Raiders stadium follies

by Alan Snel

A lovely little Nevada sideshow to Trump’s national reign via 140 characters has been the Raiders football stadium follies assuming center stage in Las Vegas.

It was a remarkable feat by the casino tycoon of the Mojave -- Nevada’s richest man, Sheldon Adelson -- to politically massage the state Legislature into ratifying a Clark County hotel room tax increase that would generate $750 million in public dollars toward a $1.9 billion domed stadium for the Raiders.

What has been less often reported, if at all, is that the public would have to actually pay closer to $1.45 billion after all the bond repayments -- $750 million at 5 percent over 30 years -- are done. When one factors in the actual sum total of bond payments, $1.9 billion becomes closer to $2.5 billion.   

That astounding little nugget aside, what kind of bizarro stadium deal involves the state’s most powerful player -- in this case, Adelson -- winning a huge jackpot from the public only to bail on the plan to build the palatial sports palace for the Raiders?

I have covered stadium deals in Denver, South Florida, Seattle and Tampa Bay and have tracked others around the country. I’m unaware of any sports facility where the person who triggered the stadium subsidy process and paid for the subsidy lobbying backed out of the deal after the public was on the hook for the dough.

To be sure, I checked with Don Muret, a writer who covers sports facilities for the Sports Business Journal, the trade publication that covers the sports industry from the business side.

He is also unaware of any stadium deal where the person responsible for the approved public contribution just walked away.

Adelson said he dropped out because he was blindsided by the Raiders’ proposed stadium lease that called for the team to rent the publicly-owned stadium for a buck a year while also keeping nearly all the revenues. And When Adelson took his $650 million off the table, it left Raiders owner Mark Davis with the task of refilling that funding vacuum.

A Davis surrogate recently stood before Las Vegas area leaders who serve as the public stadium board and claimed (if there was ever a correct use of this word, it’s here) that investors were practically breaking down the Raiders’ door to offer the $650 million investment.

Who are they? The Raiders representative -- its team president -- didn’t say. His message was something like, you’ll just have to believe us.

Sure.

Welcome to fashioning stadium public policy by throwing spaghetti at the ceiling and hoping it sticks.

The fact that Southern Nevada is going along for this stadium ride runs counter to its longtime legacy of standing up to stadium wheeler dealers -- and there have been a few of those through the past few decades.

The reason was simple. Las Vegas has always been a major league entertainment market and sports have simply been one of those genres. Las Vegas didn’t need a big league sports team to define its identity (though, if a major league team wanted to move to Las Vegas and build its own stadium with its own money, that would be fine by me.)

Ironically, more than the NFL or even the NHL, which has expanded to the Strip, Las Vegas’s most organic big-time sports DNA can be traced to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels when Tark the Shark was the city’s marquee celebrity three decades ago. They were college basketball’s version of Showtime and the sports team united Las Vegas in a way that few major league teams could.

All these years later, a public stadium handout got traction when Adelson dangled the Oakland Raiders before Gov. Sandoval and his trusty economic development sidekick, Steve Hill.

We’ve seen the Raiders stadium economic numbers. Sports economists picked them apart like Tom Brady carving up the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter of this past Super Bowl.

Hill criticized the nationally-known sports economists rather than cast a skeptical eye toward the claims that a stadium would generate hundreds of millions of new dollars for the local economy. Sadly, I’ve seen this bedazzled look in many eyes in other markets, blinded by the glint of possible major league teams coming to town.

When I covered the business side of sports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I could not help but notice that Las Vegas was already a major league sports town -- just of a different type.

Las Vegas didn’t have the NFL, NBA or MLB, but it did have the big leagues of car racing, golf and rodeo visiting on an annual basis. And though not pro sports, there were even college basketball league tournaments. The first weekend of March Madness was like an unofficial holiday on the Strip.

More than anything else, Las Vegas is an event town -- and it has mastered the staging of the One-Off sports event. It could be a professional soccer match or spring training Major League Baseball games or the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Lakers coming to town for pre-season matches.

Just because the public is presently on the hook for $750 million doesn’t mean the Las Vegas stadium is a done deal. The Silver and Black will only move to Las Vegas if a minimum of 24 of the 32 team owners approve the Raiders leaving Oakland for Las Vegas. That vote could happen as early as next month.

Meanwhile, Sandoval, Hill and their NFL-infatuated pals are curious about who will come off the bench to replace Adelson and cough up $650 million for a fancy big-time football playground in Las Vegas. The Raiders claim (that word again!) they will come up with their own $500 million.

If someone actually does step up to stroke a $650 million check, it raises one simple question:

If the Raiders bring $500 million to the table, and a Raiders-loving investor comes up with another $650 million, why doesn’t the team just build a nice open-air football stadium for $1.15 billion in Oakland so southern Nevada can opt to put that $750 million to a better public use?

Alan Snel has covered stadium deals for the Denver Post, South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tampa Tribune. He worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from November 2012 to February 2016 . He now lives in Vero Beach, FL.