The NFL's 180 on Las Vegas

Not that long ago, the NFL didn’t deem Las Vegas worthy of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. Now, it's hosting an actual Super Bowl there.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports illustration)

In 2002, the creative team at Las Vegas’ largest advertising agency began working feverishly on a campaign to reinvent the city’s image.

They wanted to veer away from prior failed attempts to market Las Vegas’ family-friendly roller coasters and attractions. They wanted to portray the city as a destination for adults who wanted to let loose in ways they normally wouldn’t. They wanted something brash, something edgy, something that ushered in a new era.

They wanted something that captured what made Vegas Vegas.

Out of all the seasoned pros who took on that challenge, the ones who struck advertising gold were a pair of 20-something copywriters with plenty of blank space on their résumés. Jason Hoff told Yahoo Sports that he and Jeff Candido bounced ideas off one another for days until they agreed on a now-iconic five-word tagline and a cheeky story to go with it.

The commercial begins with a woman in a low-cut blue top and stiletto boots sliding into the back of a limousine. She brazenly flirts with her limousine driver before vanishing behind the privacy divider. When they arrive at the airport, the driver opens the limo door and is surprised to see the woman step out dressed conservatively, phone to her ear and her hair in a tidy bun. The spot then ends with the words, “What happens here, stays here.”

“When we came up with the tagline, we both were like, ‘Wow, that’s it!!’” Hoff recalled. “The agency and the client were on board, but it wasn’t until years later that any of us understood this was going to be a forever line.”

The commercial that Hoff and Candido dreamed up isn’t just the opener for a wildly successful ad campaign. It also stands as a 30-second monument to Las Vegas’ transformation from sports pariah to sports haven.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was ready to shell out more than $2 million to launch its new ad campaign during Super Bowl XXXVII. Instead the NFL refused to air it, citing concerns about any association between the league and sports betting even though the spot never once alluded to gambling.

That was the best possible outcome for Las Vegas, former mayor Oscar Goodman told Yahoo Sports. Goodman said he went public with the story and “screamed and yelled and called the NFL every name in the book,” igniting a controversy that drew more eyes to the commercial than even the Super Bowl could have.

“By the time I was done, the ad was on every single network, every single channel, every single media outlet,” Goodman said. “They played the ad so much that I’m told that we got $25 million worth of free publicity.”

Twenty-one years later, a seismic shift in the NFL’s attitude toward gambling has also caused the league to do a 180 in its stance toward Las Vegas. It started with the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas. Soon afterward, the city hosted the NFL Draft and the Pro Bowl. On Sunday, Super Bowl LVIII comes to Las Vegas after so many years of the NFL refusing to even acknowledge the city’s existence during commercial breaks.

As UNLV professor and gaming historian David G. Schwartz told Yahoo Sports, “For a lot of people, I think this was something that five or 10 years ago wasn’t even conceivable.”

NFL Football Commissioner Pete RozeThen-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle testifys before the National Gambling Commission in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 1975 on the legalization of sports gambling. Rozelle told the panel that legalized wagering poses a severe threat to the game. (AP Photo/HLG), testifys before the National Gambling Commission in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 1975 on the legalization of sports gambling. Rozelle told the panel that legalized wagering poses a severe threat to the game. (AP Photo/HLG)
Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle testifies before the National Gambling Commission in Washington on Feb. 20, 1975, on the legalization of sports gambling. Rozelle told the panel that legalized wagering poses a severe threat to the game. (AP Photo/HLG) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Kowtowing to the NFL

Pete Rozelle would probably be aghast to learn that the NFL awarded a Super Bowl to Las Vegas of all places.

For nearly 30 years, the longtime NFL commissioner and architect of the modern NFL made it his personal mission to distance the league from anything associated with sports gambling.

He stiff-armed all efforts by Las Vegas politicians and business leaders to foster a cozier relationship with the NFL. He threatened to steer future Super Bowls away from New Orleans if casino gambling became legal there. He repeatedly criticized Raiders team owner Al Davis for his business relationship with a Las Vegas casino tycoon and purported mob frontman. He even nearly pushed the NFL’s reigning Super Bowl MVP into early retirement because of who was part of his entourage.

In 1969, Rozelle threatened to suspend Joe Namath if the renowned quarterback didn’t sell his stake in a New York City nightclub reportedly frequented by gamblers and mobsters. Rozelle didn’t back down even after a teary-eyed Namath insisted that he’d retire from the NFL at the peak of his career before he’d allow himself to be forced to sell.

It wasn’t only the threat of Namath accepting mob money to fix a game that concerned Rozelle. The commissioner also felt it was essential to guard against the appearance or suspicion of impropriety fostered by Namath associating with wrongdoers.

"If you lose public confidence in a sport, you're in trouble,” Rozelle told reporters when the melodrama finally ended with Namath returning to the Jets after agreeing to sell. “An aura of suspicion is just as bad as guilt in sports.”

By the time Rozelle died in 1996, the Las Vegas that he had crusaded against had faded away. Dimly lit red-leather steakhouses and other Rat Pack-era haunts were being torn down to make room for Michelin Star-worthy restaurants and glittering new casinos.

Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate SuperBook, tried to emphasize how much about Las Vegas had changed in the early 2000s when he traveled to Indianapolis for a summit with executives from America’s top pro sports leagues and the NCAA. Kornegay’s primary message, as he explained how oddsmakers set lines and looked for suspicious activity, was that they were “all on the same side” and that “maybe it was best to accept wagers in a regulated environment rather than forcing bettors to go to illegal channels.”

That message resonated with some, Kornegay told Yahoo Sports, but not with the NFL. For years, Rozelle’s successors doubled down on his anti-sports betting stance, holding firm in media interviews, court hearings and congressional testimony. The NFL’s growing influence often allowed it to easily force others to bend the knee.

In the early 2000s, NBC chose not to run promos for its hit show “Las Vegas” during "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts out of fear of antagonizing the all-powerful NFL. Around that same time, Las Vegas casinos kowtowed to the league’s nationwide crackdown on Super Bowl parties that violated the NFL’s intellectual property rights.

In 2004, the NFL sent cease-and-desist letters to the Palms for charging admission to watch the Super Bowl in one of its theaters and for showing the game on a temporary screen larger than 55 inches. The league also insisted that Las Vegas casinos stop using “Super Bowl,” “Super Sunday,” team nicknames and other trademarked words in any type of marketing.

Those demands caught Las Vegas casinos by surprise, but they had little choice but to comply. Casinos typically paid the NFL a fee to obtain broadcasts of every out-of-market regular-season game. Rather than risk the NFL pulling the plug on that or following through with a lawsuit, many casinos purchased an array of 55-inch TVs and started promoting “Big Game” parties.

“It was a scared-straight tactic, and it worked,” Kornegay said. “All the operators here need the NFL. You have to be able to show the games to be competitive. We wanted to make sure that we adhered to their rules.”

As recently as a decade ago, the NFL still avoided Las Vegas like it was radioactive. In 2013, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the NFL had no interest in holding an exhibition game in the city. Two years later, the league threatened to fine or suspend players who attended Tony Romo’s fantasy football convention at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas.

Rob Gronkowski, Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., and nearly 100 other NFL players were originally scheduled to participate. Romo and co-founder Andy Alberth canceled the event when it became clear that the NFL intended to enforce its gambling policy stating that players are not allowed to make promotional appearances on casino property.

Asked if he believes the NFL’s motive was actually related to sports gambling, Alberth chuckled and told Yahoo Sports, “I have yet to find one person who thinks that’s the true reason.”

“We had been in communication with the NFL and the NFLPA,” Alberth said. “We even took the extra precaution of choosing the Sands Expo. It was connected to a casino but had no gambling inside it. It was child friendly. It even had its own exits.”

Allegiant Stadium during NFL football Super Bowl 58 opening night Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Las Vegas. The San Francisco 49ers face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 58 on Sunday. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
(AP Photo/Adam Hunger) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The first straw: fantasy football

It was fantasy sports that first began to soften the NFL’s hard-line stance toward sports betting.

The NFL finally caught on that fantasy football caused fans to watch games they otherwise didn’t find interesting and kept them engaged in matchups where the outcome had long been decided. As a result, the league went from distancing itself from fantasy football to embracing both the season-long and daily versions of the game.

By 2015, all but four of the NFL’s 32 franchises had entered marketing agreements with daily fantasy operators, according to CNN. Prominent team owners Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots invested in DraftKings. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was doing mental gymnastics to differentiate between fantasy sports and gambling.

As sports betting became more widely acceptable and gambling coverage started to regularly seep into mainstream media, other American pro sports leagues began to explore possibilities once considered taboo.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for the nationwide legalization of sports betting. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the idea deserved “fresh consideration.” Around this same time, the NHL started looking into putting an expansion team in Las Vegas.

The stage was set for the NFL to finally begin a relationship with Las Vegas after so many years of giving the city the cold shoulder.

And in early 2017, it finally happened.

NFL franchise owners nearly unanimously approved the Raiders relocating from Oakland to Las Vegas. Instead of being stuck sharing a crumbling stadium with the Oakland A’s, the Raiders moved into $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, built with the help of a record-setting $750 million in public funds.

“I was always in the it-will-never-happen boat all the way to the end,” Kornegay said. “I had sat in meetings with NFL executives. I knew their strong stance against sports gambling. I said the NFL will never come here. So when it did happen, it really did shock me.”

Once the NFL came to Vegas, it acted like so many of the characters in the “What happens here stays here” commercials. It shed its old persona and assumed a newer, saucier one.

The league entered into partnerships with major sportsbooks, unveiled NFL-themed slot machines and opened an NFL retail store on the Las Vegas Strip. It awarded Las Vegas the NFL Draft. Then the Pro Bowl. And then, the biggest crown jewel of all, Super Bowl LVIII.

When the San Francisco 49ers meet the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the blinking neon star of the Super Bowl broadcast might be the city of Las Vegas itself. CBS producers have installed cameras at some of the highest points in the city to capture footage of everything from the Strip, to the Sphere, to the Bellagio fountains.

“We are weaving Vegas into everything we do,” Harold Bryant, CBS’s executive producer and executive vice president of production, said.

Not that long ago, the NFL didn’t deem Las Vegas worthy of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. Now what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. It will be beamed to a global audience.