Raiders still all-in on Vegas, but without Adelson's millions, is it a losing bet?
NFL owners could sour on Mark Davis' Sin City push after casino magnate pulls his chips
In business terms, Sheldon Adelson is a shark. In Las Vegas business terms, he is a great white, a killer shark, the ultimate potential predator. And, in these same terms, Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis might not quite be Dory or Nemo, but he is a genus and species quite different from Alderson, to say the least.
So the coupling of these two was always looked at with one eyebrow raised by other NFL owners and some in the league office. And for as much as Davis assured his fellow members that everything was fine between him and Adelson -- who owns the Sands casino and the local newspaper in Las Vegas and is the kind of guy who could be your best, most influential friend ever, or your worst enemy -- there remained rumblings of concern. Davis was quick to tell guys like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones -- owners who seemed quite keen to get that $750 million in public funding from Las Vegas and get shovels in the ground ASAP -- at recent league meetings that he had basically agreed to a deal to finance this potential stadium in Nevada. He also said that even if it somehow didn't work it out, well, he had investment bankers who would pony up that $650 million. Ultimately, he didn't need Adelson to get this done, even though he was clearly a vital cog and the catalyst in getting Davis in this position in the first place, or so the story went. Or so Davis would try to have you believe.
Now, with Adelson announcing he has walked away from this stadium project entirely, well, Davis has a problem, whether he wants to admit it or not. He longer has Adelson's massive pockets, or his unique Vegas development acumen and his unquantifiable resources in terms of connections, relationships and know-how. Need a favor to call in? If you are looking for a fixer type in the desert if, say, construction is going slowly or someone isn't holding up their end of the bargain, you could do a helluva lot worse than Adelson.
And now, instead of the Raiders going to the annual spring meeting in March being able to crow about likely having the 24 votes they need to secure a move to Vegas, there are very real concerns about the viability of this project and whether it even makes sense to bring the matter to a vote a few months from now.
Davis has a problem on several levels, beyond just the finances of the deal. To be clear, however, there is no understating that there are real concerns about whether Goldman Sachs will in fact step up to finance that huge chunk of money Adelson was going to bring to the table. While Adelson removing himself does take away one potential concern -- he was going to have to find a way to divest himself of his varied casino and gambling interests in order to ever have a stake in the team -- it potentially creates several more.
"It's a positive and a negative," said one well-connected source with this project. "It will cost Mark more money and he loses his local cheerleader -- and a powerful one at that. It may be helpful with the NFL because of the long-standing prohibition on gambling connections by teams, but it may hurt in Las Vegas because Adelson was one of the driving forces behind the public funding and marketing commitments needed."
This has become a much riskier proposition for Davis and one that will require him to figure out a way to offset the considerable debt he would incur by seeking this money via loan, to say nothing of the acumen he and his franchise will have to display to get settled on The Strip, should the Raiders actually ever move there. Davis will need to be incredibly hands-on in terms of overseeing development and construction, in terms of building the business side of the operation and building a ticket base and building bridges with the various businesses and casinos in that area.
Oh, and he has to do this now with Adelson fuming on the sidelines, and potentially providing hurdles both real or perceived (did I mention he owns the local newspaper?), rather than being uniquely motivated to make sure all of this goes off without a hitch. And, now, Davis has to convince the other NFL owners that this project is as viable and potentially profitable and worth the risk of leaving one of the league's top television markets -- at a time when ratings are down, no less. Why leave the Bay Area, which is preferable on virtually every economic metric, for an unproven and untested Vegas market that is around the 40th-best television market in the country?
"What this really does is reduce the profitability for Mark," the source continued, "and makes him have to perform more on the business side. And the relocation fee hasn't really raised its ugly head yet. And it will."
Davis owns the Raiders because his father, Al, built the franchise and passed it on to him. Marketing, development and construction are not his forte. That's widely the perception around the league, which explains the difficulties he had trying to get the Raiders back to Los Angeles and why his failed project in Carson, California, with the Chargers, ultimately required the inclusion of Disney CEO Bob Iger to generate steam. And even then, it was trumped by the billions of dollars Stan Kroenke could contribute to his project in Inglewood for the Rams.
There's a reason Dean Spanos of the Chargers got first right to join Kroenke in L.A. -- and promptly executed that option a year later -- and not Davis. There are also reasons why, even with this move to Las Vegas getting increasing momentum, and even with Davis declaring his intentions to move at recent meetings and even with him telling other owners it's "a done deal, we're going to Vegas," that questions lingered and would continue to linger until shovels hit the ground.
Even if the NFL is willing to alter its debt limits to allow Davis to borrow this much money to try to get the project off the ground, as one expert put it, you still have to be willing to gamble that the market can support that much debt, plus the relocation fee, plus an angry Adelson. There's also the fact that Davis will be getting $100 million less in league funding than he would if he rebuilt in California. You also need to buy in, on some level, that Vegas is actually superior to Oakland, and that it is viable enough to withstand issues in the local economy like a high foreclosure rate and lesser business infrastructure to the tech-rich Bay Area.
And, recall, despite the massive handout Davis is already getting from Las Vegas, he still had the audacity to ask for $1 a year in rent. You think public sentiment on that might change a bit with someone like Adelson leading the charge against it?
So, at the very least, there is stalled momentum with Vegas and Davis has some scurrying to do to convince people Goldman Sachs or someone else is fully on board in order to cover this massive nut. In the meantime, influential forces at the league office, who strongly believe, over time, Oakland is a far superior market, have time between now and the March meeting to continue grassroots work with local developers and politicians in the Bay Area to make gains.
The deal that city would like to do with Fortress, the development group headed by former 49ers Ronnie Lott, has merit. As it was explained to me, Oakland has an approved vote to contribute 130 acres of land and all taxes on that land to the Raiders. Lott's group would then help the Raiders finance $300 million to $400 million to bring to the project, the NFL kicks in $300 million in G4 loan money and Lott's group lends the rest of the money required to complete construction. Davis has been unwilling to consider an ownership stake for Fortress, but others in the know tell me there are other ways Davis could make them whole in the end besides them having a piece of the team.
Of course, Davis, seduced by the Vegas possibility, doesn't want anyone spending much time mulling that. He has been unwilling to listen to much else besides, "Vegas, baby." He doesn't want to talk about any possibility in Oakland. He has shut out the local government. He has been averse to considering it.
Given the events of this week, he might be wise to reconsider all of the above.
It could be that Oakland becomes more viable than Vegas, and the sentiment among NFL owners begins to swing more to the Bay Area given all of the variables and vagaries now in Vegas. It could be that Davis becomes quietly a bit more amenable to listening to Oakland. He has lost a shark, and one that might already smell blood. It might not be a bad idea to keep swimming in local waters.
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