For decades, the NFL didn't just keep its distance from Las Vegas -- it delivered a Bo Jackson-like stiff-arm straight to the city's jaw.
A 2003 ad for Las Vegas tourism didn't even mention gambling and barely showed any casinos, yet was deemed unacceptable by the NFL and therefore not permitted to run during the Super Bowl.
A decade later, the NFL said it would not consider playing an exhibition game at a new Las Vegas stadium being pondered. More recently, the league forced Tony Romo, one of its stars at the time, to cancel a fantasy football event he planned to hold at a convention center connected to a Las Vegas casino. And just three years ago NFL players who participated in an arm-wrestling tournament at a casino nightclub found themselves in violation of the league's gambling policy.
All the while, hundreds of millions of dollars were being bet on the NFL at Las Vegas sportsbooks, helping fuel the popularity of both the league and the city. But that didn't matter -- the NFL wanted nothing to do with Las Vegas or sports betting.
That was then, though. Now, just a few years later, the NFL has little choice but to embrace Las Vegas and the growing American betting market that had terrified the league for decades.
On Monday night the Raiders played the first NFL game in Las Vegas, a monumental event in the rapidly evolving U.S. sports landscape -- including legal bookmakers operating in the shadows of several stadiums, and franchises and the league itself partnering with bookmakers seemingly every week.
"We feel good about how the U.S. market is evolving," Chris Halpin, NFL executive vice president and director of strategy and growth, told ESPN in a recent phone interview.
That's something you certainly wouldn't have heard the NFL say just a few years ago.
The bettor way
For six years, from 2012 to 2018, the NFL battled in court to stop the spread of regulated sports betting in the U.S. But while the league was trying to stay far away from sports betting, the Raiders were looking to get closer to it.
Raiders owner Mark Davis' interest in Las Vegas can be traced back to the late 1990s, when he purchased the website domain name LasVegasRaiders.com. It became more serious in the mid-2010s, but Davis faced resistance from the NFL. According to an ESPN report, he was told the league would oppose a move to Las Vegas "on principle."
Davis didn't give up, but he knew he'd have to address the sports betting elephant in the room: Would putting a franchise in Las Vegas increase threats from gambling? Would players, coaches, trainers and other team employees have more incentive to use their inside information to make money betting? Would it lead to a game being fixed?
Davis turned to experts from the UNLV International Gaming Institute for answers. In a hush-hush meeting on Feb. 23, 2015, at UNLV, Davis was told that not only was Las Vegas not the problem, but it could actually be the solution.
The team of UNLV experts, led by Dr. Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute, later produced an academic report that Davis relied upon to tackle sports betting concerns and make his case to bring the Raiders to Las Vegas.
The thesis of the UNLV paper was matter-of-fact: "The regulatory system that is associated with legalized gambling is infinitely better at tracking something down that looks a little bit funny than no system," Bernhard said. "You would rather people who spend their entire days looking for things like this on your side, as opposed to an illegal market where you don't have those folks looking at those things.
"To some degree, the market takes care of itself, and that's what folks would say that it's a somewhat self-regulated market," he added, "but I think the far more compelling point is that gambling regulators have gotten pretty good at this."
On March 27, 2017, during a news conference announcing that NFL owners had approved the Raiders' move to Las Vegas, commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that Nevada's regulatory scheme could be beneficial to protecting the integrity of the game, even as league lawyers were preparing to argue that expanding sports betting to other states would do the opposite. The NFL lost that debate, and on May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the federal statute that had restricted regulated sports betting primarily to Nevada.
Since that Supreme Court decision, legal sportsbooks have begun operating in 18 states and the District of Columbia. The Denver Broncos are among the teams allowing betting lounges inside their stadiums, and the NFL has done deals with bookmakers in Australia and Latin America, with more international partnerships expected in the future.
'We felt very good about how that was caught'
The American sports betting landscape and societal acceptance of gambling in the U.S. have evolved, but the premise behind the NFL's past Las Vegas phobia remains the same: A gambling scandal would tarnish the perception of the league, eroding fans' confidence that the action on the field is on the level. If it were discovered that a game had been compromised for gambling purposes, the NFL's reputation would be damaged irreparably, according to past claims by league officials.
But the league can no longer keep its distance from sports betting. Legal bookmakers are now operating in prominent NFL cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And proximity to physical sportsbooks, in terms of preventing gambling corruption, was made irrelevant long ago by the rise of online sports betting.
