How the Raiders got comfortable with sports betting

An innocuous conference room table at UNLV was the setting for an all-important meeting in February 2015 with the Raiders. David Purdum/ESPN

The NFL and Las Vegas have grown up together, an upstart sports league from the East Coast and a liberal city in the desert coming of age to emerge as icons in American culture.

During the Super Bowl era, the NFL overtook baseball, the national pastime, to become America's favorite sport. At the same time, Las Vegas was separating itself from the mob and blossoming into an "entertainment mecca" -- to use NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's words.

Even so, the NFL always maintained its distance from Las Vegas, concerned that the city's legal sports betting would tarnish the integrity of its game. In 2013, the league said it wouldn't even consider playing an exhibition game in the city because of sports betting.

Five years later, the NFL and Las Vegas are moving in together. The Raiders are on their way from Oakland, and the sports betting concerns have been addressed.

In fact, one of the earliest steps Raiders owner Mark Davis took in the Las Vegas relocation process was to examine the sports betting issue. It began with an on-field chat, before a 2014 home game against the Broncos, which three months later led to a hush-hush meeting in Las Vegas. The result was a blueprint for how professional sports teams and legal sports betting can co-exist.

This is the story behind the report that helped the Raiders get comfortable with Las Vegas.

A meeting kept secret for three years

Campus police were stationed outside the gray, stone building that sits inconspicuously across a parking lot from the UNLV soccer fields. The meeting inside needed to be kept quiet, so quiet that some attendees purposely left it off their official appointment calendars to maintain secrecy. If word of this Feb. 23, 2015, meeting would have leaked, the future of the NFL and Las Vegas could have been altered.

In a first-floor exhibit room at the UNLV International Gaming Research Center, blackjack tables, roulette wheels and the latest slot machines were on display for students and guests to examine. Two floors up, in an executive boardroom, Mark Davis sat in a tan leather swivel chair, listening intently at one end of a conference table.

Outside the windows, the skyline of the Las Vegas Strip, with its massive casinos, could be seen on the horizon. It's the epicenter of American sports betting, but was it a fit for the NFL? The topic was on the table.

The previous summer, according to an ESPN The Magazine report, Davis had expressed interest in Las Vegas to an NFL official during a West Hollywood meal. He was told then that the league would oppose any such move "on principle."

The February 2015 meeting at the gaming research center was the first between UNLV and the Raiders. It took place a year before Davis appeared in a picture with influential billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and was kept secret for three years afterward.

Napoleon McCallum, a former Raiders running back and now the director of community development for Las Vegas Sands Corp., was sitting between the parties. As a fan of both sides of the table, McCallum made this meeting happen.

The Las Vegas side of the table was excited, though skeptical of the Raiders' intentions. Prominent UNLV official Don Snyder, who had spent the past year as the school's president, was in the room. Snyder has had a hand in some of Las Vegas' most ambitious projects such as the downtown Fremont Experience and, more recently, the $470 million Smith Center for Performing Arts. He's well-connected in town. This meeting was the first he was learning of interest from the Raiders. Everyone hoped this was the beginning of something special, but it was early in the game.

At the time, the Raiders' focus remained on Los Angeles or finding a way to stay in Oakland. Davis didn't want any news of the meeting at UNLV to damage those discussions. There were many other suitors, too. San Antonio was interested; so was Sacramento. Casual inquiries came from Calgary and Mexico. Among the primary candidates, Las Vegas was the long-shot bachelorette with a history of gambling.

At the other end of the table, across from Davis, was Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute. A former captain of the Harvard baseball team, Bernhard is forward-thinking, humble, witty and a leading authority on gambling.

When Davis pointed at him during the meeting and said, "You're the most important person in the room," Bernhard, in a deadpan response, looked over his shoulder and thought, Is he talking about me?

"Napoleon tells me you have all the answers," Davis said. "Lay it out for me."

'The gaming, the gaming'

McCallum played six seasons with the Raiders (1986, 1990-94), splitting carries with Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, while early on also fulfilling his commitment to the U.S. Naval Academy. His playing career ended in gruesome fashion: In the 1994 season-opener against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, he suffered a dislocated knee, resulting in three torn ligaments and severe nerve and artery damage.

McCallum moved to Nevada shortly after his injury and now lives with his wife, Yvonne, and their four daughters in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. He loves the city. "Everyone's looking to be friends," he said. He also loves the Raiders, and, for years, envisioned bringing his new home and his former team together, but kept running into the same line of resistance.

"Anytime I'd mention it to someone, the first thing they'd say was, 'But the gaming, the gaming,'" McCallum recalled from his office at The Venetian during a February interview with ESPN. "They were worried about the integrity of the game."

