In late 2002, a marketing firm trying to reinvent Las Vegas believed it had captured the allure of the city in a commercial worthy of the Super Bowl.
The ad features a woman in a silky blue top and stiletto boots sliding into a Vegas limousine. She flirts with the driver, tussling his hair, before disappearing from view. When they arrive at the airport, he opens the door and, to his surprise, the woman hops out dressed in business attire, her hair up in a tidy bun, talking on her phone.
The spot ends with five words: “What happens here, stays here.”
The ad never aired during the Super Bowl. Even though it had no ringing slot machines or roaring sportsbooks, the NFL refused to allow the commercial to run, citing a clause in its TV contracts prohibiting gambling-related ads. It was the best thing that could have happened, according to William “Billy” Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the marketing firm behind the ad.
“We sent it to the network, and the NFL said no, and sent us a fairly terse email on ‘what stays here,'” Vassiliadis recalls, “and somehow that miraculously, magically got out and became a pretty big issue and, frankly, a great launch for the campaign.”
R&R Partners, according to a spokesperson, “went rogue” and ran the ad in local markets during the Super Bowl. The commercial the NFL wouldn’t air became a national story, with prominent news anchors, sitcoms such as “Frasier” and late-night talk shows joking about “What happens here, stays here.” Oscar Goodman, then the mayor of Las Vegas, says the publicity generated from the NFL’s refusal was worth tens of millions in advertising.
The slogan would become part of American lexicon. It inspired multiple movies, including “The Hangover” series, one trademark and countless bachelor and bachelorette parties. Former first lady Laura Bush even mentioned it in an appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 2004. She’d just come back from a trip to Las Vegas, and upon being quizzed by Jay Leno on what she did, she quipped, “Jay, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
At the time the iconic advertising campaign launched, the NFL and Las Vegas were at odds but also, in some ways, pulling in the same direction. While the NFL was reinforcing its anti-sports betting stance, Las Vegas was trying to show it was more than just an old gambling town. What neither side knew was that a seismic shift was coming in America’s attitude toward gambling.
Twenty-one years later, the relationship between the NFL and Las Vegas has changed dramatically. Super Bowl LVIII comes to Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, next week. It’s another milestone in the city’s transformation from a sports pariah into a big-game town and another step in the NFL’s acceptance of what was enemy No. 1 for decades — sports betting, an American pastime that happened in Vegas, but didn’t stay there.
Las Vegas was in the middle of an identity crisis in the early 2000s. The nation was grappling with 9/11, and tourism had plateaued. The “What happens here” ad was supposed to jump-start a change in the way people viewed the city, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Old casinos had been replaced with shiny new ones, featuring giant, theater-style sportsbooks; and world-class chefs and high fashion were being infused into the town’s culture.
From a sports standpoint, Las Vegas was defined by UNLV basketball (which was rocked with scandal and tumult in the 1980s and ’90s) and boxing (rapper Tupac Shakur was shot to death near the Strip after a Mike Tyson fight in 1996). By the 2000s, Las Vegas was one of the largest cities in the United States without a major professional sports team.
Goodman and his wife, Carolyn, who succeeded him as mayor in 2011, are big sports fans who fought to bring pro sports to Las Vegas for decades. “It was obvious that any city that was aspiring to be a world-class city needs major-league sports,” Carolyn says. Shortly after becoming mayor in 1999, Oscar Goodman made the rounds with big-league commissioners.
He says he talked to then-NBA commissioner David Stern, who, according to Goodman, told the mayor that as long as the city had sports betting, it would happen “over my dead body.” Goodman, an attorney who represented members of the mob before holding public office, joked that he knew people who could make that happen.
Goodman also talked to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The talks didn’t get far.
The city still had the reputation of being a gambling mecca with a comb-over. It tried, in the 1990s, to sell itself as a family destination, says Las Vegas historian Michael Green. But that pitch was short-lived.
“I think it might have run its course partly out of concern that gambling is not meant for kids, nor is it meant to be,” says Green, who is a professor at UNLV. “And they were afraid of those connections.”
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority commissioned R&R Partners to dream up how to change the city’s reputation in the late 1990s. Marketing experts traveled the country, talking to focus groups and trying to discover what attracted people to Las Vegas. Kirsten Gunnerud, who spearheaded the research, spoke to numerous people and took copious notes, but kept going back to the thoughts of a friend who lived in the Midwest.
