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And, It Has Only Been Thirty Years

Indian gaming is big business and getting bigger every year.  According to the annual Casino City Report by Alan Meister, the 474 tribal casinos generated $30.5 billion in gaming revenue in 2015, an increase of 5.5 percent over 2014.  By way of comparison, non-tribal casinos and VLTs produced $35.9 billion.  Since, 1990, commercial gaming has grown dramatically, but not as fast as Indian gaming in its relatively short history.  February 25th was the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of casino gaming in the United States.  In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

In the mid-1980s, following the lead of other tribes, the Cabazon tribe turned to high-stakes bingo as a revenue generator.  The state of California objected, claiming gambling was illegal in California.  The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court.  California argued that its constitution prohibited gambling and the tribe’s bingo was in violation of state law.  The court found that California did permit horse racing, poker and “casino nights” for charities.  The court determined that California did not prohibit gambling, but instead permitted and regulated it.  And therefore the court ruled the Cabazon Tribe and other Indian tribes were free to offer gambling without interference from the state.

That decision would have opened the door for unlimited Indian gaming.  But, the decision did not stand as written because Congress rushed to pass the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.  The intent of the act was to compel Indian tribes to negotiate the terms of any gambling activity with the state wherein the tribe’s reservation was located.  The subsequent agreement is called a compact and every tribe wishing to engage in a gambling enterprise must have a compact signed by the tribe and the governor of the state.  Compacts determine the types of games allowed and the rules and regulations for each game. Additionally, compacts cover whether or not the state receives any fees as mitigation for state and local services.  The states cannot tax tribes, but the agreements frequently include some type of payment and it is often a percentage of revenues.  In Connecticut for example, the tribes contribute 25 percent of their slot machine revenue to the state’s general fund.  In Florida, the Seminole tribe paid the government for exclusivity, a sum that amounted to $200 million a year until the present compact expired.

In April, WinnaVegas Casino in Iowa celebrated 25 years.   The casino in Iowa, belonging to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, illustrates the importance of gaming to tribes.  The Winnebago tribe claims to have immigrated to Kentucky in 500 B. C., two thousand five hundred years ago.  It only moved into its little corner of Nebraska and Iowa two hundred years ago.  However, like most tribes, it had lost its traditional source of sustenance.  Indian gaming offered the Winnebago tribe what it offered to most tribes, a source of funding to maintain and strengthen its culture.   Just after the Cabazon decision, the tribe started to think about the possibility of opening a casino. The tribe did what many tribes were doing; it went to visit Indian casinos in other states.  They took what they learned and returned home to open a temporary facility cobbled together from prefabricated pieces and trailers.  Today, the tribe operates a 55,000-foot casino with a hotel, restaurants and convention space.  It is not huge, but it is a success for the tribe.

Also in April, Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut celebrated its 25th anniversary.  Unlike, the Winnebago or the Seminole, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation did not have either a large enrolled tribal membership or much land.  The tribe had existed in the region for hundreds of years, but by the end of the 20th century, it was a tribe slipping slowly into extinction.  The tribal membership had dwindled to a couple of hundred, but visionary tribal leaders thought gaming might save the tribe. The Pequot Nation did as other tribes were doing; it started with bingo in 1986.  Bingo was successful and the tribe wanted to move into casino gambling, but financing was difficult to find.  No conventional financing institution was loaning money to Indian tribes for casinos.  But eventually the tribe found a Malaysian casino operator, Lim Goh Tong.  He quickly recognized the potential of the location.  The casino which opened in 1992 was an instant success and began a two decade long series of expansions.  Today, Foxwoods Casino has 9 million square feet, 4,700 slot machines and 2,266 hotel rooms.

Celebrating a 25th anniversary, both the Winnebago and Pequot tribes illustrate just how important tribe gaming has been.  In California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut and Oklahoma, Indian casinos are major factors in the local economy.  But, at the same time Indian casinos represent significant competition for commercial casinos.  For example, the decline of casinos in Reno, Lake Tahoe and Laughlin can be attributed directly to the growth of Indian gaming in neighboring states.  But the real significance lies in the contribution to tribal culture.  There are literally dozens of tribes that, like the Pequot, were on verge of disappearing.  Casino revenues have helped them revive their culture and in many cases, their language.  It has only been 30 years since the Cabazon decision, but the reverberations have been huge both within Indian country and the gaming industry.