On its face, sports betting's threat to the integrity of the game is match-fixing -- a player, coach or official purposely trying to impact an outcome inside the competition for gambling purposes. That's only one part of the NFL's concern, however.

In 1963, Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions were suspended for betting on NFL games. Commissioner Pete Rozelle insisted there were "no bribes, no game-fixing or point-shaving," and that all of the bets "were on their own team or on other NFL games." Later in the '60s, rumors of a connection between Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson and known gambler Don "Dice" Dawson (no relation) caused some bookmakers to halt betting on Chiefs games. Looking back, some Las Vegas bookmakers and bettors who were active at the time question whether there was any actual substance behind the Dawson rumors.

Fifty years later, the NFL has avoided any major gambling scandals. Hundreds of players, coaches, league officials, referees and trainers have come and gone through the league, and no one has revealed concrete proof of any game being manipulated for gambling purposes. Player and coach contracts have grown to the point that they far exceed betting limits, and technology has improved the ability to efficiently and accurately monitor betting markets. Right now, the NFL seems safer than ever from a fix; yet, anytime a controversial call affects the final score or point spread, social media lights up with conspiracy theories and accusations of foul play.

Because of this, the NFL also strives to protect the perception of the integrity of the game. Gambling, the league believes, only hurts that perception.

"State-sponsored gambling not only adds to the pressure on our coaches and players, but creates suspicion and cynicism toward every on-the-field mistake that affects the betting line," Goodell wrote in a letter to Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in 2009.

McCallum was never convinced that those fears should prevent the Raiders from coming to Las Vegas. Determined to start the conversation, he got his chance before a Broncos-Raiders game on Nov. 9, 2014, at O.Co Stadium in Oakland.

The Raiders were 0-8 and looking for a new stadium deal. McCallum was invited to attend the game as part of the NFL's Salute to Service Weekend, recognizing Veterans Day. He was in charge of lighting the ceremonial eternal flame honoring late Raiders owner Al Davis. Afterward, on the field, he made his case for Las Vegas to Mark Davis.

"I know you're trying to move out of Oakland and are working on the deal to L.A.," McCallum said to Davis, "but have you ever thought about coming to Las Vegas?"

According to McCallum, Davis said that he had considered it and even discussed it informally with Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, who suggested a potential stadium site out by the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, roughly 12 miles north of downtown. (It was revealed later that Davis had purchased the website domain for LasVegasRaiders.com in 1998).

McCallum didn't like the speedway location and offered an alternative.

"You need to come down to Las Vegas and meet with UNLV," he told Davis. "I think it would be a great partnership there, and I think there's money here to help get this done."

Davis told McCallum to set up a meeting.

Classroom 220

Two months after his on-field chat with Davis, McCallum was back in Las Vegas, sitting in the second row of desks, on the left side of Classroom 220. He was taking an executive development course taught by Bo Bernhard at the UNLV International Gaming Institute.

McCallum and Bernhard had not been formally introduced, and they very nearly weren't on that day either. The course, designed for senior vice presidents and next-generation CEOs in the gaming industry, had a capacity limit of 30. McCallum was the 30th attendee to sign up.

Bernhard began his lecture by holding up an old, black-and-white picture of his great-great grandfather, a charismatic casino worker in the 1940s, who went by Joe "Kid" Jordan. He explained how his grandfather was very good as his job, but had to worry only about what took place inside whichever casino he was working for at the time.

"He didn't have to find China on map," Bernhard told the class. "You, as leaders of today, no longer have that luxury.

"Let me give you an illustration," he continued, "the National Football League, for many years, has refused to air commercials for Las Vegas. It has taken a staunch position against gambling, and, in essence, you can sum it up in two ways: 'We're worried about Las Vegas, and we're worried about sports gambling.'

"We now have answers to all of these questions. ... Many of the things the NFL is worried about, not only is Las Vegas not the problem, it could actually be the solution."

Intrigued, McCallum introduced himself to Bernhard after class. He explained how he had fallen in love with Las Vegas and thought it was a wonderful place to raise his family.

"I also think it's a wonderful place for my team, the Oakland Raiders, to move to," McCallum told Bernhard. "But people always say, 'Good luck convincing the owners and the rest of the NFL that Las Vegas isn't evil and that sports betting isn't evil.' I think I now have the answers to that. Do you want to meet Mark Davis?"

The report

Just weeks after McCallum attended Bernhard's class, Davis arrived discreetly at the International Gaming Institute for that February 2015 meeting. He listened to Bernhard describe what he believed to be the NFL's biggest concerns regarding gambling: corruption, addiction and the sharing of inside information. Bernhard explained how Nevada's regulated sports betting industry approaches those issues.

