My thoughts about the Raiders season, Las Vegas as an NFL city, and the experience of attending my first Las Vegas Raiders’ home game
The Las Vegas Raiders’ season ended yesterday. The Raiders lost a close game to the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Nonetheless, I think most Raiders fans — and any impartial NFL fan — would easily conclude that this past season was not only memorable but quite successful given all the circumstances and so many adversities.
Although I’m not a Raiders fan, there were many things that impressed me, both about the team and the organization. That doesn’t mean the Raiders don’t have some serious problems internally, and lots of soul searching to do ahead. Nonetheless, given so many exciting games, this was a fun team to follow. Let me also add that I also had the opportunity to attend my first Raiders home game earlier in the season. I’ll write about that experience, as well.
Here are several quick thoughts looking back at the 2021 Raiders:
(1) Excitement: The Raiders played perhaps the most exciting slate of games of any NFL team this past year. More than half of their games were decided by less than one score. The Raiders also played FOUR games that went into overtime. They won all four. Let’s also agree that the season finale versus the LA Chargers (Week 18) was the best game of the year, and probably the most exciting game in several years.
(2) Distractions: No team faced more distractions — internal and external — than the Raiders. Let’s be clear that virtually all of the off-the-field troubles were of their own doing. Some even say the Raiders, with a long history as an outlaw band of misfits, have created a culture that fosters some of the incidents that happened during the fall of 2021. It’s remarkable the team was able to put so many things aside and perform so well on the field.
(3) Bisaccia: Credit “interim” head coach Rich Bisaccia for doing an extraordinary job in holding this team together when a steady hand was desperately needed. When former coach Jon Gruden resigned by mutual agreement during mid-season, most thought the team would collapse. Instead, the Raiders refocused and ended up making the playoffs.
(4) Carr: I hear lots of criticism of QB Derek Carr. I just don’t get it. Carr will never be an elite quarterback, but very few are. For any team, a Brady, Rodgers, or Mahomes comes along only once in a generation, that’s if they’re lucky. Carr is a gutsy player who gives everything on the field. He’s also a proven leader. Let’s also give Carr some credit for being a very positive influence on the team, which based on all the problems, needs good leadership in the locker room as much as on the field. Oh, and if anyone thinks replacing Carr will improve the Raiders’ performance, contact me. Unless Las Vegas signs or trades for Russell Wilson, I’ll take the other side of that bet.
(5) Las Vegas: The NFL had serious concerns that Las Vegas might be a bad influence on players. After all, these are mostly young men in their 20s, with lots of money, and they reside in a city where vice is everywhere. This season, one player killed the driver of another car in a 4 am drunk driving accident. Another was arrested and charged with DUI (wrongly perhaps) after leaving a popular nightclub at 3 am. Would these things have happened in Cleveland or Charlotte? I don’t know. The jury is still out on Las Vegas — but my first instinct is to think it’s no more potentially self-destructive to players here than Miami, Los Angeles, or New York.
(6) Madden: John Madden’s passing in late December was sad, but I’m really glad his life was celebrated by all the Raiders, the fans, and the organization. Well-deserved tributes lasted for more than a week. In a season with many memories, many good and several bad, the way Madden’s death was handled would have made him proud. Well done.
(7) Las Vegas Raiders Stadium: I refuse to adhere to “naming rights” which is nothing more than a marketing stunt for corporations, so instead I’ll refer to it as the Las Vegas Raiders Stadium. In late September, I attended my first Raiders home game. This was also the first time I’d visited the new stadium (finished about 19 months ago). I have several impressions, which follow below. My overall impression was total shock at how well the stadium is organized, how many fun things there are to do inside, the food and beverage options, the staffing, the comfort and sightlines of seating, and even the transportation to and from the stadium. A+
(8) Real Football is Played on Real Grass: Las Vegas could have been forgiven for installing the same shit rubber grass field that’s invaded just about every NFL arena. It gets blazing hot here and maintaining real grass is troublesome. But the Raiders decided to stick with the tradition of real natural grass, which is rolled in and out of the stadium on gamedays. I’m sure this costs more money to upkeep. I have to say, this makes a great impression on me on my perception of the stadium. It feels like it’s outdoors, even with the temperature-controlled inside. I like seeing cleat marks, faded paint, and dirty uniforms. Well done, Raiders (owner Mark Davis)!
(9) Chad Holloway: Chad gets his own hashtag in this article. I first met Chad on the poker scene about ten years ago (he’s now the editor of PokerNews.com). We’ve done lots of ritzy restaurants, bourbon tastings, and cool things on the road following the poker tournament circuit over the years. Chad, who lives in Wisconsin, has Green Bay Packers season tickets–yet oddly enough, he’s a huge Miami Dolphins fan. So, when the Dolphins played the Raiders back in September, he flew into town and asked if I wanted to join him. He bought the tickets and I took care of the drinks (which means it was a pu$h). Thanks, Chad! He’s in the photo at the end of this article.
(10) The Magic Bus: We heard nightmares about the dreadful parking situation at the stadium. And the last thing I wanted to do was park a car in a casino garage and then walk two miles on game day. Screw that! So instead, we found out about “the Deuce” (city bus), which shuttles back and forth between several local casinos and the main gate to the stadium. Now, get this — for just $4 round trip, you park at Red Rock, the bus leaves every 15 minutes, and you get there in 25 minutes. Then, after the game, the bus is ready to take you back to the casino. For $4! What a great service provided by the city (affordable mass transit — isn’t socialism wonderful?). The transit bus:
(11) Tradition: The Raiders play the tradition card to the hilt, and it’s pretty damned cool. Statues of Raiders patriarch Al Davis; photos, banners, and other memorabilia including Super Bowl trophies displayed in the stadium concourse; film clips with John Francese’s graven voice narrating old Raider highlight on the big screen…..fans are made to feel part of SOMETHING BIGGER. Like they’re part of the team and its rich history. This totally works. Again, I’m not even a fan of the team, and I was overwhelmed by this. I love history and NFL Films doing soundtracks during breaks in games is fantastic.