A Pig, a Panda and a Cat Rolex in Vegas

Rolex you say? Yep, “to Rolex” is when you go to a Rolex store with a sledge hammer, break the windows, take whatever you want and go on your merry way.  It happened Saturday March 25th in Las Vegas.  The store is located in the Bellagio, so even at one in the morning there were people around to witness the robbery.  Four men dressed in suits and tuxedos, wearing animal masks and armed with sledge hammers attacked the store breaking the windows to gain entrance.  One stood outside with his weapon in full view and told people to get away.  When the four masked bandits finished, they ran to their car in the parking garage.  Unfortunately their car refused to start, so they tried to car jack a ride, but failed and fled on foot.  Only the poor pig did not escape and is being held by the Las Vegas police.  He is only twenty years old and if his buddies are as young it might explain their ineptness.

On that same day, a man riding a city bus shot two people, one of whom died later. The shooter, a fifty-five year old Las Vegan said he just wanted to frighten a passenger who had frightened him.  The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the man told police he “felt bad about what happened and reiterated that all he wanted to do was scare the large male.” On the surface, neither of these stories rises to a level of national significance, except in the 21st century all public violence has become significant.  The world has become a more dangerous place since September 11, 2001, or at least it is perceived as more dangerous.

Twenty years ago, no one outside of Las Vegas would have noted the nut with a gun on a bus in Las Vegas.  But given the context of terrorist acts around the world, anyone killing other people in public becomes national news.  Just a week before, an equally disturbed man in London drove into a crowd of people.  He killed four people and injured scores more.  There is no evidence that it was an act of terror, but the man was a Muslim and that always raises the red flag of terrorism in people’s minds.  London has had more than one of those acts of terrorism, as have Paris, Madrid and other cities in Europe.  It is one of the major narratives of the 21st century.

Because of our hyper-sensitivity to such acts, the events in Las Vegas took on a larger importance in the national press.  The world is portrayed as being more dangerous and particularly risky for tourists. In the London incident, a man from Utah in town to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary was one of those killed and people from several other countries were injured.  In Las Vegas, the man killed was a tourist from Montana.  Immediately after such incidents the press begins to speculate on the impact of these events on tourism.  Will people stop going to see Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower or the famous Strip?  There have been no published studies on the change in visitations per year following a well published act of public violence, so the best we can do is speculate.  I do not think any of the incidents will have a long-term impact, although we all feel a little more angst when we travel these days.

The fear of terrorism is not going to abate as long as there is a force for radical change in the Middle East or anywhere else.   When the violence in the Middle East stayed there, we barely noticed; but with the destruction of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York the violence was successfully exported.  That was not the first time, but it was the most significant.  It led to major changes in the way we think about terrorism, violence and travel.  But in cities like Paris, London and even Las Vegas, the number of people killed is no greater than before.  Las Vegas gets over 40 million visitors a year; in any population of that size there will be many deaths from a variety of causes, food poisoning, car accidents, stabbings, suicide and yes from shots fired by a disturbed man on a bus; and of course you might even be robbed by a man in a pig, cat or even a panda mask.  We do live in a dangerous world, but not necessarily as dangerous as the terrorist narrative would have you believe.

I am not suggesting that we should be blasé about terrorism or any violence.  The city of Las Vegas and its casinos have to take the threat very seriously and do everything that is possible to protect those 40 million people from violence.  All of the major cities in Europe and around the world have terrorism very high on their agendas, no national or local government in the West can afford to ignore the threat.  But as individuals, we do not need to be intimidated.  In 2016, 700 million Americans flew on airplanes.  Internationally during the year there were 19 crashes that killed 325 people; that was one person out of every 10.7 million that flew.  In 2015 in the United States, 35,092 people were killed in automobile accidents while people drove 3.1 billion miles.  I don’t have the numbers of deaths for Vegas, but the ratios would be comparable; 41 million people visited the town and stayed an average of 3.4 nights each.  A very small percentage of those people were injured, killed or met a masked pig with a sledge hammer.  John Choate, executive director of security for Wynn spoke to a group of hospitality executives about terrorism and security in Las Vegas.  He concluded that Las Vegas was safer than most places and people should feel “very, very safe coming to Las Vegas.” His timing may have been bad, two days after the incidents at the Bellagio and on the bus, but he is right, Las Vegas is still a very safe city to visit.


