Just Vegas, Baby?: What Are the Odds that the Oakland Raiders Move to Sin City?

Our writer chats with insiders and experts to make sense of the Silver and Black's flirtation with Las Vegas.

On Sunday, the Raiders kick off their season on the road against the New Orleans Saints. After more than a decade of losing, fans hope young quarterback Derek Carr and a slew of new talent will return the Silver and Black to relevance again. There’s even talk of actually making the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years.

At the same time, these next few months could also determine if the Raiders remain in Oakland or bail.

It’s been no secret that the team is displeased with lagging efforts to replace its fifty-year-old Coliseum home. In recent years, owner Mark Davis and Co. have looked at relocating to everywhere from San Antonio to Southern California — and now Las Vegas, where negotiations soon could be heating up.

This Thursday, in fact, the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee will meet again, the latest gathering of a nearly two-year courtship between Sin City representatives and Raiders brass. The team and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s vision is to build a $1.9 billion domed stadium near the Las Vegas strip. But this plan hinges on a lavish $750 million gift from taxpayers, and approval by wary NFL owners. In the weeks to come, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval might call a special legislative session to discuss this plan and the record public subsidy.

Meanwhile, East Bay fans — who bought up all the team’s 51,000 season tickets this year — and local officials haven’t given up hope. Former Raider Ronnie Lott has reportedly organized a coalition that wants to purchase a stake in the franchise and make a financial investment in building a new stadium at the Coliseum site. In fact, Lott’s group signed a 90-day memorandum of understanding with the city and county last week as part of this process.

The Express interviewed numerous sources with inside knowledge of the Raiders’ situation during the past month. Many insist that the team’s Sin City effort is serious, not just a flirtation or ploy to get a better stadium deal in Oakland. Yet these same insiders were adamant that the Vegas drama doesn’t mean the team’s leaving the Bay, either.

It’s as if representatives for Las Vegas, Oakland, and other cities are at a poker table, and all chips are in play, what with this contest reasonably likely to be decided by early 2017.

So, who has the best hand?

What Happens in Vegas

Las Vegas’ courtship of the Raiders goes back to at least November 9, 2014, when the Silver and Black fell 41-17 to the visiting Denver Broncos. Former running back Napoleon McCallum was in Oakland that day to light a ceremonial torch for late Raiders owner Al Davis.

McCallum played nine seasons for the team before suffering a career-ending injury in 1994. He moved to the Las Vegas area in ’96, and since 2005 has served as director of community development for the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, owned by Adelson’s Sands Corporation.

McCallum spotted Raiders owner Mark Davis that day, someone he’d seen around the locker room during his playing career.

“I knew about all the problems going on with the stadium,” McCallum told the Express. “I said, ‘What you really ought to do, you ought to come out to Las Vegas.'”

Pro sports in Vegas is a time-old dream. When the Maloof Family owned the Sacramento Kings and The Palms hotel and casino, for instance, there was talk of the NBA franchise relocating to Sin City. But until this past June’s announcement of an NHL expansion team, no team in any of the four major sports has operated in town, having shied away over fears about gambling. But those concerns may be subsiding with the rise of Internet gaming and websites such as FanDuel and DraftKings.

Las Vegas carries some unique benefits, as McCallum pointed out: 150,000 hotel rooms in less than a two-mile area, plus 42 million tourists annually. “If you count the visitors that come here, we’re about second-largest football market,” he argued.

Vegas also has some history of sports arena and stadium success. Danny Tarkanian, a Nevada Congressional candidate, spoke of how his late father, legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, campaigned to get the Thomas & Mack Center built.

“That was one of the nicest stadiums on the entire West Coast, it was a great recruiting tool, it brought the UNLV basketball program to a whole another level, and it was paid for with public funds,” Tarkanian told the Express.

But nothing evolved for the Raiders and Sin City until a press conference in Las Vegas on April 28 of this year, when Davis declared that he wanted to turn Nevada, the Silver State, into the “Silver and Black State.”

And last month, on August 25, the SNTIC released preliminary renderings of a new Raiders stadium in Vegas.

