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Raiders owner playing high-stakes poker in Vegas

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January 31, 2017 12:47 PM
Raiders owner Mark Davis wants to move his team to Las Vegas from Oakland. (USA Today Images)

Commentary by Matt Youmans

VSiN Senior Editor


It was a marriage made by money and politics, so the bitter breakup should not come as a big surprise. There were hints of problems for months. Still, Sheldon Adelson sounds stunned.

Time will tell if Raiders owner Mark Davis is a shrewd poker player or a fool who overplayed his hand so badly that he will be stuck in the decaying Oakland home he no longer wants.

The odds still are in Davis’ favor. He’s still got a stadium deal on the table and the opportunity to close.

Adelson is out of this high-stakes game, which is probably a good thing for Davis and the NFL.

The Raiders’ planned relocation to Las Vegas never was going to be a smooth process. But most of the hurdles—including the sports wagering issue—had been cleared before Monday, when Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. chairman and CEO, suddenly pulled out and seemingly put the entire project in jeopardy.

A story that was intriguing just became a classic.

Adelson, one of the world’s richest men with a net worth in the $30 billion neighborhood, is portraying Davis, one of the NFL’s poorest owners, as too greedy and unfaithful. Secretive negotiations that dragged on for months finally broke down, and the unlikely Adelson-Davis partnership just turned into a duel in the middle of the street. Adelson says he’s the victim. Davis is not saying anything. Everyone is watching.

The Charles Barkley-LeBron James feud is child’s play by comparison.

This much is definitely true: The Las Vegas Raiders would not be remotely close to reality without Adelson pushing the plan this far. He worked his political puppets and essentially fixed an October vote in the state legislature to approve $750 million in public financing for a proposed $1.9 billion stadium near the Strip.

Adelson wanted the stadium, so Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval was going to make sure it happened. Clark County Commission chairman Steve Sisolak, who aspires to replace Sandoval, supported the project every step of the way, as well.

Davis knows none of this was possible without Adelson, and the Raiders acknowledged that much in a Monday statement:

"The Raiders deeply appreciate the efforts of the Adelson family to bring the Raiders to Las Vegas. We know this project could not have advanced to this point without them. The Raiders remain steadfast in honoring Mark Davis’ commitment to Governor Sandoval and the State of Nevada to pursue relocation to Las Vegas.”

Sisolak issued a statement that said he is “sorry to hear about this development” and “remains hopeful that we will see our NFL dream come true.”

Like most sports fans, I want to see the Raiders in Las Vegas, too. The stadium and the NFL would be a great boost to the city’s future in several ways. But, at this point, who cares if Adelson is excluded?

It only matters to Sandoval and the politicians who are supported by Adelson. Those are the people who look like fools and certainly feel the worst. Adelson spent money and time and imposed a lot of influence to get this far, only to have nothing to show for it. He probably feels used, and a billionaire egomaniac hates to be used.

So now we’ll see if an angry Adelson, who owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal and can control how the stories are spinned, sets out to try to scuttle the project and get revenge on the Raiders.

Adelson’s statement: “The Oakland Raiders came before the Las Vegas Stadium Authority last week with a proposed lease agreement that has sent shockwaves through our community. It was certainly shocking to the Adelson family. We were not only excluded from the proposed agreement; we weren’t even aware of its existence. In addition to being discouraged by the surprise submission, I was deeply disappointed for the disregard the Raiders showed our community partners, particularly UNLV, through the proposed agreement. It’s clear the Raiders have decided their path for moving to Las Vegas does not include the Adelson family. So, regrettably, we will no longer be involved in any facet of the stadium discussion.”

Adelson, who had committed $650 million toward the stadium, went on to thank “so many of our elected officials who have made this a top priority for Southern Nevada.”

To be sure, many people are laughing at Adelson’s demise in these developments.

He’s a tough negotiator and tough to like, but it appears he was played by Davis and Raiders president Marc Badain. However, the Raiders also can be cast as villains, after their proposed lease called for $1 per year in rent and control of stadium operations that did UNLV no favors.

With Adelson out of the picture, Davis can dictate the rest of the story. Davis can reshape public perception by proposing another lease that is more hospitable to the Rebels, and he can bring in another private investor to close the deal.

In mid-January, when Davis filed relocation papers to move the Raiders to Las Vegas, he said Goldman Sachs was prepared to step in and fill Adelson’s financial void. There might be more options. Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who sold the UFC for $4 billion last year, are expected to be interested. Los Angeles real estate developer Ed Roski is another candidate.

The NFL never was thrilled with Adelson’s involvement. He was not getting an ownership stake in the Raiders, and as long as they are casino owners, neither are the Fertittas. The league is not going to allow it. Still, there are ways the Fertittas can enter the fray.

If Davis plotted this — going to the dance with Adelson and leaving with another partner — he’s a shrewd poker player like his late father.

But it’s risky business. If the Raiders end up stuck in Oakland, everyone involved loses in this deal.

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