(12) Raiders Fans: I have no data to support this, but my guess is that on any given Sunday about 1/4 of any Raiders’ home game is comprised of fans from the visiting team. This might be a bit higher for Kansas City and maybe Denver, and certainly, when the Cowboys, Packers, and other national teams come to town (eventually) the opponent might get louder support. Even Miami (which was 1-3 when we saw them), the game I attended, probably had 1/6th of the crowd support. This actually makes the experience more fun. Raiders fans have a sordid reputation for violence and making things miserable for opposing fans. But that’s not going to be an issue in Las Vegas, which is a very different scene from the Black Hole in Oakland. Also of note: I estimate about half of the Raiders fans are from California, including many Latinos from San Bernadino-Riverside. Biggest shocker: Las Vegas attracted more females than any NFL stadium I’ve ever been to. There were thousands of women and girls in Raiders shirts and jerseys.
(13) Food: When it comes to stadium eating and drinking, many of us expect $12 hot dogs, lukewarm beer, stale peanuts, and other shit food. However, the Raiders’ stadium is as good as any casino food court. There are also some higher-end options normally not available inside sports arenas. Before the game started, we enjoyed the Rollin’ Smoke BBQ, which was every bit as delicious as the tasty brisket served in the restaurant. I’ve written in the past about airport food improving over the last decade. Now, to see stadium food catching up with the times is awesome.
(14) Drinking: I was blown away by this. As I said earlier, stadium = beer. That’s it. However, Chad and I decided to sample the “house margarita,” which is named after Al Davis. I forgot what they call it–something like the “AL Special.” I was stunned to watch the bartender on the concourse of the stadium free pour generous shots of liquor and make wonderful, frothy, tasty house margarita. Then, he topped it all off with a Gran Mariner float! Gran Mariner! At a stadium! Are you freakin’ kidding me? Margarita’s were $20, about what you’d pay on the Strip. We each sampled 4, just to make sure the consistency was authentic. I just had to snap a pic:
(15) The Raiders and Gambling: One would think that gambling plays a huge part of the Las Vegas Raiders’ home game experience. But this was not the case. In fact, I didn’t sense any gambling influences at all. No one in the stands around us was talking about point spreads. If there’s a betting window on site, I didn’t see it. Naturally, with smartphones, most sports gamblers bet online and through apps (including yours truly). That keeps gambling’s actual impact to a minimum. I remember many critics warning us that football could never exist in a normal state so long as gambling is a factor. Wow, talk about being wrong! No doubt, the NFL is a whale because of gambling and legal sports wagering has spread to many NFL cities. We’ve seen no evidence this has hurt the NFL, its popularity, or its integrity. Serious Question: Have the critics of casinos and gambling ever been right about anything? To former Commish, Paul Tagliabue, a vociferous opponent of sports gambling, go chew on your crow sandwich.
(16) Music: Nobody goes to an NFL game for the music, but the music inside the Raiders’ stadium during breaks is fantastic. There’s a live band positioned in the end zone upper deck and blasts trumpets and other instruments while the action is on break. For the Miami game, they played lots of Cuban music, which was fitting. I very much enjoyed this. The only other NFL stadium where music was noticeable was (you guessed it) in New Orleans at the Superdome, where there’s a live jazz band. Unfortunately, the annoying PA announcer screams car dealership commercials every single break and the experience of a Saints home game becomes unbearable (but not nearly as bad as the St. Louis Cardinals baseball, which is TORTURE from the PA hyping). Oh, and can every stadium announcer quit doing an impression of Bruce Buffer? It’s tiring. We don’t need all the cheerleading with your extraordinary vocal range. Zip it! The Raiders haven’t over-commercialized this space, yet and don’t use the annoying announcer of the Golden Knights games who NEVER shuts up. Let’s hope they don’t. Sometimes, silence is golden.
(17) Other NFL Games: If there’s any negative, it’s that other NFL games happening at the same time are completely ignored. It’s like they don’t even exist. In other stadiums, I’m used to hearing live scores announced, and the home crowd cheers or boos the scores. However, other than an end zone scoreboard listing that week’s games, no attention is given to what’s happening elsewhere in the NFL. To be fair, my attitudes are probably outdated on this point. Since all fans have smartphones and can check scores of other games, perhaps there’s no reason to give other games a spotlight.
(18) COVID: All fans are required to show proof of being vaccinated or show a negative recent test. That’s awesome. I don’t want some infected, super-spreading, science-denying lunkhead sitting next to me for 4 hours. This seems to be strictly enforced. Good. I showed my CLEAR app, which is proof of up-to-date vaccinations. The staff checks these carefully, so don’t think you can sweet-talk your way past the gate by bullshitting. Bravo!
(19) Other Sports/Concerts: I can’t speak about the stadium and how it fares for college football games or music concerts. I presume the same services and available for other events. Eventually, I’ll end up at a concert there and report if that experience is different. Perhaps NFL game day is overstaffed and for that reason, things went more smoothly.
(20) Comparison: I’ve been to 21 out of 32 NFL stadiums (many of them not on game day). I’ve attended actual games in Dallas, New Orleans, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo….and now Las Vegas. Hands down, this is the best football stadium I’ve ever been inside. Everything about my experience was positive. Honestly, I didn’t expect to be so blown away. Well done, Raiders. And thanks again to Chad, for the free ticket. Now, I’m going to try and get him to pony up the same offer next season in Green Bay.