Education and deterrence remain the primary weapons to combat any type of gambling scandal. The NFL says it educates more than 13,000 players, staff and other personnel about the rules on sports betting and has added emphasis on this since the Supreme Court decision. However, that didn't stop a player from betting on NFL games at a Las Vegas sportsbook just last year.
Last November, Josh Shaw, a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals on injured reserve at the time, placed a three-team parlay said to be for a few thousand dollars on the second-half results of three NFL games. The bet was placed at a Caesars Entertainment sportsbook in Las Vegas. Included in his parlay were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were playing the Cardinals, Shaw's team. Arizona covered the spread in the second half, so Shaw lost his bet. He also lost his job.
After realizing what had happened, a bookmaker for Caesars contacted Nevada Gaming Control, which reached out to the NFL. The league investigated the incident and determined that no game had been compromised, and that Shaw did not use inside information to make his bet. Shaw was suspended indefinitely. He'll be allowed to apply for reinstatement at the end of the 2020 season. In the meantime, he's using his mistake to help educate his peers.
"We felt very good about how that was caught, reported and handled and that player has actually become an advocate for his peers in our education program," Halpin, the NFL executive who oversees the sports betting space for the league, told ESPN.
Nevada gaming regulations require sportsbooks to take "reasonable steps" to prevent anyone associated with a sport or league from placing bets on games or events in which they are involved. It's easier said than done.
"If [Raiders] coach [Jon] Gruden were to come up and make a wager [on the NFL], we would certainly not accept that," Jay Kornegay, vice president of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said. "Obviously, there are so many more [people] that we wouldn't recognize. It is something that is self-policed within the organization."
The Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL were the first major professional sports team to land in Sin City. They arrived in 2018 and immediately captured the city's heart with an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Las Vegas sportsbooks racked up liability on the Knights during the season, and were sweating some of their biggest decisions ever before the Washington Capitals ended the Cinderella story in the Final.
There have been no reported issues involving Golden Knights players or employees betting on the NHL in Las Vegas.
"The evidence of the Golden Knights being here and being scandal-less is encouraging," Bernhard said.
View from Vegas
Behind the scenes, in the back offices of Las Vegas sportsbooks, the occasional wisecrack from bookmakers will still be heard when the latest partnership between a sports betting operator and an NFL franchise is announced. The bookies joke about how, in just two years, they've gone from a danger to society to coveted business partners in the eyes of the NFL.
They're much more diplomatic in public, though, and are genuinely excited for the Raiders' first season.
"It is interesting to us how quickly it has turned, to see the 180-degree turn, after we have operated with this dark cloud above us for decades," Kornegay, a 30-plus-year veteran Las Vegas bookmaker, said. "We always believed there was nothing wrong with [sports betting] as long as it's regulated and policed like it is here in Las Vegas.
"That's in the past and we're looking toward the future and are really excited to have relationships with these leagues."
Last fall, Bernhard traveled with the Raiders to London for their game against the Chicago Bears. After the game, he sat at the Hilton London Wembley Hotel with many of the same Raiders officials, including Davis, who had attended the initial meeting at UNLV. They reminisced about how far they had come, with the Raiders telling Bernhard that as they were riding down the elevator after the meeting, they remembered going, "Holy [expletive], this actually might be doable. There are answers to all of those questions."
"It's a neat thing to be a small part of that chapter," Bernhard said.
The next chapter kicked off on Monday night, with the Raiders hosting the New Orleans Saints in the opening game at Allegiant Stadium. Now it's time to see if the NFL and Las Vegas can coexist.
"All our books have full rooms [with limited capacity due to COVID-19 protocols]," Jeff Stoneback, director for BetMGM sportsbooks in Nevada, told ESPN. "There's lots of excitement in town for this."
There was also a lot of money riding on the visiting Saints. After 13 of 14 favorites won straight up on Sunday, sportsbooks were facing significant liability on New Orleans, mostly due to parlay bets that were still live heading into Monday. BetMGM said it took a $180,000 bet on the Saints -4 right before kickoff and ended up needing the Raiders to cover the spread and win outright "big time." Asked which team his book needed on Monday night, William Hill U.S. director of trading Nick Bogdanovich said, "Raiders big."
The hometown Raiders delivered with a 34-24 victory. Las Vegas wins again.