The woman was single, with an office job and a couple of cats, and was steadfast and disciplined in her life. She’d sock away money in an envelope for a yearly trip to Vegas.
“And she would go and completely live it up in Vegas for, I don’t know, five days or something like that,” Gunnerud says. “It’s always been fun to imagine what she was doing there and how she was doing it.”
A theme emerged: Adult freedom. R&R Partners, which hit pause on the campaign for a bit after 9/11, kicked it to its copywriters and tasked them with producing a slogan and an ad. Jeff Candido, part of that young creative team, says a blur of crumpled-up yellow notebook paper and brainstorming casino lunches followed.
There was a “Vegas Calling” campaign and a commercial with comedian Don Rickles. Maybe the most memorable thing about that was when Rickles teased Candido: “I’ve got sweaters older than him!” But that, in many ways, represented the old Vegas, of aging crooners with teleprompters and red-leather steakhouses.
Eventually, the young copywriters hit gold. They knew the “What happens here, stays here” line had been uttered before, but it was never connected with such a large theme and place. It never came with a dizzying array of IYKYK commercials.
“It’s really funny,” says Penn Jillette, half of the comedy magic duo Penn & Teller, “but sometimes you can’t take the next step until you accept how people see you. … When Vegas was willing to say, ‘We are not classy, we’re about debauchery’ … it was like they were finally talking to people at their actual level. They were finally not insulting the audience. They were saying, ‘We know how we’re seen, and because we know that, you don’t have to see us that way.'”
The NFL’s opposition to sports betting — and Las Vegas — extended far beyond the “What happens here” ad. A few months after the league refused the spot, on Jan. 23, 2003, many Las Vegas casinos broadcasting the Super Bowl on big-screen TVs received cease-and-desist orders from the NFL.
The league had watched Las Vegas casinos transform sportsbooks into giant theaters with wall-to-wall video screens and towering odds boards featuring point spreads on all NFL games. Some casinos even began charging admission and drew overflow crowds for Super Bowl watch parties. The league, which made similar demands to other entities outside of Las Vegas, believed the casino watch parties were in violation of copyright law.
Dennis Lewin, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting in 2003 and a former ABC executive, says one of Tagliabue’s biggest fears was a possible gambling scandal connected to the league. A decade later, Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell, took a public stand during the league’s nearly six-year lawsuit to block then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s legalization of sports betting in the state.
“I do not think gambling is good for professional sports,” Goodell testified on Nov. 12, 2012.
The NFL was not opposed to all forms of gambling, as evidenced by franchises being allowed to partner with casinos and state lotteries. The issue was specific to sports betting and the damage that a wagering scandal could do to the perception of the league’s competitive integrity.
“The NFL cannot be compensated in damages for the harm sports gambling poses to the goodwill, character and integrity of NFL football and to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and team that the League seeks to maintain,” Goodell wrote in a 2012 declaration for the New Jersey case.
Bookmakers didn’t disagree. In the early 2000s, Jay Kornegay, chief of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, met with officials from all the major professional leagues, the NCAA and the FBI at a conference in Indianapolis, where he tried to emphasize that in his eyes, they were all on the same side.
“We don’t want to be taking wagers that are predetermined,” Kornegay says. “So we watch it like a hawk to the best of our abilities. Everybody was impressed in how we looked for anything that was suspicious, but with that said, things didn’t change.”
While the NFL’s loudest concerns were focused on integrity, the sportsbooks’ business model also rankled the league. Goodell expressed his concerns in his deposition testimony about sportsbooks trying to associate themselves with the NFL, but not paying for it.
“They will say that … you can come here and gamble on the NFL,” Goodell told attorneys for New Jersey. “That will appear to the consumer, the average consumer, that we are sponsoring that. That is not in our best interest.”
With Nevada being the only state to offer full-scale legal betting, the league avoided Las Vegas like a late-night, 99-cent shrimp cocktail on Fremont Street.
In 2013, a league spokesperson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it would not even consider playing an exhibition game in the city because of the state’s betting market. Two years later, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo canceled a fantasy football convention at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas after the NFL threatened to fine participants. And in 2017, the league fined players who participated in an offseason, made-for-TV arm-wrestling contest at a nightclub at a Las Vegas casino, held just weeks after the Raiders announced they were coming to town.
