If you’ve been paying attention to the NFL, you may have noticed that this 2020 season is like no other. During this pandemic almost every aspect of our lives we must accept the unexpected and expect that it can always get stranger, football is no exception. Take this past Week 12 of the regular season schedule, the highly anticipated Thanksgiving late game featuring the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers was moved to Sunday 11/29, then to Tuesday 12/1 and finally played upon Wednesday 12/2 while losing star players along the way at a start time of 3:40pm EST, yes WNF. You can also look to the Denver Broncos this past Sunday who had ZERO Quarterbacks on the active roster to play against the New Orleans Saints because of the NFL Covid-19 protocols which had them quarantine their entire quarterback group this past Saturday, something the Las Vegas Raiders organization and their head coach Jon Gruden took notice of.
You may ask what do these instances have to do with the city of Las Vegas and the Raiders? Aside from betting odds, playoff outlooks, precedents for operations, they are also a testament to how mountains can be moved and how anything can go from 100 to 0, real quick.
The city of Las Vegas, despite the odds, finally got their first ever professional sports team with the Vegas Golden Knights in the National Hockey League. Following the massive success of the VGK, the city also through the National Football league approval and a negotiated stadium deal landed the Raiders who relocated from Oakland to Las Vegas. It would for almost all, including myself who is a LV native, been impossible to fathom that the NFL would ever play a game in Las Vegas let alone have a franchise located here. That being said, before the Raiders could even lace up their cleats in their new home, the entire NFL was coming to Las Vegas in April for the 2020 NFL Draft.. until it wasn’t.
The 2020 NFL Draft was scheduled to be held in Vegas on April 23-25, it was set to be a three-day event but trust me when I say for the nightlife, daylife, restaurants, hotel-casinos, and other attractions it would’ve been that entire week plus Sunday for Sin City. The previous draft in Nashville for the 2019 draft class attracted more than 600,000 visitors and had $244 million in overall economic impact and $133 million in direct spending from the visitors. All due respect to Nashville but it would be safe to assume Vegas with all the accommodations, attractions, and gaming as a global entertainment destination would’ve exceeded those numbers. The event main stage was to be held at the new Caesars Forum, a brand new $375 million conference center located near the High Roller ferris wheel near the LINQ hotel, but the most “Only in Vegas” aspect was the planned red carpet stage to be set up over the water in front of the Bellagio fountains where any NFL player attending could choose to be taken by boat to the stage. So as all the buzz and excitement for the draft was building in February and March, so was the national and global concern of the Covid-19 virus. The NFL monitored and held onto the scheduled draft events and experiences seemingly as long as they could but ultimately canceled all live events on March 16th in consideration and guidance from medical experts, the CDC, Nevada’s public authorities, and the City of Las Vegas. The necessary and justifiable decision to cancel was a blow to the city who lost the business and featured exposure which would’ve planted the flag of Sin City as a legitimate professional sports town and showcased the nearly completed Allegiant Stadium, the home of the new Las Vegas Raiders. The dire implications of the virus turned pandemic cannot and should not be discounted, this is just an account of events and implications. Now as for playing ball, the new Allegiant Stadium was to be completed in time for the Raiders debut season as a Vegas franchise but would fans be able to attend the home games in the fall?
Let me tell you about the arrival of the Death Star, the nickname given to the new Allegiant Stadium by many including Raiders owner Mark Davis. I promise to try and not “nerd out” in regards to Star Wars where the stadium’s moniker comes from but it does in fact look like an intimidating silver-and-black home base that could super-laser away any opposing team’s dreams of winning a contest. The $2.6 billion, 65,000 seat capacity, state-of-the-art facility has an exuberant amount of features including a semi-translucence domed roof which could allow natural light in to illuminate the filed during day games, a 20-million pound “field tray” playing surface (natural grass) which can be retracted to expose surfaces for other events and of course the 85-foot eternal “flame” honoring the late Raiders owner Al Davis, that was 3D-printed, and is made of carbon fiber and aluminum.. where that super-laser may come from, I did make a promise, didn’t I? Construction began in November 2017 and was completed in time for the inaugural season despite the growing concerns/complications from the coronavirus pandemic which sickened some construction workers and delayed some phases and projects, as well as an international trade war which threatened steel supplies. The next dominos to fall for the NFL, teams, and players was the canceling of voluntary off-season OTAs (organized team activities) and the in-person minicamps. The outlook for fan attended games continued to look bleak with the postponement of Allegiant Stadium’s first major planned event on August 22nd featuring a Garth Brooks concert. The postponed concert wasn’t the lynchpin for what would happen next for Las Vegas professional football in the near term but it was not a good sign. The NFL preseason is 4 games in length with 2 home and 2 away games, the Raiders in preseason Week 1 and Week 2 were away in Seattle and San Francisco, the remaining 2 home games were scheduled for August 27th hosting the Arizona Cardinals and September 3rd with the Los Angeles Rams. On July 1st, the NFL announced cutting its preseason schedule from 4 to 2 games which removed the Week 1 and Week 4 matchups for every team leaving the only home game being the matchup with the Cardinals on August 27th. While it was prudent to shorten the preseason it seemed inevitable that it would be canceled entirely which it was and formally announced by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on July 27th in regards to the covid-19 pandemic. Prior to Goodell’s announcement, the NFL had not developed a league-wide policy for regular season fan attendance but left it up to the team organizations to create their own internal policies in conjunction with local health officials. As for the Las Vegas Raiders, owner Mark Davis came to the decision that even he himself would not attend any games if the fans are not allowed to be there. “I won’t go if the fans can’t go,” Davis told theathlectic.com. It’s not hard to believe that the Raiders sold out every seat in the stadium leading up to its debut season in its new home, and with states and cities with NFL teams proposing limited capacities to maintain social distancing including Las Vegas, Nevada the Raiders owner double-downed for his fans. “It’s all or none for me. Either all the fans are going to be in there or none. Davis told theathletic.com. I can’t tell one fan that they can’t go to the inaugural opening game in a stadium they helped build through their PSLs. I won’t tell them that they can’t go but the rest of these guys can.”
