Power, money and politics: How Las Vegas landed the Super Bowl

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
America's biggest sporting event has always been huge in Sin City. But it's even bigger now that the NFL brought the Super Bowl to Las Vegas for the first time. And it likely won't be the last.

LAS VEGAS — The Super Bowl in Las Vegas? Really?

It seemed surreal back on Dec. 15, 2021 when the NFL and the Raiders announced the biggest sporting event in the country was headed here. And with less than 48 hours to go before kickoff, it remains surreal.

For those of us who lived here before professional major league sports inhabited our landscape, the Super Bowl was something we’d watch in a bar, a sports book or our living room as the game emanated from Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, Southern California and Arizona or occasionally from a one-off NFL locale like Detroit, Minneapolis or East Rutherford, N.J.

Las Vegas? Hell, it wasn’t that long ago the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority couldn’t even get a television ad promoting the city to air during the game. That was the disdain the NFL had for the town.

You couldn’t use the name “Super Bowl” to promote a watch party. The books had to call it the “Pro Football Championship Game,” “The Big Game” or some other euphemism to avoid being sued by he NFL’s phalanx of lawyers. And even though the game is being played here, the books still can’t refer to it as the Super Bowl. 

For the vast majority of Southern Nevada residents, it will be the usual annual Super Bowl routine. They’ll wake up Sunday morning, go to the store to stock up on provisions if they decide to watch from home. Or they’ll venture to their neighborhood bar, play video poker and keep one eye on the TV screen as the game unfolds. Or they’ll visit the closest neighborhood sports book to their house, make their wagers and either stay for the game or head elsewhere, perhaps a friend’s house for a Super Bowl party. That the actual game is here won’t matter because at a face value ticket price of $6,000, few, if any of them, were getting into Allegiant Stadium. There’s only 60,000 seats available and it’s a matter of basic supply and demand. It’s so pricey that 49ers running back Christian McCaffery, who makes $11.8 million, couldn’t afford to purchase a suite priced at $1.5 million for his family and friends to watch him play on Sunday.

Taylor Swift, on the other hand, will be in a suite. The pop superstar and girlfriend of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is worth a reported $1.1 billion. She can afford it.

So what changed? How did this all come to be? How did the mighty NFL change its tune about Vegas? 

There were a number of factors —power, politics and money. But the two key moments came from an NFL owner — the Raiders’ Mark Davis — and the United States Supreme Court.

We begin with Davis. He was facing an untenable future in Oakland (sound familiar, A’s baseball fans?) and he was looking to go back to Los Angeles where his father Al had relocated the Raiders back in the 1980s before returning to the Bay Area. But the Rams and the Chargers were also looking to move to L.A. and then Mark Davis remembered how much his dad loved Las Vegas and maybe he could bring the Raiders there.

It took some convincing of his fellow owners, the support of the state legislature and then Governor Brian Sandoval to create $750 million of tax revenue through a hotel tax to build what would be the $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium near Russell Road and the Interstate 15 interchange close to the Las Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the owners got behind the plan and Davis got the green light. The Raiders began play in Las Vegas in 2020.

In doing so, he was able to lobby for the Super Bowl to come to town. He had a comprehensive plan and once he sold it to two of the NFL’s most powerful owners — Dallas’ Jerry Jones and New England’s Robert Kraft — the other owners threw their support behind it.

And since commissioner Roger Goodell is paid handsomely by the owners ($64 million annually) to do their bidding, what could he say? Goodell suddenly became a big booster of Las Vegas. The Pro Bowl came here. The NFL Draft was held here. No problems either time. And despite being on the small side in terms of capacity, Allegiant Stadium was a state-of-the-art facility which could accommodate all he trappings that come with staging a Super Bowl. 

“It was long process,” Davis said. “Of course, the Raiders had been looking for a new home for six decades. We finally found one and we’re really proud of it to be here in Nevada. It was a long and winding road.

“A lot of people were part of it and a lot of thanks go out to the people who made this happen.”

Betting? That was Part Two of the exacta.

