After several years of speculation, it appears that the NFL is finally ready to gamble on the Las Vegas market. In January 2017, the Oakland Raiders filed relocation papers with the NFL to move to Las Vegas—the first step in the relocation process for an NFL franchise. The next step is for 24 of the 32 NFL owners to approve the move at the NFL owners’ meetings held from March 26 to 29. According to league sources, approval from at least 24 owners is all but guaranteed, meaning that the greatest remaining roadblock facing the Raiders is the issue of financing their proposed $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium.
Publicly financed sports stadiums have been an extremely controversial topic over the past decade, and the Raiders stadium is no different. Under the current proposal, $750 million of the Raiders stadium would be publicly financed with bonds backed by a hotel tax. According to Richard Velotta of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “[s]tate officials are banking on increased economic activity, new jobs, increased local wages and increased tax revenue” to pay back the publicly financed portion of the stadium, and “[state officials] expect room, gaming, sales and entertainment tax revenue to climb once the stadium is operating.”
While this is inspiring rhetoric, unfortunately, these precise claims have been debunked numerous times in the context of other publicly financed stadiums. There are many reasons why publicly funded sports stadiums ultimately end up harming taxpayers, but Stanford economics professor Roger Nole has stated that the problem is simply that “NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth, and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover any significant financial contribution by the city.” With these concerns in mind, the Raiders’ decision to use public funds for $750 million of the stadium is likely to be met with widespread public backlash—and in fact some commentators have already begun to speculate as to whether or not the public is assuming too much of the risk for this project.
In addition to the issue of using public funds to finance the new stadium, there has also been a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the private investors for this project. Just weeks after the Raiders filed their relocation papers, the relocation plan was put in jeopardy by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s decision to withdraw his pledge of $650 million for the Las Vegas stadium. After Adelson withdrew his support, Goldman Sachs was reportedly in line to invest the $650 million, but Goldman Sachs ultimately pulled their support a mere 24 hours after Adelson’s announcement.
The difficulty the Raiders are having in finding financiers for their stadium is likely largely attributable to the skepticism surrounding Las Vegas as a viable sports market. According to a Forbes article published in January 2017, “Las Vegas would be the 23rd largest market in terms of population….[And] Las Vegas would be in the bottom half of the NFL markets in terms of household income and corporate base per professional sports franchise.” Additionally, Las Vegas is home to numerous other forms of live entertainment and is a city that has been deemed “the most tourism-dependent city in the U.S.” It becomes clear why there is so much skepticism surrounding the city’s ability to build a large hometown following for a sports franchise. Tourists coming in for the weekend may be willing to spend money on Raiders tickets once, but the sustained success of a sports franchise requires building a loyal hometown fan-base—something that a Las Vegas sports franchise is particularly ill-suited to accomplish.
Luckily for the Raiders, they were able to find a new financing partner in Bank of America, who picked up the $650 million tab left behind by Adelson and Goldman Sachs. As a result, it appears that the Raiders will get their wish for a new stadium in Las Vegas, but the question remains—is the relocation really the right decision? The financing roadblocks should serve as red flags for the entire relocation project, as the difficulty in finding financing can be seen as a reflection of the market’s lack of confidence in Las Vegas as a viable sports town. For now, the Raiders appear poised to move to Las Vegas by 2020, but if these early financing issues are any indication, the NFL’s bet on Las Vegas may well be a losing one.
Charlie Peskowitz is a J.D. candidate, 2018, at NYU School of Law.