Gambling Addiction…Who Is Responsible Anyway?

Problem gambling and addicted gamblers will always be an issue for the gaming industry.  It is an issue that catches headlines and undermines the industry credibility.  It is an issue that industry insiders should put more time and money into understanding and mitigating.  In a recent case in Nebraska a 79-year woman was convicted of embezzling $1.2 million dollars from the travel agency where she was the bookkeeper.*  The woman was a well-known customer at several casinos in Iowa; records at one casino showed she had lost $1.9 million in ten years, the most she ever lost in a single year was $250,000.  That is also the most she ever embezzled from her employer in a single year.  That may be a lot of money, but it isn’t the largest amount of ill begotten funds gambled away at a casino.  A couple of years ago a company in Los Angeles sued a Las Vegas casino over millions of dollars they say were stolen from them and spent on sports betting at the casino in Vegas.  Those cases and other like them, beg the question about responsibility: Who is responsible, the gambler or the casino?

It is not an easy question to answer.  In the 1980’s, Mike Adams was the general manager at Karl’s Silver Club in Sparks, Nevada.  He was young and ambitious with a seemingly bright future in the industry.  But he opted out of casino gaming over the question of responsibility.  Mike found from personal experience that he could not answer the question.  After his father died, Mike’s mother was lonely.  She started to go to the Silver Club every day. At first it was just to get out of house, have lunch with her son, and be around people.  But as time went on, she found she really liked playing the slot machines.  The machines and the employees became her entire world.  Sadly, before Mike discovered the problem, his mother had lost all of her savings and her home.

Mike was faced with a dilemma.  He could not blame the casino nor could he blame his lonely mother.  Who was responsible? For Mike it was a problem without a solution.  He decided on a new career, one without that kind of moral conflict and became a real estate salesman.  It was the only course of action Mike could see, but for most people in the industry that is not an option.  However, at one time or other, nearly every person involved in casino operations, and I include myself in that group, has struggled with this issue.  We have all had at least one customer who ended up in serious financial difficulties due to gambling.   Like Mike’s mother, it follows a typical pattern. At first, everything is rosy; the customer has a good time and makes new friends at the casino.  As times passes, they come more often and spend more money.  In retrospect, the managers and employees might have recognized the signs, but failed to do so.  Possibly if they had been better trained or less focused on growing the business it might have turned out differently for that customer.  It is very difficult to develop broad policies as each case is unique.

On the other side of the responsibility question, the customer too might have seen the signs and asked for help.  After all, each of us is responsible for his/her life.  If a person drinks and drives, the person, not the drink is judged in a court of law.  A person who spends more than he/she earns is held responsible by the bankruptcy court.  Gambling is not different from those examples.  The issue can and has been debated over and over and there is no simple answer.  But at some point in our business, the management and employees of each casino have to accept some responsibility and look more closely at some of the customers.  It may not be comfortable to look too closely into their private lives, but if we do not we lose a customer, a friend and at times even our own credibility.  It is incumbent on each individual casino, its management and employees to conduct the business of casino gambling responsibly.  And that means paying more attention to the people whose behavior might put them at risk and being prepared to take action. That is easier to say than do, but for the long-term health of the industry it is necessary.  And it is the responsible thing to do.

*An elderly woman pleaded no contest this week to four felony charges stemming from allegations that she stole more than $1.2 million from an Omaha travel agency — and blew it at the casinos…as bookkeeper at Travel Faire Inc., repeatedly wrote checks for cash and hid her theft as expenses…Authorities then requested and received information from a couple of Council Bluffs casinos. At one — Ameristar Casino — Carbullido had gambled and lost roughly $1.9 million since 2003. The most she lost in a single year at the casino was about $246,000 in 2012. Todd Cooper, Omaha World-Herald, 3-17-17


The Battle of Boston Considered

Could Wynn Boston Harbor lose its license before it even opens? It could happen; the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled recently that a lawsuit challenging Wynn’s license could proceed.* The court sent the case back to a lower court to determine if the Massachusetts Gaming Commission had violated the state’s open meeting law.  The original suit was brought by the City of Revere, some of its citizens, a labor union and Mohegan Sun.  However, the court said only Mohegan Sun had standing in the case.  The others cannot be part of any future litigation, but will certainly remain on the sidelines cheering on Mohegan Sun.