However, the NFL did operate in other jurisdictions with legal betting, such as the United Kingdom. In 2007, the league started holding games in the U.K., and over the next decade would embrace fantasy football, including the daily version with companies like FanDuel and DraftKings.
“It was obvious to me that the league almost had to change,” Lewin says. “The policy had to change because it was going to happen with or without.”
Despite the sports snubs, Las Vegas was evolving. The metropolitan area grew 41.8% from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the third fastest in the country. Tourism was booming. The “What happens here, stays here” slogan earned a spot on the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in New York City, and helped spur 56 commercials and more than 42 million annual visits to Las Vegas.
The slogan, historian Michael Green says, was a big start.
“It helps establish in public consciousness that Las Vegas was not polyester and an aging rat pack,” he says. “That there were nightclubs which have been immensely profitable and far sexier swimming pools than there used to be and all kinds of other things that catered to members of that generation with discretionary money.”
One of Bettman’s original concerns when Goodman met with him more than a decade earlier was that Las Vegas didn’t have a facility to house a hockey team. In April 2016, T-Mobile Arena, a 20,000-seat multipurpose facility, opened on the Las Vegas Strip. A few months later, the NHL’s owners voted to add the Vegas Golden Knights as an expansion team.
By then, the forbidden stench of gambling had wafted out of public consciousness.
“The thing that bugs me to this day is when I hear somebody say, ‘Well, get ready for Sin City,’ because there is nothing that goes on in this town that doesn’t go on in every city in the United States,” longtime Vegas performer Wayne Newton said.
Sin City was now a sports city. On March 27, 2017, the Raiders, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, received approval to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas. A year later, on May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court opened a path for all states to get in the bookmaking business.
Within six months of the decision, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball — which were all part of the suit attempting to stop New Jersey’s sports betting plans — had each signed deals with official sportsbook partners. But the NFL held tight, studying its fans and international jurisdictions with legal betting, while watching the new American market take shape.
“You have this new industry, and a lot of the customers of that industry are fans, and we just wanted to make sure that that industry sort of grows up in the United States,” David Highhill, the NFL’s general manager of sports betting, told ESPN, looking back at the league’s sports betting pivot.
In April 2021, nearly three years after the Supreme Court decision, the NFL announced its first official sportsbook partners: Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings and FanDuel. Six months later, the league gave a $6.2 million grant to the National Council on Problem Gambling, the largest ever for the nonprofit, and started an ad campaign built on the slogan, “Stick to your game plan. Always bet responsibly.”
“Doing nothing when the entire landscape around your sport changes in that way is not an option,” Highhill says.
The “What happens here, stays here” campaign lasted nearly two decades. In 2020, it was updated to “What happens here, only happens here,” and aired for the first time during the Super Bowl.
Candido, the young writer who helped come up with it, went on to have an accomplished advertising career. But he has never been a part of anything as wildly successful as that Las Vegas tourism ad. Few have.
He marvels at how far the NFL and Las Vegas have come.
“It’s really interesting that it’s come full circle,” he says. “That to be associated with Vegas was to be associated with gambling, and the NFL was sort of in denial back then, and now the game is actually there … is a wild transformation.
“It’s kind of refreshing to see, like, guess what? A lot of people who watch football watch it because they’re gambling on it. It’s a little bit of that honesty, like we talked about in the advertising. It’s good to see that it’s come around.”
Legal sports betting is now in 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, but the NFL has not seen any evidence, Highhill says, that the expansion has eroded fans’ perception of the game’s integrity. In fact, Highhill says that the NFL believes there has been a decrease in the percentage of fans who identify as anti-sports betting.
“The most important thing to keep in mind in the context of sports betting is that these are fans, and they were fans first before betting and they’re fans after betting,” Highhill says. “I think there’s a really clear hypothesis that it’s going to lead to more viewing or longer viewing. That data’s inherently really complicated, but I think it makes sense.”
The relocation of the Raiders — and now the Super Bowl — shows how far the NFL has come with Las Vegas. The two entities are now partners instead of adversaries. In September, NFL team-branded slot machines hit the floors at some Vegas casinos. The party is just starting. The city is awash with Super Bowl promotion — the Luxor’s pyramid-style resort is wrapped in a giant Doritos chip — and it is so Super Bowl, so Vegas. For now at least, they seem like a perfect fit.
The NFL even partnered with R&R Partners on this year’s Super Bowl campaign. Its slogan? “Excessive celebration encouraged.”