A Football Life
GC travelled to Alameda, California to visit the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, a team on the precipice of Super Bowl glory while facilitating a franchise move far away from their home of 20 years.
Law in the NFL
‘Once a Raider, always a Raider’
In the 1980s and 1990s, few sports teams were as culturally transcendent as the Raiders.
The unmistakable pirate logo, accented in silver and black, was a mainstay on attire around the globe – proudly displayed by countless people, many of whom had likely never seen the team play a game in their life.
Led by iconic owner Al Davis, an essential, yet divisive figure in the development of professional football, the Raiders were the little team that could.
With a man equal parts maverick and madman at the helm – one who relished challenging the status quo established by the traditionally conservative group of NFL owners – the team captured three Super Bowl titles in an eight-year span, from 1976-1983.
They did so as the meanest, nastiest and toughest team in the National Football League (NFL), a culture that Davis cultivated, and an image that the players (and fans) embraced.
Even as the team changed their home city five times, their zip code shifting across California between Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, their long-term popularity never waned.
The Raiders were truly a cultural phenomenon: loved by many, loathed by even more.
Welcome to Raider Nation
Despite growing up in Chicago, home to the Bears – a team with a rich football history of their own, not to mention a full 2,000 miles closer than the Raiders – one of those captivated by the chaos that characterised the Raiders was their future general counsel.
‘Since I was a little kid, I always loved the Raiders. Whenever they played in Chicago – or anywhere close for that matter – I was there. I wore a Raiders jacket to high school every day, I had the jerseys, the gear, anything I could get my hands on’, says Dan Ventrelle, executive vice president and general counsel of the Oakland Raiders.
While a man of Ventrelle’s physical stature was probably going to be precluded from ever putting on the pads for the silver and black, he nevertheless was determined to pursue a career alongside his childhood heroes.
‘I attended Notre Dame as an undergraduate and then Michigan Law School at the same time that Tom Brady was playing quarterback there. Seeing college football at the highest level at those two great places further fuelled my love for football, and my desire to find a role for myself working in the sport,’ says Ventrelle.
Executive vice president and general counsel
‘I cold-called the Raiders’ legal department as my graduation approached, but was told that there were only two lawyers there, neither of whom were ever likely to leave. I’d done some research and knew who their law firm of choice was, so I asked if they’d at least consider passing my résumé on.’
Against the odds, Ventrelle would go on to land a job at the firm. He uprooted his life, moving his family to California, in order to chase a dream he was told would never come to fruition.
‘But after three years at the firm, one of the two lawyers who was never going to leave did just that. They offered me the job and, just like that, I was a Raider.’
With 14 years’ experience with the Raiders and close to 20 now spent living in California, for Ventrelle and his family, Oakland is home.
But it won’t be for much longer.
The Raiders’ tenure in Oakland is coming to a close. In a deal directly worth billions of dollars, with an overall economic impact set to be many multiples more, the team will trade in their ageing Oakland home for a brand new, state-of-the-art facility.
But this time, instead of another move within the Golden State, the Raiders are packing their bags for Sin City.
When the 2020 NFL season officially kicks off, the logo on the front of the jersey will remain the same, but the team decked out in silver and black will have a new name: The Las Vegas Raiders.
‘Heading to Las Vegas is a hugely significant moment for us as a franchise, for the players and for our fan base,’ explains Ventrelle.
‘We spent seven years trying to do whatever we could to stay in Oakland. Our priority for a long time was trying to do whatever we could to keep the team here, but we couldn’t come up with a workable solution.’
The move followed a near-decade-long impasse over where the team should play. Their present ground, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, is the smallest permanent home of any team in the NFL, while also being one of the oldest.
the team decked out in silver and black will have a new name: The Las Vegas Raiders.
Stadiums have become a contentious topic in the US in recent years. Whereas partnering with local governments to share the burden of constructing such significant assets was previously common practice, a shift in public opinion has driven a change in the financing models underpinning major arenas.
‘We never asked for public money during the process; what we asked for was a way to be able to find a solution,’ says Ventrelle.
‘We pushed for a solution that could either work on the existing property, or one somewhere else in the city.’
Instead, the Raiders failed to come to an agreement with the Oakland and Alameda County officials over land-use rights and control of the Coliseum site. Despite a number of attempts, both from publicly- and privately-backed stadium ventures, neither the Raiders nor the NFL found any of the options palatable – forcing a move from the team’s home of the last 20 years.
