LAS VEGAS -- The private jet had just taken off from Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport when Mark Davis took a glance out the window to his left.
Down below, directly across the street from the airport on Tropicana Avenue in the middle of this gambling mecca, the Oakland Raiders owner spied the 42-acre plot of empty desert that could hold the answer to his franchise’s perilous future.
Davis was silent before closing the window shade, sitting back and taking a deep breath.
Flirtation with Las Vegas as a new home for the Raiders had turned into a full-blown romance a few hours earlier -- during a meeting of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee on April 28 -- when Davis pledged to give $500 million toward the construction of a $1.4 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium near the Strip.
“We have made a commitment to Las Vegas at this point in time, and that’s where it stands,” Davis told a packed media conference at UNLV’s Stan Fulton Building. “If Las Vegas can come through with what we’ve been talking about, and we can come to do a deal here, then we’re going to be the Las Vegas Raiders.”
The heart of Silver and Blackdom taking up a permanent residence in Sin City? What seemed a pipe dream weeks earlier had new, neon life breathed into it with Davis’ declaration.
So long as certain parameters were met.
In an exclusive ESPN.com in-flight interview from Las Vegas to Oakland, where Davis returned from the meeting for the NFL draft, he expanded upon his reasons why Southern Nevada holds a certain appeal over the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area; how he has tried to make it work in Oakland; and why, as he told Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, he hopes to turn the Silver State into the Silver and Black State.
“It was a positive, well-organized presentation that I believe was well-received,” Davis said of the meeting, which included the star power of international soccer figure David Beckham, who does promotional work for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and spoke of how a stadium would bring global attention to Las Vegas. “It was a very positive step in finding the Raiders a home.
"I don’t think they’re wasting their time, either.”
Davis insists he is not using Las Vegas as leverage for a new stadium in Oakland. It raised more than a few eyebrows and hackles in the Bay Area when Davis pledged $500 million to Las Vegas. Fans want to know where that money was for a new stadium in Oakland.
“We’ve already said we’d put $500 million toward a stadium in Oakland,” said Davis, who would need corporate and/or taxpayer money in addition to his own to stay in Bay Area. “But there is a substantial funding gap, and there’s no way to make it up.
“I just don’t see how we finance this.”
The gap is where the Sands and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is in a power struggle with the Las Vegas Convention Center and its planned expansion, enter the fray. Tax dollars could be in play and, many observers believe, there is only enough to accommodate one project -- the stadium or the LVCC expansion.
The Sands and partnering business Majestic Realty have pledged an additional $150 million, leaving $750 million for taxpayers to see the stadium project through at its early stage. A hotel tax is the logical play, though many in Las Vegas would rather see Adelson pony up more to bridge the gap.
The Raiders will have to clear a few hurdles before money starts changing hands.
The Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee must recommend to the governor and state legislature that the stadium project is a more worthy endeavor than a convention center expansion. Then the legislature, which is not scheduled to meet again until 2017, would have to call a special session this summer to approve a tax package to raise the remaining $750 million.
After that, the NFL owners would have to approve a Raiders relocation with affirmative votes by at least 24 of 32 owners.
And that brings into question the sports-gambling issue. The NFL’s hard-line stance against betting seems to have softened somewhat. The league would have a hard time defending against a Las Vegas relocation, with 28 of 32 teams and the NFLPA having relationships with such fantasy sites as DraftKings and FanDuel. The NFL also stages regular-season games in London, where betting is allowed.
“We’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse,” Davis said many times during the flight and an earlier meeting.
Unless blocking a Raiders move is personal.
Is the son still paying for the sins -- real or perceived -- of the father?
“Ask them,” Davis said of the NFL owners.
For example, in the wake of the Raiders being denied a move to Los Angeles, perception turned to reality when Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, in a New York Times Magazine article in January, “Oakland gets nothing. Al used to sue us all the time.”
Remember, it was the Raiders’ joint plan with the San Diego Chargers to move to Carson, California, that was recommended by a committee of owners before a few of the more well-heeled of the clique, particularly the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, spoke up in favor of Stan Kroenke moving the Rams from St. Louis to Inglewood, California, per an ESPN The Magazine article.
The Raiders, as Davis said at the time, finished third in a three-team race for L.A., though the Raiders do have the option to join the Rams, should the Chargers stay put in San Diego.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to ESPN.com that there is no “prohibition under league rules on a team moving to any particular city ... as the commissioner [Roger Goodell] said, if a proposal was brought forward, all factors would be considered by the clubs, including this issue.”
Goodell was asked specifically on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike show about the Raiders and Las Vegas the day after Davis’ meeting in Las Vegas. Goodell said he’d “love to see them stay” put in Oakland.
“We think that would be the most positive outcome,” Goodell said. “But they’re considering all of their alternatives ... the gambling, the market, the stadium, all the other aspects of that will be considered in the context of relocation."
“I think all of us have evolved a little bit on the gambling," Goodell continued. "To me, where I cross the line is anything that can impact the integrity of the game. If people feel like it’s going to have an influence on the outcome of the game, we are absolutely opposed to that. And that’s why we’re opposed to team-sports gambling.”
Goodell added that he did not see daily fantasy sports as gambling.
