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Las Vegas and the NFL: A once unthinkable relationship that's evolved over time

A giant panel that says "Super Bowl LVIII" wraps around the front of Allegiant Stadium. Only one person is walking in front of the stadium, dwarfed by the size of the venue.
Matt York
Associated Press
A worker walks in front of Allegiant Stadium in advance of Super Bowl 58 on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in Las Vegas. The NFL's marquee event will be in Las Vegas for the first time, a town once shunned by many professional sports leagues.

Super Bowl LVIII will be one of the most-viewed sports events of the year, and Las Vegas expects nearly 300,000 visitors for the festivities. But if the partnership between the National Football League and Las Vegas were a social media post, it could be described as "complicated".

This year, the Kansas City Chiefs will defend their title against the San Francisco 49ers in a game that could draw over one hundred million TV viewers.

The Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas said the Super Bowl generates about $160 million in sports wagering in Las Vegas every year. This year's game could be record-breaking.

With online betting, the American Gaming Association estimates nationwide wagering on the Super Bowl could exceed $23 billion.

But this profitable relationship started with plenty of rejections.

“Around 2004, Las Vegas tried to buy ad time on the Super Bowl and were told, no, we don't want to be associated with it,” says UNLV history professor Michael Green.

Las Vegas Review Journal sports columnist Adam Hill said the NFL has made the city jump through plenty of hoops, even just to show the game.

“The famous measuring of TVs is a part of lore here in Las Vegas, too,” Hill said.

Many years ago, casinos were restricted from showing the Super Bowl on television screens larger than 55 inches, leading to a scramble to measure TVs.

But eventually, Las Vegas was no longer off-limits. Hill said things changed because gambling was so lucrative, and the NFL realized it could profit from the relationship.

Sports gambling went from contemptible to acceptable.

“Fear of the unknown is the worst fear of all,” said Tina Quigley, who heads the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. “Stereotypes and stigmas definitely hold true. It isn't until you actually start to see and experience that you can start to break that stigma, that stereotype. And I think that holds true for gaming.”

Nicki Ewell is Senior Director of Events for the NFL.

“We certainly have adapted but integrity is still number one for us,” said Ewell.

The NFL has suspended some players in the past for violating gambling rules. And last week, the league reminded players competing in the Super Bowl that they are forbidden from any form of gambling while in Las Vegas.

Other players not playing in the game and are in Las Vegas can gamble, but they can't make any bets on the NFL, nor enter sports books until the Super Bowl is over.

In the past, there had been worries about gambling influencing the outcome of games. But some feel that perception doesn't hold water. Nikki Fargas is president of the Las Vegas Aces, the two-time defending WNBA champion. She said there's a personal code that prevents athletes from “throwing” a game.

“As the athlete in you it's really going to be difficult to not do what's right and to not perform at your best, because you want to win,” she said.

Gambling in general has become more acceptable these days, and that in turn may have opened the door for major-league professional sports to finally come to Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association said sports is one of the highest discretionary spending categories for tourists. Last year, out-of-town sports fans generated nearly $2 billion in economic activity in the area.

In the past decade, Las Vegas has transitioned from “Sin City” to “Sports City.” The National Hockey League's Golden Knights arrived in 2017. The Aces were established in 2018. The NFL's Raiders moved from Oakland to Vegas in 2020, and Major League Baseball's Oakland A's will be moving to town in the next few years.

There are 17 primary sports facilities and arenas, and more are planned.

But the relationship between Las Vegas and pro sports is showing some strain.

Last year, Nevada legislators voted to allocateover $300 million to partly fund the building of a new stadium for the Oakland A's to relocate to Las Vegas. And that's where some local residents are balking.

“We're not against sports coming to Vegas. What we're against is public funds going to stadiums,” said Alexander Marks, a spokesperson with the educator-backed group called Schools Over Stadiums, which wants to stop that deal. It has filed a lawsuit challenging the legislature’s decision.

He said if sports are so lucrative, then public funds should be used for community needs, like education.

“We're 48th in the nation in per pupil funding," Marks said. "We have the largest class sizes in the country to go along with our highest rate of educator vacancies. We've spent a lot of time trying to build world-class stadiums and not enough time trying to build a world-class public education system for our kids.”

For now, though, that rocky relationship with sports will take a back seat to the Super Bowl and its game bets, like:

  • Who will be the Super Bowl MVP?
  • Will the coin toss be heads or tails?
  • How many times will the broadcast cut to a certain pop star?

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.