LAS VEGAS --In cities and hamlets across America today, folks will be talking about, preparing food for and tuning in to watch the Super Bowl
In Vegas, everyone is bracing for something called the Big Game. Naturally, they are one and the same. It's just that in this city, the term Super Bowl has largely been expunged from the local vocabulary, pretty much under pressure from the NFL.
About two years ago, pro football clamped down on the popular casino Super Bowl parties - which had been held for years - contending that many of the gatherings violated the league's copyright on the game. And using the words "Super Bowl" in almost any context without the league's permission was a trademark infringement.
So cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard this past week, you see no invitations to hop into a casino to watch the Super Bowl, just the occasional coy summons to view the Big Game. And ask about a party where you can root for the Steelers, the Seahawks or your money - well, you'd better watch your mouth, Buster.
"Yeah, party has pretty much become a four-letter word," said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports and race book at the Las Vegas Hilton. The NFL says it holds no animus for Las Vegas and casinos in particular but the ban on Super Bowl parties is the most prominent episode in what has been at times a testy relationship between two 900-pound gorillas of American pop culture - Las Vegas and the NFL.
"We're not trying to shut down Las Vegas; we're not trying to shut down casinos; we're not moralists," said NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash. "We just know that we're better off if there's a clear separation [between the league and gambling]."
And the league has made that point consistently in various ways.
In 2000, the NFL wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain asking that it be included in his proposal to ban legal wagering involving college sports. The NFL was not included, and McCain's idea went nowhere anyway. Then three years ago, problems arose between Vegas and the NFL over TV advertising when the public relations firm representing the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority wanted to run a national TV ad during the Super Bowl.
The league said no, but Las Vegas cashed in anyway on the controversy.
"We certainly enjoyed the amount of publicity generated by the league's actions," said Rob Dondero, executive vice president with R&R; Partners, the firm representing the city's tourism authority. "We probably received about $6 million in free publicity with everyone from the Today show to every sports broadcast wanting to talk about it. We probably had about a 6-1 return on our money as opposed to the NFL just letting us run the spots."
There was more to come.
Before the Super Bowl in Houston in February 2004, a TV ad ran showing an aerial view of Las Vegas and the suggestion that experiencing the Super Bowl in Vegas would be more fun than in the host city itself. "I'm sure that was a little bit of a jab," Dondero said.
But it was still early in the game. Not long after, some casinos with plans to show that New England Patriots-Carolina Panthers Super Bowl in large venues saw those plans get torpedoed when the league sent cease-and-desist letters, leaving the gambling halls scrambling to salvage their events.
Despite the timing, the league said the two events were not linked but rather it had become aware of the proliferation of large-scale parties, at casinos and elsewhere, that violated its copyright. Other groups, such as theaters and even an aquarium, have been similarly notified by the NFL, league officials said.
In November 2004, after the head of the umbrella group that represents the interests of many major casino companies asked the NFL to clarify its position on Super Bowl telecasts, the league sent a letter that has become the law with which casinos now live.
The NFL made clear that no one was permitted to charge admission to view the game, and that theater or auditorium settings or using multiple or oversized monitors was forbidden. The league did allow an exception that venues, which had shown sports regularly in the course of business, would be permitted to continue doing so for the Super Bowl. That meant establishments, from neighborhood sports bars to casino sports and race books, could show the game.
And then there was this warning in the three-page letter that the NFL "reserves its right to revisit its restraint should it find that more stringent enforcement of its rights is required."
That could mean the league seeking to halt telecasts of all NFL games in the sports books - a chilling prospect for the casinos.
Not surprisingly, Las Vegas casinos have been careful not to irritate the league. And even normally outspoken Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who has pointedly criticized the NFL in the past, has gone quiet.
"This year is a non-issue," Goodman said through a spokeswoman Thursday.
For this year's Big Game, many casinos are trying to hold events that maintain the copyright and broadcast rights of the NFL and still meet the needs of their customers.
"Like it or not, the NFL has very clear rights to this game," said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for casino giant MGM Mirage. "The frustrating part - if there is a frustrating part about it - is that the NFL has worked hard to make it a national holiday and at the same time, it still wants to own it. But they do own it. Make no mistake, the NFL is right, whether you like the way they did it or not."
Feldman said that his company's resorts, which include the Bellagio, Mirage, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Luxor and others, will be showing the game in public places where permissible, such as sports and race books, lounges and bars. However, getting a seat in a sports book also means grabbing it several hours before the game.
Working within the parameters of another NFL exception for showing the game, many casinos also will be holding smaller gatherings for preferred customers, meaning high rollers, in more private settings. This week in Las Vegas, advertisements for Super Bowl celebrations in casinos or bars located in gambling resorts were conspicuously circumspect.
At the sports and race book in the South Coast Casino, a new resort south of the main cluster of hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, there were signs advertising a Big Game Party to be held in a ballroom, with free admission and first-come, first-served seating. In newspapers, the Imperial Palace and Monte Lago casinos advertised "Super Sunday" festivities. Even a local golf course called its special for today the "Big Game Sunday Golfer."
This year, R&R; Partners again asked to place a national ad for Las Vegas tourism during the Super Bowl and was rebuffed. The agency is also unable to place Las Vegas commercials on local affiliates during the game, something it had often in the past.
That gambling was or was not explicitly mentioned is irrelevant, Pash said.
"You have to be realistic," he said. "What is it about Las Vegas that makes it unique? It's legalized gambling and, more specifically, legalized sports gambling."
The NFL insists on the "clearest, sharpest, brightest line" between itself and gambling, Pash added.
And so at the moment, with casinos apparently complying with NFL guidelines, there's a truce between the two sides - but with Las Vegas' irrepressible nature always at work. Casinos will give away T-shirts, offer food and drink specials, have attractive women on hand acting as cheerleaders and, of course, take bets.
Anthony Curtis, who publishes the travel-advice newsletter and Web site Las Vegas Advisor, says the town will still be packed with people who want to be part of the Big Game and can do so with wagers ranging from who scores first to how many field goals the two teams make.
"The league controls everything, but the attitude in Las Vegas is you can be petty and you can be foolish but people are still going to come to town and have fun," Curtis said. "Because no matter what, Las Vegas doesn't miss a beat on Super Bowl Sunday." firstname.lastname@example.org.