The licensing process in Massachusetts was nothing if not thorough.  There were voter referendums and local government approvals before the gaming commission’s final hearings.  The commission weighed all of the public comments, official presentations and testimony by experts. Then, in 2014, using its wisdom and best judgment, the Boston area license was awarded to Steve Wynn.  Wynn probably thought he had won the battle for Boston at that point, but a series of lawsuits cast shadows over his victory.  If Wynn opens on schedule in 2019, it will have been eight years since the Expanded Gaming Act passed in 2011 and five years since the license was awarded.  A lawsuit over the commission’s process could extend that timeline even further.  By the time the property finally opens, Wynn will have spent millions on the process and defending lawsuits, not to mention the estimated $2.4 billion on the construction of the property.

That is a great deal of time and money to have snatched away at the last minute if the lower court finds the gaming commission violated the open meeting law.  Such a ruling might render all decisions made under those circumstances were null and void.  In that case, the commission could meet and in due course award the license to Wynn for a second time.  But given the history of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and the time involved in the litigation process, it could add years and millions of dollars to the cost of the project.  For Massachusetts to start over with a new licensee seems highly unlikely to me, possible but improbable.  It makes me wonder what the end game goal is for each of the litigants.  The city of Revere, its citizens and the union probably had hoped for a cash settlement from Wynn.

Mohegan Sun had a very different agenda in the beginning.  It hoped to stop Wynn’s project and get the license for its project.   However, three years later, with construction on Wynn going full steam, it is unlikely that Mohegan Sun believes it can reverse the decision and receive a license in Wynn’s stead.  But who am I to say and Mohegan Sun has yet to comment on its suit intent.  If Mohegan Sun does continue to pursue its case, it will be too early to predict the eventual outcome, but I think we might speculate.

The lower court will look long and hard at the gaming commission’s process; the commission and Wynn will certainly put an all out effort into proving the process was open and fair.  But even if the commission’s decision is overturned, it is probable it would re-award the license to Wynn.  There would be no question of Wynn’s commitment, financing or the scope and stature of his proposal.  Wynn has proven his case and invested literally billions of dollars in a remarkable project.  Mohegan Sun would state a beginning argument, declaring it had a good plan, could probably get the financing and with luck would open in another couple of years.  All of that in my mind would be enough to justify granting Wynn the license again.

Revisiting the license would mean at least another year before Wynn Boston Harbor could open.  However, Wynn could then claim a final victory in the Battle of Boston, maybe.  Nine years is a long time and the $2.4 billion – probably $3 billion by then – is a lot of money.   Steve and his crew have to be wondering if they might have put that time and money to better use.  The company has plenty of both, but Steve Wynn does not have an unlimited amount of time left.  So who did really win the Battle of Boston?  Not the state of Massachusetts or the gaming commission.  In the end the Boston region and Wynn Resorts will reap the benefits, but it will be a long time before they recoup the time and money lost in the fight.

*Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Friday that a lawsuit challenging Wynn Resorts’ gambling license can move forward. The Supreme Judicial Court decision sends back to a lower court a lawsuit alleging the state Gaming Commission violated the open meetings law as it deliberated the lucrative Boston-area casino license. The Supreme Judicial Court, in its ruling, suggested that such an open meetings violation could lead to the nullification of certain actions taken at the meetings in question or result in civil penalties or other legal remedies.  Associated Press, 3-10-17


Out With the Trump, In With the Hard Rock

Atlantic City got some surprising news on March 1st when it was announced that Carl Icahn found a buyer for the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal, Hard Rock International.  It was a rare ray of sunlight for a town that has become known for its doom and gloom.  Armed with the breaking news, reporters rushed around town getting reactions and they found joy and happiness on every corner.  Mayor Don Guardian badly needs something good to happen in Atlantic City if he is ever to regain any credibility after the state takeover. He found the thought of a Hard Rock casino in town very pleasing.  Guardian said, “I think we’ve reached the bottom and this is just great news.  All the pieces are coming back together one by one.” Like the mayor, other politicians greeted the news with enthusiasm.  City Councilman Gillian said, “A brand like Hard Rock is something that could pretty much be the change we were looking for and be the change Atlantic City needs.”

