NFL Still Plans to Sack Las Vegas Super Bowl Parties

14 December 2004

The National Football League, in a recent letter to the casino industry's largest trade group, stands by its position that the Las Vegas Super Bowl parties of years past won't fly this season.

The letter, sent last month to the American Gaming Association, says Super Bowl parties that charge admission and events that show the game on a big screen or even on multiple television screens violate the NFL's broadcast copyright. The hard line on parties is a continuation of the league's uneasy relationship with gambling and Las Vegas, whose tourism bureau has been continually rebuffed in its efforts to broadcast advertising during the Super Bowl.

The NFL fired off cease and desist letters to several Las Vegas casinos in January that had planned to host Super Bowl parties, leading to a last minute scramble that involved canceling or modifying the events in time for last season's faceoff between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers.

According to the letter, the NFL hasn't changed its position save for one concession of sorts. Casino sports books and other venues where television screens broadcast sports all year round, such as bars, can still show the Super Bowl, the league said.

American Gaming Association Chief Executive Frank Fahrenkopf said the result will be "detrimental" to Las Vegas because the parties were popular.

But casino bosses, who are just beginning to plan their Super Bowl promotions, say their properties will still show the game for fans even if big bashes are out of the picture. The change from years past won't devastate Las Vegas, where people will continue to come in droves to place bets and watch the game in the sports book, they say.

"I think people still know that Vegas is still a great place to come to for the Super Bowl rather than watching it on a screen in your hometown bar," MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said. "Las Vegas has a tremendous edge over literally any other city."

"Whether (the NFL) chooses to recognize it, Las Vegas is going to be the second biggest city next to the host city on that particular weekend," added Boyd Gaming Corp.'s Rob Stillwell. "A lot of that has to do with Las Vegas as a (resort) destination and the excitement that builds here. It's probably as close to a holiday weekend as you can get without the holiday."

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest single Sundays of the year for Las Vegas, where casinos for years have hosted hundreds of people in a room for big screen broadcasts featuring chow lines, cheerleaders and former NFL players.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported 286,000 visitors in town and a 95.8 percent occupancy rate during Super Bowl weekend last season. Those visitors generated an estimated $101.3 million in nongambling revenue for the city.

LVCVA Senior Vice President of Marketing Terry Jicinsky is upbeat on the Super Bowl.

"We don't anticipate an impact on the number of people who come to Vegas that weekend," he said. "The consumer will participate in whatever is available."

During the last Super Bowl, casinos that didn't cancel their parties attempted to get around the copyright rules by broadcasting the game on multiple television screens rather than one big screen or by charging specifically for food and drink rather than for admission.

The Palms, one of the first casinos last season to be threatened with legal action from the NFL, canceled a Super Bowl broadcast in its movie theater and instead showed the game in another room where several rented television screens had been set up for the game.

Palms General Manager Jim Hughes said the NFL has made it clear this time around that even multiple screens, outside of a sports book or other venue where sports are broadcast, are verboten.

"We do have the advantage of having television screens throughout the casino which show sports on a daily basis," Hughes said. "We're just going to play it by ear."

The Imperial Palace, which hosted a giant Super Bowl party last season, will instead have a smaller VIP gathering that accommodates NFL rules, spokesman Jeremy Handel said.

Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor consumer newsletter, said the loss of NFL parties won't be a big deal for Las Vegas, where casinos offer an abundance of television screens so customers can't miss the action.

"They're going to park themselves at blackjack tables," he said. "If they have to pack people in the ... sports book they will. I think the casinos will just shrug and say, 'Who cares? Our doors will be open and we'll be full anyway.' "

Las Vegas' monopoly on legal sports betting is still a top draw, Curtis said.

"(Tourists) still want to be where the action is," he said. "They still want to make a bet or two."

Members of the American Gaming Association, which represents most major casino companies, asked the group to approach the NFL about five months ago to clarify the league's position on Super Bowl events.

"There's no question that they have a copyright" on the Super Bowl but some casinos weren't clear on what was allowed under the copyright, the association's Fahrenkopf said. The NFL letter was forwarded to all association members, though casinos are free to negotiate with the league individually, he said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league isn't allowing the negotiation of any side deals regarding the Super Bowl broadcast, such as allowing a business to pay a licensing fee to show the game at a party or event.

The league sent the letter to the Gaming Association as a way to efficiently reach the largest number of casinos as possible, McCarthy said. The letter was the only clarification sent by the NFL to a trade association or other representative group nationwide, he said.

The NFL began cracking down on Super Bowl parties this year after it became aware of big Super Bowl broadcasts in theaters, ballrooms and showrooms, McCarthy said.

Las Vegas pundits theorized that the NFL stopped the parties after the city ran a $1.5 million campaign in mid-January telling viewers that they were likely to have more fun in Las Vegas than in Houston, the Super Bowl host city.

The ads, which featured the Las Vegas Strip and the line, "If only it was this exciting at the game in Houston," had followed yet another failed attempt by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to broadcast tourism ads during the game.

The league has flatly denied a connection between the ads and the Super Bowl party crackdown, saying it has longstanding policies that prevent gambling ads during the game. The NFL also sent out cease and desist letters to a few other venues showing big broadcasts nationwide, though it didn't disclose how many of them were notified besides Las Vegas casinos.

Curtis said the NFL's position will bring "more bad publicity" to the league and its aggressive protection tactics.

"I think this whole thing was very heavy handed," he said.

But Feldman said the NFL has been up front since last season and that casinos could have been left with less wiggle room.

"Many sports books have large projection screens and they all have multiple screens," he said. "This is an acknowledgement that they're trying to accommodate the wishes of some of our customers."

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.