Nevada bans casino gambling. … UNLV wins college football’s national championship. … Elvis, Sinatra and Liberace return from the dead, announce joint Las Vegas residency.
Not long ago, I would have been less shocked by any of these headlines than the one that made worldwide news Monday: NFL owners approve Raiders’ move to Las Vegas.
Maybe—maybe—I could have envisioned such a headline one day appearing atop a parody story on the Onion or Funny or Die. The fact that it’s not a joke? Well, let’s just say I would have bet my life savings (and yours!) against Las Vegas ever landing an NFL franchise. What’s more, I would have made that bet as recently as two months ago.
From the very first rumbling that the Raiders were flirting with Las Vegas, my opinion never wavered, even as the story gained rapid and fierce momentum. See, I moved here right before Week 2 of the 1994 NFL season, and in the 22-plus years since, I’ve worked as both a sports journalist and in the sports-betting industry. Which means I’ve been keenly aware of the National Football League’s long-held (and wildly hypocritical) anti-Vegas stance.
Oh, sure, behind the locked doors of a Park Avenue corner office, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, hit their knees daily to give thanks for the existence of sports gambling. Because without it, they knew their league would be about as appealing as water polo. There was just was no way Goodell, Tagliabue or any of the league’s 32 uber-rich owners would ever admit as much publicly.
Even as casino gambling leaked beyond Nevada’s borders in the latter part of the 20th century—and even as many of those uber-rich owners crawled under the sheets with casino companies—the rhetoric remained the same: Nevada is and always will be the devil.
Just go back to January 2003, when the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority wanted to buy an ad to run during the Super Bowl XXXVII broadcast. The NFL’s response: Thanks, but no thanks.
Then again, that was a measly $2.2 million the NFL rejected. When Nevada lawmakers multiplied that figure by 340, which they did by approving an unprecedented $750 million in public financing for a new $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium to entice the Raiders—well, that got the League’s attention. Add to that an estimated $350 million relocation fee Raiders owner Mark Davis must shell out—a fee Davis’ 31 colleagues get to divvy up—and suddenly Nevada’s pitchfork, horned ears and tail disappeared like a bad Penn & Teller bit.
So, against all conceivable odds, Las Vegas will soon be an NFL city. Throw in the Vegas Golden Knights, who will make their NHL debut in the fall, and we’re on the verge of being one of 19 U.S. municipalities that’s home to both an NFL and NHL franchise.
The enormity of that cannot be understated, for it makes official what was once a pipe dream: Las Vegas is now a big-league city. And now the real work begins—to prove we deserve it.
That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of the tax hike that will foot the stadium bill. Nor does it matter if you’re a hockey fan, a (gulp!) Raiders fan or a sports fan of any kind. Like it or not, major-league sports franchises give cities a major-league identity, and now we’ve got one.
Say goodbye to the “dusty desert outpost” references and “You actually live in Las Vegas?” questions. We’re big time. But to remain big time and prove the doubters—and there are many—wrong, it’s crucial that we throw our full support behind the Golden Knights and Raiders and whatever pro teams might follow.
As the cliché goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and while it’s taken more than 110 years to get that chance, it’s now before us. We can’t afford to blow it.