Among those finding pleasure in the news were members of Unite Here, the labor union that fought Icahn to the bitter end.  Icahn had wanted the union to make compromises over pay and benefits, but the union refused and went on strike.  The strike was bitter and lasted until the doors of the casino closed.  One union member expressed what other former employees felt, “Can’t put into 140 characters how happy news of the sale of the Trump Taj Mahal casino makes me.” Bob McDevitt the head of the union was more reserved, but like everyone else he assumes the former employees will be the first hired when Hard Rock opens in 2018.  “We look forward to working with the new owners to create good quality jobs and bring business back to the property,” McDevitt said.

Developers Bart Blatstein and Glenn Straub were equally excited; they believe a vibrant and successful Hard Rock will help their projects as well.  Blatstein called Hard Rock’s purchase of the Taj Mahal “the best possible outcome for Atlantic City.”  While Straub, the owner of the closed Revel, said, Anybody that is going to generate business is going to be a good thing. I know the Hard Rock, and they will attract people to the area.”  The newspaper reporters did not interview anyone who was not pleased.  But I would venture to say the happiest of them all is probably the seller, Carl Icahn. He simply said his company had concluded that one casino in Atlantic City was enough.

Carl Icahn is a consummate investment poker player.  He may bluff and bluster sometimes, but he is patient as he can afford to be. Icahn is listed 26th on Forbes list of wealthy people with an estimated wealth of $16.6 billion.  Buying in at bargain basement prices and selling out at a premium is a game he has played over and over since the 1980’s when he made his reputation in a TWA takeover. “I like to wait and buy things when nobody wants them — that’s when you get the best values,” says Icahn.  He has played in many industries and is no stranger to gaming investment, both in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.  In 2008 he sold several Las Vegas casinos that he had purchased a few years earlier for a billion dollar profit. And in 2010, he bought the stalled Fontainebleau for $150 million; the unfinished shell of a once $2.9 billion project was listed in 2016 for sale at $650 million.

In 2010, Icahn bought the Tropicana in Atlantic City for $200 million.  By all accounts he is pleased with the purchase and is getting an acceptable return on his money.  But the Trump Taj Mahal has been a horse of a different color.  Icahn purchased the debt on the property and then in 2016 took full ownership after the casino exited bankruptcy.  By the end of the year he had closed it, citing a $350 million loss and continued labor problems.  He said at the time the union pushed the property over the edge and made it impossible to continue.  But closing the property did not end Icahn’s problems with the property or the union.  His fights with labor earned him some serious enemies in Trenton.  They were mad enough to pass a law to keep him from opening the property again or selling it as a casino.  However, Governor Christie vetoed the bill and the lawmakers fell short in their efforts to overturn the veto.  Icahn dodged the bullet and that cleared the way for him to sell the property.  Interestingly, no price was announced and that is uncharacteristic; his deals are usually very public.  All we have is the Hard Rock statement that by the time it has completely remodeled the property and transformed the 1990 casino into a 21st century Hard Rock, it will have spent $300 million.

Regardless of the price, Icahn must be relieved. He can now move on to other things.  And certainly the good people of Atlantic City are relieved; they now have over a year to speculate on all of the good things that are going to happen when the Hard Rock opens.  The only group of people likely to be ambivalent about the sale are the other casino owners.  Things have improved a great deal for them in the last few months since the Taj closed and another casino in the mix is probably the last thing they want.  But they also have over a year to take advantage of a market with only seven casinos.  In any case, it is the end of an era as the Trump sign comes down making way for the Hard Rock guitar.

God Bless Them One and All

The second week of February had miserable weather in some parts of the country.  Snow storms, blizzards and swollen rivers reaching flood level made headlines from New York to California.  But three articles in particular caught my attention. One was from *Connecticut, another **New York, and the third ***Rhode Island.   In each case, the narrative dealt with extreme weather impacting a casino.  It is uncommon to see one story on the subject, much less three, but the event itself is common for casinos in areas with severe winter weather.  The articles dealt with the challenges.  In Connecticut regular bus tours were cancelled, in New York the newly opened casino had greatly reduced customer traffic and in Rhode Island a couple braved the elements to get to a casino; it was an important place for them to go in the midst of the stress of a blizzard.    To a casino, especially a small casino, those people are the best of customers.  In time they become cherished friends because life without them can be nearly impossible.

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine purchased a small casino in Cripple Creek, Colorado.  Cripple Creek is one of three historic communities in Colorado where casino gaming is legal.  The other two, Central City and Black Hawk are near Denver.  It is just an easy thirty or forty minute drive for the three million people who live in the metro area.  Black Hawk is 8500 feet above sea level and it snows there in the winter, but the road from Denver is a modern four lane highway and the trip is not difficult most of the time.  The casino business slows in the winter, especially during a storm.  But some of those three million people continue to go to Black Hawk regardless of the conditions.