These images, and an accompanying thirty-page document, were little more than a marketing brochure for the proposed new Raiders home and its potential development partner, the Sands Corporation. (They know that they must garner support for the $750 million public subsidy, which would be raised through a hotel tax.) And Twitter and Facebook went wild over the images (see photos).

In fact, the hype machine had already been primed the day before, when a Forbes.com report revealed that the team secured a trademark for the name “Las Vegas Raiders.”

As for the Sands’ and Raiders plan: According to the SNTIC document, the Raiders and the NFL would cover $500 million of the stadium’s $1.9 billion price tag, with private investors coming up with $650 million and the public forking over the rest.

That $650 million piece might be a drop in the bucket for the two billionaires at the core of the Raiders’ Las Vegas dealings: Longstanding GOP benefactor Adelson, who has a net worth of $30 billion, according to Forbes; and Ed Roski, owner of stadium developer Majestic Realty, who is worth an estimated $4.9 billion, also per Forbes.

Neither Adelson nor Roski agreed to an interview with the Express for this piece, but Sands’ senior vice president of governmental relations Andy Abboud said the 83-year-old Adelson is motivated because he “wants to leave a legacy for the community.”

Abboud added that Adelson also wants to put Las Vegas on the map and attract more tourists, regardless of what hotel they book. “The more visitors that we can bring to Las Vegas, the better off we all are,” he explained.

But don’t expect the Raiders to play in Las Vegas next season, even if the stars align and the NFL grants them permission to move.

Former 49ers, A’s, and Warriors executive Andy Dolich told the Express via email that he didn’t think Adelson would be allowed to cover the Raiders’ relocation fee (an estimated $500 million) unless Davis allowed him to buy into the team. And, even if that occurred, the NFL would still have to approve Adelson into their ownership club. “Both highly unlikely as of today,” Dolich argued.

Las Vegas also lacks a stadium that could accommodate the Raiders for anything more than a one-off exhibition game.

Meanwhile, polls analyzing public support for the $750 million stadium subsidy hover near 60 percent in favor, but two-thirds of the state Legislature would need to approve a hotel tax.

Despite these obstacles, Abboud remains confident. He envisions the Raiders staying in Oakland through 2019, with Sands and development partner Majestic Realty having a stadium ready for the 2020 season. They’d like to bring a formal relocation package to the NFL after lawmakers weigh in on the subsidy, which Abboud expects to happen this fall during a special session.

At the same time, rumors are swirling that the Raiders are merely using Las Vegas to extract a sweeter deal in Oakland. But Abboud rejected this. “We believe they’re 100 percent committed to looking at Las Vegas as a viable alternative to the Bay Area,” he said.

Nevada State Assemblyman Ira Hansen said he received assurances from Raiders president Marc Badain during an August meeting in Reno, where the team floated the idea of building a training facility.

Hansen said that Badain told him not to worry even if people speculate that the Raiders are playing Vegas for a fool, or using the city as leverage. “He said, ‘I want you to know, I can assure you that this is not the case … The Raiders are totally serious about relocating to Las Vegas,'” Hansen said.

Clark County commissioner Steve Sisolak said he’s talked to Raiders officials on many occasions and isn’t worried about the team looking at other cities. “They’ve got to have fallback plans,” he explained.

And, as anyone familiar with the Raiders drama in recent years will attest, that’s definitely an understatement.

Odds that the Raiders move to Las Vegas: 5-to-1

L.A., S.D. — or Mexico?

Since returning to Oakland from Los Angeles, where they played from 1982 to 1994, the Raiders have boasted the third-worst winning percentage in the NFL, going 131-205. The Raiders also haven’t had a winning season since the 2002. And, to make matters worse, the team shares the only multi-use stadium in U.S. pro sports, with the A’s.

Along the way, there’ve been countless dark moments: franchise quarterback Rich Gannon’s career-ending injury in 2003, the 2007 selection of megabust quarterback JaMarcus Russell, and the final seasons of Al Davis’s 39-year tenure as principal owner.

Former Raiders CEO Amy Trask, author of the newly released book You Negotiate Like a Girl, had a front row seat during this slide. “Certainly, Al made decisions in those last five years [before his passing in 2011] … that were decisions that one might say, ‘Wow, those were not in the best long-term interests of the team,'” Trask told the Express.

