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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

NFL Crackdown Dampens Party

31 January 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Scott Howarth was looking forward to his annual trip to Las Vegas to kick back with friends and watch the Super Bowl at a casino.

That was before the San Jose resident learned about the National Football League's recent crackdown on Super Bowl parties as well as the use of its trademarked "Super Bowl" brand.

"When we were younger, we didn't mind fighting for a seat in the sports book," said Howarth, who said this year will probably be his last Super Bowl trip to Las Vegas. "Las Vegas Super Bowl parties were the perfect way to watch the game by purchasing a ticket in advance, then enjoying the game in comfort. If we hadn't purchased flights three months ago, we would cancel and just enjoy the game at home and not have to fight the crowds."

With less than a week to go until Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, Strip casinos have been strangely quiet about one of the city's biggest gambling events of the year.

Gone are print ads and radio spots advertising Super Bowl events. Also largely absent are press releases, fliers and other notices.

The lack of marketing is an echo of cease-and-desist letters the NFL sent to several Las Vegas casinos last year, warning them that upcoming parties charging admission or airing the game on big screens would violate the league's copyright on the Super Bowl.

Halting a longstanding Las Vegas tradition of hosting Super Bowl parties, the league said it would enforce its longstanding broadcast rights to the game as well as federal copyright law entitling copyright holders to prevent public broadcasts on television screens wider than 55 inches.

While nobody questions the NFL's broadcast rights, many have called the league hypocritical for not acknowledging that legal sports bets and casino gatherings have widened football viewership. The league -- which prohibits gambling-related ads that mention the Super Bowl -- has denied that TV ads promoting Las Vegas as a better spot to enjoy the game than the 2004 Super Bowl host city prompted last year's legal warning.

A few disgruntled fans notwithstanding, casinos say they don't anticipate any fewer visitors in town for the Super Bowl this year. Instead of being cooped up in ballrooms watching the game, fans will be dispersed throughout the casino, gambling and spending on food and drink, they say. "We think the Super Bowl in Vegas gets bigger and bigger every year," Caesars Entertainment Inc. spokesman Robert Stewart said.

The company, which held a no-admission charge event at the Caesars Palace sports book last year, anticipates its four Strip properties will be full this weekend.

Boyd Gaming Corp. spokesman Rob Stillwell said the company expects a "busy" weekend at the Stardust as well as its downtown and locals casinos. "Next to the host city Las Vegas is the next biggest destination," Stillwell said. The size of the crowd "will have little to do with how the game is broadcast."

The league's action last year took Las Vegas casinos by surprise and sent several properties scrambling to cancel or modify their events. Other properties got creative, shipping in extra television sets to show the game or broadcasting the game via satellite, which is exempted from the 55-inch rule.

This year, casinos are stepping even more carefully in part because of an NFL letter sent in November to several properties via the American Gaming Association, which represents the major companies.

The letter put the casino industry on notice that allowed broadcasts of the Super Bowl include watching the game in sports books in addition to venues such as bars where existing televisions show sports year-round.

That means the Palms, which canceled a showing of the game in its movie theater and instead shipped in televisions for a smaller-scale ballroom viewing last year, will instead show the game on existing televisions throughout the casino. The "Palms Girls" and "Trashy Lingerie Girls" will make appearances.

The Plaza in downtown Las Vegas will be hosting a promotion called the "Barrick Bowl," named after the company's founder, that will involve slot machine pulls for prizes including green footballs and actors dressed up as a cheerleader and a referee. The Plaza's sports book, recently remodeled with stadium seating and 10 high-definition television screens, is ready for business, Sports Book Director Lou D'Amico said.

"The Super Bowl doesn't need any promotions and marketing," said D'Amico, who ran the sports book at Caesars Palace for more than a decade. "Just go to any sports book (in Las Vegas) and it's a party every Sunday. Each side will be screaming and nothing much will be different from the last 30 years in Las Vegas."

Some casinos say they will cater to high-rollers with VIP parties that will follow NFL guidelines. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said casinos won't be able to bend the rules by hosting smaller, private parties out of view of the public. Those gatherings must still show the game on normal-sized television sets that usually show sports, which applies to sports books and bars, he said.

Casinos "would not be able to charge admission, nor would they be able to bring in mass amounts of people and view the game on large-screen TVs other than what already exists for daily use in those properties."

Properties including the Imperial Palace and Riviera were known for hosting elaborate Super Bowl parties complete with food, drink, cheerleaders and former NFL players.

"It's a little different for us this year but it will be the same type of party atmosphere," Riviera Director of Advertising and Public Relations George Starecinic said. "A lot of our (regular) customers are still coming in for the party to enjoy the atmosphere. We'll be as crowded as we normally are."

At the Imperial Palace, "pretty much all of our TVs" will be set to the big game, spokesman Jeremy Handel said. "We're hoping it doesn't cut down on the crowd.

"That's kind of the theme this year -- keeping the NFL happy," Handel said.

This year that also means not using the "Super Bowl" trademark to advertise the game or individual team names. The relative lack of marketing is leaving many tourists confused or unsure about what events are planned. "We'll get in Friday and see what happens," said Jim Lundie, a Pittsburgh area resident who will be staying with his wife at the Flamingo -- the ste of several Super Bowl parties in years past.

"It was always a good time and a great atmosphere," he said of the parties. "Whether we come again depends on what occurs this weekend. If I wanted to bet this game coming up I'd just walk downtown and find a guy who will take a bet. We came (to Las Vegas) for the parties."

The NFL is within its rights to control broadcasts of the game outside people's homes, though the 55-inch TV set rule is "somewhat antiquated" because of a growing number of big-screen televisions bought for home use, said Jenna Karadbil, a Las Vegas attorney specializing in intellectual property and entertainment law.

"The largest problem they have is hotels making money off something they (broadcast) for free," Karadbil said. "It's a pretty standard theme in copyright law but people probably aren't familiar with it."

On the other hand, the NFL may be overreaching when it prevents businesses from using the "Super Bowl" brand, she said.

Federal law allows entities to use a trademark to describe something, Karadbil said. Theoretically, a business could challenge the league if it named the Super Bowl and described it in an ad as a national championship game taking place Feb. 4 on CBS, for example, she said.

Even so, the NFL would likely argue that "you're creating an association, that the Super Bowl is somehow affiliated with your casino."

Casinos and other businesses are unlikely to challenge the NFL, which has aggressively protected its Super Bowl brand in the past, Karadbil said.

"Nobody wants to get sued by the NFL," she said.