The NFL had fought the state of New Jersey’s attempt to legalize sports betting. When the league lost at the state supreme court level, it attempted to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to deny New Jersey and uphold the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.

PASPA, as it’s commonly referred to, was overturned by the High Court in 2018. Thus, it was the states which had the right to determine whether to permit legalized sports betting in their jurisdictions.

What could Goodell do? Move the Super Bowl to Utah?

Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia along with Puerto Rico have legalized sorts betting. All will be offering a vast menu of Super Bowl wagers, from the coin toss to props involving Swift and Kelce. The NFL has even got licensed slot machines complete with the logos of its teams along with sports book companies sponsoring the league and individual teams.

Ironically, there is no retail sports book in Allegiant Stadium. But it doesn’t need one. These days, making a wager is as easy as reaching for your phone. And the majority of the fans who will attend Sunday’s game can open an account with an app from any number of Nevada books in a matter of minutes.

The city has been ready for its first Super Bowl. A small army of 7,000 volunteers under the auspices of the Las Vegas Super Bowl Host Committee have fanned out across town to assist visitors and serve as a frontline welcome wagon. Properties along the Strip have embraced the event, flashing Big Game messages on their electronic marquees. Numerous law enforcement agencies — local, state and national — are working together to make sure there’s a safe environment.

“We hope the legacy of Las Vegas hosting the Super Bowl will be more Super Bowls,” said Sam Joffray, the President and CEO of the Las Vegas Super Bowl Host Committee. “We’ve been working three years toward this and now that we’re here, we want to make sure everyone enjoys themselves and has a great experience.”

Joffray had helped with Super Bowls when he was in New Orleans when that city hosted the game and he said Las Vegas is unique.

“The infrastructure that was already in place made it so much easier to prepare to host the game,” he said. “We had our choice of a half-dozen venues to place events and host. Not many cities can offer that kind of flexibility.

“And the fact everything is so close together will make it very convenient for those who are attending the game.”

And it hasn’t been just the Super Bowl that has Las Vegas in the forefront of America’s sporting consciousness. It’s been a busy week here already. Tuesday, over 18,400 showed up at T-Mobile Arena and watched the Golden Knights snap the Edmonton Oilers’ 16-game NHL win streak. Thursday at Mandalay Bay, there was a world championship boxing match with Teofimo Lopez defending his WBO junior welterweight title with a 12-round unanimous decision victory over Jamaine Ortiz. That same day, LIV Golf held a tournament at the Las Vegas Country Club. Saturday, there’s a big UFC card at the UFC Apex.

Close to 400,000 visitors are expected to be in town come Sunday, which is a little more than what we usually have on New Year’s Eve and about 25 percent more than a normal Super Bowl not hosted in Vegas. The NFL had scheduled some 300 events since last Sunday, some public, many private that connect with the game.

There have been trees planted, grants awarded and the charitable events that will benefit the community.  

“The true legacy of this game will be there long after we’re gone,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business, international and league events. “We believe it will be the greatest Super Bowl ever.”

Perhaps. But the fact that it’s even here makes it a win for Las Vegas. Honestly, who in their right mind ever thought this would happen?

“Las Vegas is a place I’ve been coming to since I was five, six years old,” Davis said. “It’s always been the entertainment capital of the world and now it’s the sports and entertainment capital of the world. 

“It’s a very proud moment for us. You only get one chance to make a first impression and I think we’re going to knock it out of the park and bring the game back in the years to come.”

Steve Sisolak, the former Governor of Nevada, said back in 2021 when the game was awarded to Las Vegas: “Nobody thought this would be possible. We had a lot of naysayers that said it can’t happen. ‘You can’t build it; it won’t work; there’s no parking; there’s no fan base.’ We heard every excuse in the world, but the Raiders have persevered through this whole thing and made this a reality, and I could not be more proud of them. This was a long time coming but it wasn’t always a guarantee.”

No, nothing is ever guaranteed. But this much is certain — regardless of the outcome on the field Sunday, no one will forget the first time Las Vegas finally got to host the Super Bowl.