Yet, against the odds, the Raiders have retained some of the most loyal fans in all of sports, selling out season tickets this year, for instance. “There are no more abused fans in North America than Oakland,” said Dave Newhouse, a retired Oakland Tribune columnist. “Who else has all three franchises trying to move, even though attendance has been remarkable, considering how the ownership treats the fans?”

Since taking over the team after his father’s death, Mark Davis’ tenure has been a near-constant courtship of other cities. Critics speculate that he needs the money; Business Insider listed Davis’s net worth at $500 million, a sum dwarfed by the wealth of fellow NFL owners.

Forbes gave his franchise a valuation of $1.43 billion, 31st in the NFL. The team gets by on operating income of just $39 million, also per Forbes.

By comparison, Forbes says Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones boasts a net worth of $5 billion, his team valued at $4 billion, and the Cowboys’ operating income at $270 million.

Unsurprisingly, the Raiders have dabbled in many relocation efforts that, in retrospect, seem half-baked.

The team had a well-documented meeting with San Antonio city officials in the summer of 2014. Like Las Vegas, San Antonio currently lacks a suitable football stadium, and the Raiders would have to play at least temporarily in the Alamodome. They’d also be in the same state as the Cowboys and Houston Texans. But Davis still flew out for the meeting.

Richard Perez, president of the San Antonio Regional Chamber of Commerce, described the gathering as a preliminary meet-and-greet. Like representatives of the Sands, Perez sees an NFL team as a good fit for the city.

“San Antonio is challenged in that we’re the seventh-largest city in the nation, but not many folks know that,” Perez told the Express. “Not many folks know the vibrancy of our community.”

The Cowboy’s Jones reportedly maneuvered behind the scenes and the Raiders didn’t get much beyond an initial meeting with San Antonio. But that city would still like to land an NFL team.

“I can’t speak for [Davis], but I can tell you we are still interested,” Perez said. “But there’s been no dialogue.”

Still, the Raiders have been busy vetting other options. Last year, the team entered into a joint venture in Carson, east of Los Angeles, to build a stadium with the San Diego Chargers. The NFL Relocation Committee opted to allow this project before the National Football League shot it down.

Then, in January, the Raiders, Chargers, and Rams all filed for relocation to Los Angeles — with the Raiders finishing, in the oft-reported words of Davis, “third in a three-team race.”

This month, Rams will host their first game back at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, on September 18, while construction moves along for a new $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood. The Chargers have No. 2 priority to move to Los Angeles if they can’t get a stadium built in San Diego. The deadline to decide is January, but they have the option to extend this window by a year.

It’s no sure thing the Chargers will get a new stadium in San Diego. USA Today reported on August 13 that the team is asking voters in November to approve upping its hotel tax from 12.5 percent to 16.5 percent, in order to raise $1.15 billion in bonds to put toward a $1.8 billion convention center and stadium. And there’s not much voter appetite for this subsidy, according to polls.

If the ballot measure fails, it would likely extinguish any hope for the Raiders of moving back to Los Angeles.

The City of Oakland’s assistant city administrator, Claudia Cappio, said she is definitely keeping an eye on San Diego.

“We want to be as ready as we can for a viable alternative in Oakland that’s real,” she told the Express, admitting she feels a sense of urgency to get something done at the Coliseum site.

But, again, it’s the Raiders — which means Cappio and anyone with the city also needs to expect the unexpected.

For instance, there’s been rumors of St. Louis as a destination, ever since the Rams bailed, but Davis has ruled out that city as a suitable choice for the Raiders’ brand, according to media reports.

And there remains any number of other potential destinations: London, Mexico City, Santa Clara, maybe even San Diego. At this point, part of the Raider charm is that there’s never any real certainty of what this team will do next.

Odds that the Raiders head to Los Angeles, San Antonio, or somewhere else: 10-to-1

Oakland for life?

The day after those snazzy Las Vegas stadium renderings were released last month and social media exploded, Oakland quietly responded.

In the conference room next to Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, Hall of Famer Lott signed a ninety-day memorandum of understanding, a document prepared weeks earlier by the city and county, for his company Oakland City Pro Football Group LLC. This MOU allows the two parties to negotiate with the Raiders toward building a stadium.