Cripple Creek, on the other hand, is at nearly 10,000 feet and an hour or more from Colorado Springs.  The road between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek is a normal highway for half of the distance, but then it turns into a narrow, winding mountain road.  It is a marvelous drive in the fall when the quaking aspens are turning yellow and very pleasant in the summer; but when there is a snow storm, it becomes treacherous.  And Colorado Springs provides a much small customer pool than Denver; each individual customer is more important in Cripple Creek than in Black Hawk, particularly in the dark days of winter.  Going to Cripple Creek in bad weather is a courageous act that only the hardy and dedicated undertake. Any customer who is willing to make the journey in a storm is special.  My friend had one of those customers named Ted.  For years Ted barely missed a day.  He owned a business in Colorado Springs that was open from 8 in the morning until 9 at night.  When he closed up shop, he got in his truck and drove to Cripple Creek.  His patronage was one of the most important factors in the casino’s survival that first winter.  So when I saw those stories from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York, I thought of Ted.  I know over the years my friend and his staff thanked Ted many times for choosing their casino as his favorite.  But these recent articles made me want to thank Ted and all of the loyal customers like him who make it possible for small casino owners to keep their doors open.

*Forecasts of the storm had prompted the early cancellation of scheduled bus runs to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Brian Hallenbeck/Judy Benson, New London Day, 2-10-17

**Whether it was the snow, the work day or a lack of buzz, Wednesday’s mayhem at Rivers Casino & Resort gave way to lighter crowds on Thursday…Weather may have affected attendance to a degree, as a winter storm dumped up to a foot of snow across the Capital Region. Brett Samuels, Schenectady Daily Gazette, 2-10-17

***The biggest gamble in play at Twin River Casino Thursday afternoon was whose car would get stuck in the parking lot on the way out.  Debbie and Mark David of Cumberland were trying to find where the road, as they plowed their way toward the casino… Mark’s Central Falls factory closed at noon because of the storm. “Let’s go do something,” he said, when he got home. Debbie called the casino to see if it was open. Yes, indeed, came the response. Tom Mooney, Providence Journal, 2-10-17

Oh Come On Roger, Let it Go!

Roger Goodell insulted all of us who work in or are associated with the casino gaming industry, and I am pissed. The week before the Super Bowl is a busy time for sports media; reporters gather en masse resulting in an endless series of interviews with players, coaches and of course NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.  Goodell is the face and voice of the league, so his pronouncements are closely followed.  In a press conference on February 1st, he reiterated that casino guys are persona non grata.  It is not a new thought, but part of the league’s formal policy.  But this time, it had a very particular meaning; Sheldon Adelson is not welcome in the NFL.  It came as somewhat of a surprise because, for the past year, Sheldon Adelson, Mark Davis, Las Vegas and the State of Nevada have been discussing a new stadium in Las Vegas for the Oakland Raiders.

The discussions started at the end of the 2015 regular season when the Raiders filed to relocate to Los Angeles.  The discussions took on a Vegas note in January 2016 when Adelson proposed building a stadium in Las Vegas.  As originally proposed, Adelson would guarantee approximately a third of the funding, the City of Las Vegas, through a room tax, would provide another third and Davis would step up with the final third.  Stadiums that use any public money are always contentious, but this became more so due to its association with Sheldon Adelson.  He is a billionaire and a Republican Party power broker.  Either is enough to make him a lightning rod for controversy.  However, in this case there was an additional element that made Adelson’s participation an issue.

In December 2015, Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal for an astounding $140 million.  The purchase caused a major upheaval in journalism, not just in Las Vegas, but nationally.   Not only had Adelson overpaid for the newspaper, he had tried to keep his role secret. His motivation was subject to much speculation, none of it complimentary to Adelson.  So when the Raiders and the new stadium came up, Sheldon Adelson was not a popular and trusted guy with the press.

