LAS VEGAS (AP) — This was a sight no self-respecting bookie in this gambling town would have ever laid odds on seeing.
There was Roger Goodell, praising Las Vegas with the lights of the glittering Strip shining brightly behind him. In the audience were a trio of NFL owners (though not Jerry Jones) who had to be just a little envious about the rich possibilities that await Mark Davis and his Raiders.
There was no talk about the evils of sports betting, no warnings about players finding their way into casinos. The city they had snubbed for so many years was now one of their own, with the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the past conveniently abandoned before the first ceremonial shovels of dirt were turned.
The Raiders won’t play here until the 2020 season at the earliest, but Monday night’s official groundbreaking for a $1.9 billion stadium made it seem like they were already home. Great Raiders of the past like Jim Plunkett and Howie Long were on hand for the turnover, and there was hardly a mention of Oakland the entire night.
Amazing what $750 million can do.
That, as it turns out, is the price of admission to the most exclusive club in American sports. A bit pricey, yes, but not a problem in a city that laid off the bet on tourists, who will pick up the tab in increased room taxes.
What began 20 months ago as little more than a concept — a pipe dream, perhaps — is suddenly very real. There are still issues that remain, including some crucial agreements for the new stadium, but no one in attendance at the splashy groundbreaking was in any mood to hear about them.
The presence of Goodell and the owners with the lights of the Strip sparkling behind them was a bit startling, considering the NFL’s outright disdain over the years for everything Vegas. A league that refused to allow the city to advertise on the Super Bowl telecast just a few years ago now may be hosting a Super Bowl there when the new stadium opens.
“The brightest city in the world just got a little brighter,” said comedian and longtime Raiders fan George Lopez, the master of ceremonies.
Indeed, Las Vegas is on the kind of roll with major league sports that a craps player at Caesars Palace could only dream of.
Last month the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights became the first major professional franchise to call the city home, and so far they have been a smashing success on the ice and in the stands. In a city long shunned by professional sports because of gambling and a relatively small population base, the hockey team tore down the barriers and both locals and tourists have been lining up to buy tickets.
The NBA practically spends its summers here, and the biggest casino operator in town is looking to eventually lure a franchise to the city. MGM Resorts has already bought a WNBA team that will begin play here next year, and the same arena used by the Golden Knights figures to be a perfect fit for an NBA team.
Las Vegas is the home of UFC and almost every big boxing match. NASCAR will hold not just one, but two, of its Sprint Cup races in the city next year, and five different college conferences bring teams to town for their annual basketball tournaments.
But it’s the NFL that changes everything, beginning in 2020 when the new stadium will be finished and fans will be able to look out large windows in the north end zone to see the hotels on the Strip. They’ll also be able to put some money on the games at nearby casinos, then stroll over to catch the action.
That the NFL seems OK with that is an astonishing turnaround that only $750 million in stadium money could bring about. For years, Goodell and others warned about the perils of Las Vegas, and players were banned from appearing at casino-sponsored events in the city. The NFL is still paying attorneys to fight a proposed repeal of a federal law banning sports betting everywhere but Nevada, a case that will be heard next month by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Goodell sounded almost giddy at the groundbreaking about the NFL coming to Las Vegas. He wielded one of the shovels with the Raiders logo for the ceremonial groundbreaking, and said he was “proud to be here with you.”
To the still disbelieving it was living proof that the Raiders are actually coming.
Once again, Las Vegas rolled the dice and somehow came up a winner.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg