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The NFL’s secret lover

Vegas plays a far greater role this Sunday than the league would ever admit

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Hey NFL front-office types, these guys aren’t all betting on jai alai!
Courtesy of Las Vegas Sun
Patrick Donnelly

Las Vegas has a long and complicated history with the National Football League. In the realm of mutually beneficial yet often dysfunctional relationships of the last half-century, you have Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Batman and the Joker, Terrell Owens and his ego and Las Vegas and the NFL.

The suits at the NFL have long maintained that they’re shocked—shocked!—to discover that people are gambling on their pure-as-the-driven-slush product. Thanks in large part to the pious belligerence of the league’s commissioners—especially the tweedy attorney Paul Tagliabue and Roger “The Disciplinarian” Goodell—Las Vegas has been a curse word in NFL circles, the nation’s fastest-growing media market for a decade yet still without a chance in hell of ever having its own NFL franchise, Oscar Goodman’s fever dreams be damned.

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The league’s paranoia about being linked to our neon Gomorrah reportedly extended to a ban on advertising for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and even the NBC drama Las Vegas during all NFL games. The TV show’s producers blamed its cancellation on the NFL’s policy, saying it couldn’t find an audience while buried in Friday-night wasteland, and NBC wouldn’t move it to earlier in the week if they couldn’t pimp it endlessly between spots for Cialis and Coors Light during Sunday-night football telecasts.

But like most tawdry and satisfying relationships, the affair between Las Vegas and the NFL has been conducted almost exclusively on the down-low. You won’t hear announcers openly refer to point spreads (“That seemingly meaningless field goal gives the Patriots an 18-point lead, but it helps them cover the spot!”), but you might catch a veteran broadcaster like Al Michaels slyly point out an “overwhelming” performance on a scoring play that puts a game over the total.

The NFL’s tacit approval of gambling extends to its draconian injury-report system: teams and/or coaches get fined to the teeth if they intentionally under- or over-report the extent of a given player’s injuries. Do you think that stems from a desire to ensure that Kenny Albert won’t be blindsided by a quarterback’s absence? Or because the league wants to ensure that oddsmakers have enough information available to craft accurate point spreads?

Yes, the existence of the NFL has been great for gamblers (and by extension, Las Vegas), while the spread of legal and illegal wagering, office pools, fantasy football and the like has been a boon to the league’s popularity. Just don’t expect the NFL to officially acknowledge our existence. Anyone who thinks we’re closing in on our own NFL franchise is as delusional as the mistress strung along on the hope that one day, he’ll finally leave his wife and run away to Aruba with her.

Still, that doesn’t mean Las Vegas doesn’t exert a great deal of influence over the NFL. In fact, in this weekend’s Super Bowl, we might be holding the biggest trump card of all. Las Vegas determines who gets to play the “no respect” card.

In the run-up to the NFC Championship game, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby told the Los Angeles Times he’s sick and tired of being disrespected. “That’s the biggest motivation for us. Nobody gave us respect.”

Even Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has fallen into the trap, using the elusive search for respect as a motivational ploy. “Obviously, there are not a lot of people who are going to be singing our praises,” Whisenhunt told USA Today last week. “That will hopefully keep us focused.”

Just check the transcripts from Tuesday’s Super Bowl media day, and you’ll find countless Cardinals—and paradoxically, a handful of Steelers—claiming the mantle of disrespect as their shield and armor when they head into battle.

Las Vegas’ role in determining this disrespect? Simple: Arizona opened as a 6.5-point underdog, a line that quickly moved to 7 when huge money poured in on the Steelers. Thus, if the Cardinals can pull off the upset, or even keep it close, they’ll be able to scream “we shocked the world!” from the highest mountaintop.

That’s right, Las Vegas, we are the world. Just don’t expect Roger Goodell to call in the morning. He knows we’ll still be there for him next fall.

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