Let us set our sights back to Fabulous Las Vegas during the aforementioned time frames. Due to the rise of coronavirus cases the Nevada Covid-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force with NV Governor Steve Sisolak shut down operations and closed all Clark County bars, taprooms, breweries in March which also included other entertainment venues. Bars were allowed to reopen on June 30th but were issued to close again after just a few weeks on July 10th. Essentially the establishments were closed for 6 months, with mounting pressure from the community to be able to patron, work and live. Now there is an expression that the “NFL is King” in regards to the sports world and we have seen it play itself into politics and social justice but maybe into city policy as well? It may be my own personal conspiracy but I did find it curious that after the 6-month shutdown Nevada’s Covid-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force and Gov. Sisolak allowed drinking businesses to reopen on Monday, September 21st at 12:00 am. That is the same date as the first-ever National Football League game hosted in Las Vegas during Week 2 of the regular season on Monday Night Football that hosts future hall of famer Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Gov Sisolak wasn’t winning any popularity contests at the time with Las Vegas locals and with fans not being able to attend or tailgate the game already, having the bars not open to celebrate this monumental event would’ve not helped his cause. It’s obviously not mentioned as the reason for reopening the bar establishments but I don’t believe Vegas was in any trend to suggest to change course on the closure. The covid-19 positivity rate for Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, dropped from 8.6% to 7.8% the week prior when the decision was made that week Thursday, the World Health Organization at that time recommended that the rate should not be higher than 5.0%. Whatever side on the fence you may be on in regards to the reopening, most locals did not complain and many businesses rejoiced and began employee recall and worked within the 50% capacity and safety guidelines. So now there is NFL football in Las Vegas and aside from sneak peeks of walk-throughs and practices the world got to watch the Raiders defend the Death Star.
Turning back to the Silver and Black, how did the Raiders coaches and players handle the cancellations, operating restrictions and health guidelines? On the onset of these more recent events, not well. The Raiders have racked up $1.185 million in fines for breaking covid-19 protocols and is the first and only team to lose a future draft pick which ended up being a 2021 draft sixth-round pick. Some of the violations leading to that hefty fine total stemmed from their first home opener on MNF where head coach Jon Gruden himself for not wearing a mask on the sidelines, and allowing a non-credentialed employee access to the locker room following the game. The players themselves including star quarterback Derek Carr, tight end Darren Waller and several other teammates were fined for appearing at a charity event on October 5th without masks on and interacting socially with the crowd. Earlier before the charity event in late September Pro Bowl tackle Trent Brown who tested positive for covid-19 was not wearing his tracer at the team facilities, while several other players were not wearing masks after cornerback Damon Arnette had been placed on the reserve/covid-19 list. Actions like those led to the Raiders to place 4 other starting offensive lineman into quarantine for a week because they were deemed high-risk close contacts. There have been a couple other players who also found themselves on the reserve/covid-19 list, while the players come on and off that list during the season, at any time you have a number of starters and viable backups at positions sitting out of games it makes harder to be competitive and lessens the chances of winning. Local sports radio stations that are on top of Raider news were even suggesting to bet against the Raiders because a number of starters would not play, we are a gambling town.
Finally, the good news:
The Raiders as of this past Sunday, December 2nd no longer have any players on the reserve/covid-19 list. They currently stand through 12 weeks of the regular season with a winning record of 6-5 with a division record of 3-1 from those games including a win against the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. They also witnessed the Denver Broncos not playing with any rostered quarterbacks this past Sunday and with the Raiders issues in a season of losing multiple offensive linemen and defensive players already, head coach John Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock are discussing how to proceed going forward with rearranging how the quarterback group meets to avoid a similar situation. As for the city of Las Vegas, the NFL has announced that it will award the 2022 Draft in a make-up move due to the cancellation this year. There are also good odds on Las Vegas and Allegiant Stadium to host Super Bowl 59 on February 25th, 2025 which would be a massive spectacle and revenue boom to the town, while SB 59 does not have a location set Las Vegas seems to be the current the favorite.
As for fan attendance to games, not this season but one can hope and imagine that we can flatten this pandemic in 2021, and by fall the city of Las Vegas can host and celebrate in style. I think even opposing team fans wouldn’t mind finding themselves in ‘The Black Hole’ at this point, right?