Davis liked what he heard and asked if the information to be compiled into an academic report.

"Are you kidding?" Bernhard said with a smile. "I'm a nerdy academic."

Bernhard assembled what he described as "dream team" of co-authors: a respected Nevada gaming attorney, a state senator and former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and a top economic expert on the global gaming industry.

The report, titled "Professional Team Sports in Las Vegas: What the Research Says," is 113 pages long and took nearly a year to prepare. It was funded independently by UNLV and focuses on two primary questions:

• "Will the presence of legal sports wagering (and gambling more generally) in Nevada lead to integrity issues for a professional league should a team (re-)locate in Las Vegas?
• "Will operating in Las Vegas lead to unique policing, disciplinary, and/or brand protection issues for a professional league like the NFL?"

They addressed the negatives associated with gambling and acknowledged that the public would likely lose interest in a league featuring games believed to be compromised. "Given these realities, concerns about integrity are economically justified," the report stated.

They examined the sharing of inside information, deriving that "effective prevention of insider trading requires coordination between sports leagues and betting operators."

The conclusion was straightforward.

"We conclude (alongside many other observers) that due to the rigor of Nevada's regulatory practices, the state's approach actually provides sports leagues with their best opportunity to protect themselves when it comes to the all-important issue of integrity," the report said.

Completing the Vegas story

On March 27, 2017, Bernhard was at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, site of the NFL owners meeting that included the Raiders' relocation vote. He was asked by Badain to be on site in case any gambling questions came up.

Bernhard waited around the hotel, expecting a text message. Nothing ever came. There were no questions regarding sports betting from the owners. Either the UNLV report comforted all the fears or maybe gambling just wasn't as big of a concern as the NFL had made it out to be.

"I wouldn't say (sports gambling) was an out-sized concern," said Mark Lipparelli, one of the report's co-authors and a longtime Nevada gaming official and state senator. "I didn't get that impression. I think [the Raiders] were responsible, careful and open-minded. To me, they were doing the right thing."

In the end, a $750 million public contribution for a shiny, new stadium was more than enough of a reward for NFL owners to accept any perceived risk from Las Vegas. Owners voted 31-1 in favor of the move.

"Gambling, that is a major concern for us," Goodell said at a media conference shortly after last year's vote. "I think we have to make sure that we continue to stay focused on making sure that everyone has the full confidence that what you see on the field is not influenced by any outside factors. That's our No. 1 concern. That goes to what I consider the integrity of the game, and we will not relent on that."

The Supreme Court is struck down the federal ban on state-sponsored sports betting, and the NFL and other leagues are positioning themselves for the future.

At an NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Florida, the league presented an analysis on the potential impact of sports betting legalization. The findings reportedly came from a study that had been in the works for more than a year and kept under wraps. One source familiar with the league's analysis said it was focused on revenue opportunities, integrity issues and fan reaction.

The NFL said it was unaware of the report that UNLV had produced for the Raiders and declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, construction has begun on the new stadium in Las Vegas. Bernhard has a commemorative shovel with the team logo on the spade from the groundbreaking ceremony propped up in a corner of his office. He's just down the hallway from the executive boardroom that hosted the first meeting with Davis and up a flight of stairs from the classroom where he met McCallum.

"I want to be very clear," Bernhard said. "I'm not taking credit for the Raiders. But [the report] was one of those little ripples in the process, and it concludes that, for many of the problems the NFL was concerned about, not only was Las Vegas not the problem, Las Vegas -- and more generally, a regulated gaming industry -- is actually the answer. Or at least, it's better than underground bookies."

Snyder, the former UNLV president who attended the first meeting, believes Bernhard is being overly humble and describes the report as being an early "catalyst" in bringing the Raiders to Las Vegas.

"We're going to look back at this particular time in history as being a transitional moment for the city," Snyder said. "We're a city that was known as the entertainment capital of the world. I think 10 years from now, we're going to look back and see that this was the turning point for it to become the sports entertainment capital of the world. I've said many times that this stadium, over time, will become the most successful stadium in the world."

It's still a year or two away before the Raiders arrive in Vegas. Aug. 1, 2020, is targeted for completion of the stadium. Bernhard and McCallum, a pair of Las Vegas dads who became friends during the process, each have visions of opening night.

"Someday, Napoleon is going to walk hand-and-hand with his four daughters into that stadium, and I'm going to walk in with my two daughters," Bernhard said. "There will be six daughters and two daddies, and we'll say, 'Your daddies played a little role in all of this.'"

McCallum wants to see local talent on the field before the first game. He'd also like to catch a punt with one hand, like he used to do in past fan appreciation days for the Raiders.

"Then, to top it off, Bruno Mars," McCallum said. "That's how you open a stadium."