NFL's rebuff of Las Vegas ads could be challenged in court

Las Vegas Review-Journal


Las Vegas’ ability to advertise on National Football League broadcasts could soon be headed to court, while the NFL on Tuesday accused local tourism officials of drumming up a controversy to attract attention to their new marketing campaign.

If only most playoff games could be this entertaining.

Despite the NFL’s refusal, local convention authority officials aren’t backing away from their desire to someday air television advertisements touting Las Vegas during football broadcasts including the Super Bowl.

Last month, the NFL denied a request from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and its contracted advertising agency, Las Vegas-based R & R Partners, to buy time slots during the Jan. 26 Super Bowl. The league rejected the authority’s bid because of its long-standing policy to distance itself from gaming-related ads, NFL sources said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and other convention authority board members now want to challenge the NFL’s perceived anti-Las Vegas stance in court. At two separate points during Tuesday’s meeting, a visibly angry Goodman asked the convention authority’s legal staff to look into filing a lawsuit against the NFL.

A longtime defense attorney, Goodman believes a judge or jury might decide the league has interfered with the authority’s rights to free commercial speech, as well as R & R’s contractual obligations that require the company to promote Las Vegas on a national stage.

“This is commercial speech we’re talking about, and they’re interfering with it, and I don’t like it,” Goodman said in reference to the NFL. “I really want somebody to seriously research this because I think we’d win this case.”

Poking fun at recent controversies involving questionable calls in NFL playoff games, Goodman also said the league needs to “get its referees to make a call correctly” before it worries about potential damage associated with airing ads promoting Las Vegas.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy had no comment on the potential lawsuit Tuesday. However, McCarthy suggested the ads were pitched to the NFL in hopes that the league’s anticipated rejection would generate free publicity for the city.

“Someone came up with a strategic plan which has worked quite well,” McCarthy said. “They made a calculated risk to come up with a spot or series of spots knowing that the NFL would turn it down, and then turned around and publicized their efforts (to gain) more exposure for the city of Las Vegas than if the spot had actually run in the game.

“The Wall Street Journal ran it front page today … and USA Today and the New York Times will be writing about it, so we’re sure they’re pleased out your way.”

Goodman’s calls to investigate a court case against the NFL were supported by fellow board members Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, a Clark County commissioner, and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson.

An attorney, Gibson said this “probably won’t be the last time we’re rebuffed,” but he questioned the NFL’s anti-gaming policy. He said betting lines that originate in Las Vegas are commonly discussed in workplaces throughout the United States and have likely increased the league’s overall popularity.

Following Tuesday’s board meeting, Luke Puschnig, who serves as legal counsel for the convention authority, said it’s still too soon to comment on potential legal avenues the organization might pursue against the NFL.

“(Goodman) is my boss and since he’s suggested this, I’ll look into it,” Puschnig said, adding it’s almost impossible to expect a court action would alter the NFL’s position in time to air the Las Vegas ads during this year’s Super Bowl.

“But who knows? This may be something that creates a change a year or five years down the road,” Puschnig said.

McCarthy repeatedly defended the league’s anti-gaming stance Tuesday.

“The ads don’t mention gambling, but Las Vegas is synonymous to the public with sports betting and casino gambling; it’s the only place where sports betting is legal,” McCarthy said. “That’s the basis for rejecting that type of ad, which we’ve done for decades.”

An Aug. 8 letter from Dennis Lewin, an NFL senior vice president of broadcasting and network television, to John Wildhack, senior vice president of programming for ESPN, a sister network of ABC, said ads for Las Vegas fall under the league’s “stringent restrictions on gambling-related advertising in NFL programming,” which exist because of the NFL’s “concern that an association between the NFL and gambling — even in an advertising context — could have a uniquely negative effect on the public’s perception of our sport.”

Despite the NFL’s efforts to sidestep gaming, R & R head Billy Vassiliadis said he believes more football fans will watch the Super Bowl in Las Vegas sports books than will view the contest in host city San Diego.

“And the way I feel about the NFL these days, I hope that happens,” Vassiliadis said.