Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!

A battle royal erupted in Las Vegas this year. Torpedoes have been launched from all sides and the ship of football seems to be in grave danger. It is a battle for Las Vegas’ soul.  At issue is the funding mechanism for a proposed stadium to house a professional football team.  Las Vegas has long coveted a professional sports team.  But whether the sport being discussed was baseball, basketball or football, the leagues vetoed the idea.  Las Vegas was said to be tainted and compromised by its legal gaming industry.  Finally it seems there might be a possibility of a football team relocating to Las Vegas.  But if the powers that be judge the city fit to host a football team who is to pay for the stadium?   A heated debate over stadium funding is not unique to Las Vegas.  It is a common issue in professional football; eventually all stadiums need to be replaced and they are very expensive – a billion dollars or more for a modern playing venue.  Some teams find support at home and others move to a city willing to build the stadium.  Regardless of whether a team moves away or stays home, financing is difficult. Every city faces the same issue of using public or private financing.

The battle in Las Vegas started in January when Sheldon Adelson met with Mark Davis.  Adelson is the major stockholder of the Las Vegas Sands and a very prominent citizen.  Noted for his large donations to the Republican Party, Adelson’s casinos have had enormous success with conventions.  In that spirit he thought Las Vegas would be well-served with a professional football team; after all, 30,000 or 40,000 people attending an athletic contest is a convention of sorts. Mark Davis owns the Oakland Raider football team that he inherited from his father, the legendary and controversial Al Davis.  The Raiders are habitually dissatisfied with their host cities. Now the Raiders are unhappy with Oakland and the current stadium, so the team is looking for a new home, the fourth in as many decades.  Davis wants a new stadium for his team and Adelson wants a team for his city and visitors to his casinos.

Adelson said he was willing to put up some money, Davis said he was willing to put up some as well, but they were short a few hundred million dollars.  Adelson thought it would be a good idea to use Las Vegas room taxes to make up the shortfall.  If you are unfamiliar with Adelson or Davis, you might think it sounded like a good deal for everyone; Davis and the Raiders get a brand-new place for the team to play, Adelson gets more potential customers and Las Vegas gets more visitors paying more room taxes.  Who could object to that?

Well, lots of people.  Almost immediately the proposed stadium drew a great deal of criticism.   The most unpopular part of the deal was the use of room taxes which the critics felt should not be spent to make Sheldon Adelson richer. He is already the twenty-second richest person on the planet according to Forbes with an estimated $25.2 billion; not many people think the 83-year old needs more money.   His wealth is only one of the reasons Adelson is not very popular in some circles.  He has been in the public eye since he began giving hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Republicans; he has given far too much for the average person to trust him.   And then last year he purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal and tried to keep the transaction a secret.

Adelson’s less than forthcoming attitude led to some award winning journalism by members of the Review-Journal staff.  The journalists exposed Adelson’s purchase. They all left the paper, but their work triggered a reaction from reporters across the country; universally the other journalists felt that freedom of the press was under threat from Adelson and his “puppet” editor.  No one was quite sure why he bought the newspaper.  But the price he paid was so high, everyone was sure he was up to no good.   There was speculation he wanted to use the media to impact litigation in which he was involved, others thought he wanted to use the Review-Journal to help elect Republicans – including a president. But when the news of negotiations with the Raiders became public, people thought he wanted the newspaper to convince Nevada politicians to support his stadium plan. At that point, Adelson was clearly not a man to be trusted.  However, the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval thought moving the Raiders to Las Vegas was a good idea and so did many of the state’s lawmakers.

The state legislature needed to approve the measure which included a $1.4 billion expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.  Both the stadium and the convention center would use an added room tax as a source of funding.  During the hearings the leaders of the gaming industry in Las Vegas went to Carson City to testify in favor the proposal.   In their minds the stadium and the convention center were appropriate uses of the room tax, which by law must be used to promote tourism to Las Vegas.  Up to this point, I was on the side of the casino owners in Las Vegas. I thought the stadium was a good idea and it would help drive incremental visits to Vegas and I thought Adelson was being demonized as much because of his profession as the way he spent his money.

After all of the debate and acrimony, Adelson won. The legislature gave its stamp of approval and the governor signed the bill.  But then suddenly, Adelson changed directions.  He announced that the Raiders were demanding too much and unless they changed their ways, he was going to walk away from the negotiations.  Where does that leave the stadium?  Is he going to pull his funding?  Without money from both Davis and Adelson there is no new stadium.  Adelson was so dismissive it made me wonder if he had been playing a game all along.   Within a couple days a spokesman for the Sands denied Adelson was ready to walk away.  He said it was just negotiating that is always done in high-rolling deal making.  Really?

I don’t know what game Adelson is playing.  However, I do know one thing.  Las Vegas needs ever-renewed super attractions to continually draw more people every year.  I also know that without all of the pieces the stadium will not happen and Las Vegas will remain the city that takes the bets but cannot be trusted to host the game.  The lack of a major league professional franchise taints the city’s image.  Las Vegas needs a professional team and using the room tax is an appropriate use.  I hope Adelson can take time off from trying to control the outcome of the election and get the Raiders deal done.


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