A Las Vegas relocation would give the Raiders a chance to start anew in an untapped market. (Many see Las Vegas as an extended suburb of Los Angeles, anyway, and it’s still less than a 90-minute flight from the Raiders' ancestral home of Oakland.)
And many believe that a franchise located in Las Vegas would be a boon for the league, not just the team.
Think Super Bowls and Pro Bowls and a year-round presence in one of the most heavily visited cities in the world.
That is why Davis’ $500 million pledge, which would include a pre-existing $200 million loan arrangement from the league, is not just for the construction of the stadium. Rather, in that lump sum would be money earmarked for the construction of a team facility, complete with offices, a locker room, practice field and the long-awaited team Hall of Fame. All would be off-site, away from the stadium in a different part of the Las Vegas Valley. Davis sees it patterned after the Cowboys’ “The Star” complex in Frisco, Texas.
Yes, Las Vegas is a relatively small media market, but it is larger than four current NFL markets: Green Bay, Jacksonville, Buffalo and New Orleans.
And as Raiders team president Marc Badain pointed out, there has been no progress with a new Oakland stadium, and the league gave the Raiders permission to search for alternatives.
Davis said on the flight that Larry MacNeil, who was hired to front the Raiders' Oakland stadium search in January, cannot get a meeting with city officials. Davis and Badain said progress they had made, pointing to a term sheet that was 80 percent done for a new stadium on the current Coliseum grounds in June 2014 -- which included 169 acres of free land promised by former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and since rescinded by sitting Mayor Libby Schaaf -- is all but dead, especially with Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics being given a 10-year lease shortly thereafter.
In January, after the announcement of an agreement in principle for the Raiders' one-year lease extension with two one-year options, the team's rent was tripled. Then the naming rights for the Coliseum, which helped the team with rent, were lost.
“Individually, they’re great people,” Davis said of Oakland city, Alameda County and Joint Powers Authority legislators. “But you get two or more of them in a room, total dysfunction.”
The Joint Powers Authority, which is a public partnership between the City of Oakland and Alameda County and manages the Coliseum complex and includes Oakland city council member Larry Reid and Alameda County supervisor Nate Miley, declined to comment through a spokesman for this story.
Reid, who is chair of the JPA board, said in a March release that the lease agreement to keep the Raiders in Oakland for 2016 with the two one-year options “recognizes that the Oakland Raiders are a crucial part of our local sports economy. Working together with the team and our community partners, we now go back to work to create a longer-term agreement for a permanent home for the team.”
City officials have said no public funds will be used for a new Raiders stadium, because Oakland and Alameda County are still more than $100 million in debt over the reconstruction of the east end of the Coliseum in 1996.
Oakland Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio said before the January relocation decision that “if the vote is not in their favor for Los Angeles, we come to the table with different leverage and needs, and I think we can begin to have talks in a different way.”
Yes, Davis has heard the cries from Bay Area fans and he sympathizes.
“We haven’t just abandoned you,” he said. “We’ve tried for eight years to make it work.”
Even if a Raiders move to Las Vegas is fast-tracked, it’s hard to see them playing a regular-season game there before 2019. Davis has the options to remain in Oakland through 2018, and the Las Vegas stadium -- Davis prefers a retractable dome with natural grass -- would take 36 months to build before both the Raiders and UNLV football move in.
Davis said the Raiders would likely play one preseason game a year at UNLV’s 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium on the far southeast side of town -- the Oakland lease allows for one home preseason game to be off-site -- and play out the regular season as lame ducks in Oakland.
The new Las Vegas stadium is not guaranteed to be on the plot of land Davis spied from the sky on his flight out of town.
That land is owned by UNLV, but there could be FAA issues over being so close to an active runway, and the ingress, egress and parking-lot tailgate experience that Davis has trumpeted as necessary in Oakland would be nonfactors in Las Vegas in any of the other four potential Strip-centric sites for a stadium.
Davis said he is “site agnostic” regarding Las Vegas and “ready to deal with the lack of tailgating space and create a new game-day experience unique to Las Vegas."
Observers close to the stadium proposal suggest another potential location could be south of the Strip near Interstate 15 entering the city, which would offer all the Raiders need in terms of space.
“We’ve been working on the macro, so now we have to start working on the micro," he said. "Now it’s time to start drilling down and not get ahead of ourselves by letting the legislative process get underway.”
And if the vote does not go his way, might Davis pull a page from his late father’s playbook and move the Raiders on his own?
“I don’t want to answer that question right now,” he said, stone-faced. “We’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
The Raiders have played in Las Vegas before, a preseason game against the Houston Oilers on Aug. 29, 1964, at old Cashman Field. Al Davis challenged the city’s then-segregated hotels with the AFL’s integrated rosters.
Before a sold-out crowd of more than 12,000, Oakland won 24-20.
“The Raiders are undefeated in Las Vegas,” Davis joked before the meeting. “With your help, it won’t be another 50 years before the Raiders play another football game in Las Vegas.”
It was the first step in a multilayered move. As his jet began its descent into Oakland, Davis raised the shade on his window.
He surveyed the surrounding greenery, water and immense beauty of the Bay Area. He was torn but steadfast.
“This,” he said with a heavy sigh, “is hard.”