`Big Game' is name in Vegas

Pro Football

Super Bowl


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

Except here.

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.

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