Still, the deal moved along; the Nevada legislature passed a room tax bill that would fund a major expansion of the convention center and a new football stadium.  Davis and his Raiders seemed bent on moving to Las Vegas and uninterested in staying in Oakland or moving to San Diego.  Davis voiced no opposition to coming up with his part of the financing; the room tax was in place and Sheldon stood by with an open checkbook.  There was only one remaining piece, the NFL’s approval.  But then things unraveled quickly.  Adelson was offended for not being included in some of the Raider’s plans and withdrew his financing offer. At the same time, the backup financing Goldman Sachs had promised also evaporated.  And that brings me back to Roger the Dodger.

All through the process, Goodell had played it very close to the vest.  He never said he would oppose a move to Las Vegas or the way the stadium was to be funded until the deal started to unravel.  But on the biggest stage in sports, the Super Bowl, he said the deal could not happen as conceived.  Now, he did not say those exact words, I am paraphrasing; but he did say something just as clear.

“That is not something that’s consistent with our policies,’’ Goodell said during his televised State of the League address and news conference leading to Super Bowl LI. “Not likely a stadium (ownership role), either.’’

The move to Las Vegas and the new stadium could not happen because of Sheldon Adelson. He could not be part of the Raiders’ ownership or even the stadium.  It is not personal with Roger; the league has a rule against Sheldon and others like him.  The National Football League’s policy manual has long stated that “no owner of an interest in a NFL club may own, directly or indirectly, any interest in any gambling casino.”  In other words, no person tainted with the sin of casino gambling can have a place in that league!  No ambiguity in that.  However, it is okay to own a racetrack with slot machines or be involved in other forms of gambling, but not a casino.  In fact two of the league’s most important franchises were founded by gamblers – the New York Giants by a bookmaker and the Pittsburgh Steelers by a track owner.  Casino tycoons can own baseball teams, basketball teams, but not football.

The league maintains casinos have sports books and they would be tempted to do nefarious things to win a bet.  Of course, only casinos in Nevada have books and those books are highly regulated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. This is not the first time the league dug in its heels over the issue.  In 1998, Edward P. Roski Jr. bid on an expansion team for Los Angeles. Roski wanted the team to play in his refurbished Los Angeles Coliseum.  But Roski owned the Silverton casino in Las Vegas and thus was in violation of the league’s rule.

So, why does the NFL- and it is the only league that does – insist on barring one class of businesses and no other? In my opinion, it is because it does and changing that stance is not easy.  Would the other league owners refuse to accept a casino owner into their mix?  I don’t believe they would object. Quite the opposite, I think they would be very accepting. The major stumbling block to a change in policy is not “the league” – it is Roger Goodell. He has said the same thing so many times that in my opinion he can’t change his tune.  It might take a new commissioner to usher in a new policy and a new era.  That is what it took in the 1940’s in baseball.

In that era, Bing Crosby wanted to buy into a baseball team, but was prevented by the league’s commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  Bing was one of the most famous men of the time and he was rich.  He loved baseball and wanted to buy into the Pittsburgh Pirates; the commissioner stopped him because “Old White Christmas” owned race horses and had an interest in a racetrack.  When Landis died in 1944, Bing was free to become part of the Pirates and major league baseball.  One can almost understand the “no gamblers” policy in the 1940s.  Gambling and gamblers have a checkered history and in the time immediately after World War II it was very much in the national spotlight as a source of crime and corruption.

Gambling was prohibited by law in the United States for most of the 20th century; but beginning with state lotteries in the 1960s, casinos in New Jersey in 1978 and finally when the flood gates really opened in 1988 with the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, casino gambling has become common place.  In the 21st century that expansion has accelerated; the latest casino opened on the very doorsteps of the nation’s capital at National Harbor, Maryland.  Roger Goodell is not old and he has only been in the job for ten years, so why does he hold on to 20th century morality?  I don’t know, but I know this: his stance is insulting to all of the millions of people who work in the gaming industry in this country.  Out of all of the businesses in the world, only ours is judged to be so tainted with sin and corruption that we are unfit for the society of more honest people.  The casino industry does have its problems and issues, but so does every industry and we have made a great deal of progress in addressing those issues in recent years.  There is still much to be done, especially in protecting people with an addiction.  But that alone does render us impure.  The NFL’s position on casinos is insulting to everyone involved in casino gaming, but it is also insulting to gaming regulation.  It implies that regulations and regulators do not prevent illegal or unsavory practices.

It is too much to expect an apology from Roger Goodell.  But it is not too much to expect the NFL to move into the 21st century and drop that outdated, unfair and insulting rule from its policy manual.


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