It might be little more than a symbolic gesture, with nothing to compel the Raiders to act, but Schaaf remains hopeful.

“It just shows that we’re really determined to work together, particularly over the next ninety days, to really come up with a plan that, again, we think is feasible for the NFL and for the Raiders, but also responsible to the taxpayers,” she told the Express.

Negotiations have centered between Cappio and Raiders stadium designer Larry MacNeil, who helped the San Francisco 49ers get Levi’s Stadium built in Santa Clara. While multiple outlets reported recently that the city and team have had no substantive talks in six months, Cappio said she and MacNeil have been talking regularly since his hiring this past winter.

“The hiring of Larry MacNeil really changed the tone and substance of the discussions,” Cappio said. “I’m feeling pretty good.”

The current order of business has been hammering out infrastructure costs at the Coliseum site, which she said could run as high as $140 million.

The city’s also exploring different ways to come up with the money, but one thing’s painfully clear: “We’re not going to put our general fund at risk,” Schaaf said.

This city of course is still reeling from a bad Coliseum deal in the Nineties, when it helped fund renovations when the team came back from Los Angeles. Cappio pegged the city and county’s remaining debt at $45 million apiece, with annual payments in the $10-11 million range.

“What we’re trying to do is look at how private money can help fill any sort of gaps so we’re not putting the taxpayer on the hook,” Schaaf explained.

Lott’s investment group reportedly includes Bay Area developer Seth Hamalian, agent Bill Duffy, Atlanta-based developer Egbert Perry, and fellow former NFLer Rodney Peete. There’ve been rumors the group has strong ties to hedge fund money. While there’s been no known offer from this contingent to the Raiders, reports in the media have indicated that it is exploring $300 million to Davis in exchange for a 20 percent stake in the team.

That might be a fair offer. Vanderbilt University sports economics professor John Vrooman, an expert on stadium deals, wrote in an email that the average NFL team increases its valuation by 30 percent when it moves into a new stadium. If true, Lott’s group could make $100 million upon completion of a new stadium in Oakland, while the Raiders would make $400 million. Vrooman doesn’t see the Raiders appreciating in value this much were it to move to Las Vegas.

Schaaf said she is optimistic about Lott’s leadership. “He brings a very unique set of relationships and skills, both with football as well as in business. And he brings a track record of being very community-minded,” she said.

Longtime Oakland City Councilman and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Joint Powers Authority member Larry Reid told the Express that he speaks with Lott once a week and Duffy twice a week.

Lott, Hamalian, and Peete didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. Perry declined through a spokeswoman. The voicemail box at Duffy’s Walnut Creek office was full.

If Lott’s group doesn’t pan out, there could be other private options, according to Vrooman, because NFL values have increased an average of 11.5 percent since the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995, a solid return on investment. “If Mark Davis is undercapitalized, he won’t have much trouble finding investors,” Vrooman wrote.

Other factors could help keep the Raiders in Oakland. “Unquestionably, this is one of the best pieces of sports real estate in the United States,” argued Scott McKibben, executive director of the JPA, of the Coliseum location.

Trask agreed. “I believe that the current site is a spectacular site for a stadium. It’s got tremendous ingress and egress. It is, of every stadium in the National Football League, the best served by public transportation,” she said.

Dolich said that, if you compare Oakland and Vegas demographics, disposable income and market share, “I’ll take 66th Avenue every single day.”

Oakland might also have a powerful ally in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been in regular contact with Schaaf in recent months. At a league meeting in Charlotte on May 24, the Associated Press also reported that Goodell said “it’s time to get to” a solution in Oakland.

One other potential huge partner for Oakland: Davis himself. The owner declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, along with MacNeil and Badain, but McKibben says Davis has told him many times that his first choice is to stay in town.

“His line has always been, ‘Scott, I’m just waiting for somebody to bring something to me relative to a land deal in Oakland,'” McKibben said.

It may fly in the face of the Vegas hype, but Oakland still seems closest to running the table and making something happen.

Odds that the Raiders remain in Oakland: 3-to-1

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