Schaaf made a final and unsuccessful entreaty with letters that were hand-delivered to owners.
“I am proud that we stood firm in refusing to use public money to subsidize stadium construction…,” Schaaf said in the aftermath. “As a lifelong Oaklander, my heart aches today for the Raider Nation. These are the most committed and passionate fans any city or team could hope to have. They deserved better.”
These types of NFL votes would typically take place on the second or third days of the annual league meetings. That this gathering opened with a vote on the Raiders, and that the relocation was approved in short order, is an indication of the league’s enthusiasm about the project. (Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was the only no vote.)
That zeal was in stark contrast with the disappointment of a cluster of Oakland fans who waited in the lobby of the posh Arizona Biltmore, where the owners were meeting, and absorbed the news of the impending move. Among them was Ray Perez, nicknamed Dr. Death, who for years has worn silver and black face paint, a jersey and shoulder pads, striped prison pants and a hard hat adorned with a mohawk of fake knives.
Perez was unrecognizable Monday in a dark business suit and his hair cropped close. He said he is getting rid of all his Raiders gear and will no longer attend games, either in Oakland or Las Vegas.
“Am I hurt that my team is gone? I am, but that’s Las Vegas’ problem now,” Perez said. “That dysfunction, that ineptitude? That problem is no longer mine. Las Vegas, have fun with that.”