‘We have no acrimony or hard feelings about it, it wasn’t something that we were ever able to come to terms on. We really wanted to be able to do something in Oakland, but it didn’t work out and when we knew that there wasn’t a feasible solution, we went on to something else,’ says Ventrelle.
With Oakland effectively out of the picture (despite a last-ditch attempt by city officials, which was rebuffed by the NFL), relocation of the franchise became the top priority for the Raiders.
Keeping the team in California was the first choice, with a return to Los Angeles seen as the most viable option. But with other franchises also eyeing up the City of Angels as a prime destination for relocation, the opportunity to move the team there became a competitive process, with three contenders for two spots. The proposals were ultimately put to a vote, with Oakland coming up short.
‘We felt that, as a whole, we’d put together a good project and a strong proposal in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t the one that won the support of the NFL’s ownership group. After a pair of disappointments, it was a matter of picking ourselves back up and moving on to the next option, which for us, meant moving on to Las Vegas.’
Viva Las Vegas
‘We began discussions in Las Vegas shortly after the vote for Los Angeles didn’t go our way, to see whether there was a viable option for the team,’ explains Ventrelle.
‘The response we got was hugely positive – there was a group of professional, motivated and supportive people who wanted to find a solution to get the team here.’
The move to Las Vegas was approved in March 2017, following a tumultuous process, fraught with uncertainty. Despite winning early support from the community at large and securing the necessary investment to build a new stadium overlooking the Las Vegas Strip – a nearly $2bn USD undertaking – an eleventh-hour withdrawal from the investment group threatened to sink the project before it ever got off the ground.
‘We were cognizant from the outset that this had to be a viable and attractive proposition for local commerce if we were to get this deal done. There were some challenges along the way, but this is a transformational opportunity for Las Vegas and we are confident that we will find a way to work through any issues’, says Ventrelle.
‘One of the more interesting parts of the relocation, particularly from a lawyer’s perspective, was going through the legislative process. We worked with the elected officials and the relevant stakeholders to help craft the legislation required, then followed the Bill as it was proposed and ultimately passed.’
Senate Bill 1 – dubbed ‘The Stadium Bill’ – passed by the slimmest of margins. Requiring at least two-thirds of voters to support the action, it passed through the senate with a 16-5 vote, before proceeding through the State Assembly 28-13. The legislation provided for $750m of funding towards the estimated $1.9bn construction cost, with the remaining $1.15bn to be borne by the Raiders and Bank of America.
‘The legislation increased the hotel occupancy tax to raise that money, so it’s effectively adding a small percentage on to each hotel room’s price, which creates a funding mechanism to contribute towards the stadium,’ explains Ventrelle.
‘The resort industry itself was behind the proposal in a big way, because it creates another attraction that people will come to town to see. Right now, there’s no venue in Las Vegas of a similar size and capacity, which is going to open up a host of new opportunities for the city – and subsequently the accommodation providers.’
With the necessary legislation passed and the funding for the construction of the new stadium secured, the final details in the relocation process proceeded relatively smoothly – particularly in light of the series of hurdles along the way.
‘Everything accelerated once we had that locked up. We negotiated the stadium lease and obtained approval from the NFL’s owners, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of our proposal to relocate the team, which was a huge vote of confidence,’ says Ventrelle.
‘From the League’s perspective, and for the individual owners, making sure that all of the teams are in strong financial situations, in sustainable and stable markets, with a positive outlook for the future is important. It’s good for us collectively as a sport – the due diligence carried out by both ourselves and the League backs that up. We’re confident this is the next big frontier for football.’
GC to GM?
While the relocation to Las Vegas has filled most of the past off season for Ventrelle, his dual role as executive vice-president and general counsel has called for some juggling – with significant moves required on the football side of the business too.
‘I’m a little unique in that I have responsibilities on both the business and football sides of the organisation, whereas most sports teams have lawyers who work exclusively on contracts, documents and transactions,’ explains Ventrelle.
In addition to his position overseeing the legal department, Ventrelle’s role entails a number of responsibilities on the personnel front – an aberration not just for a general counsel, but also in the sporting world, with such positions typically filled by ex-players who have worked their way through the ranks of the organisation.
‘On the business side, I function as the primary contract negotiator, so I negotiate both the players’ and coaching contracts on the football side. With those responsibilities, I have to work very closely with the director of football administration and our general manager,’ says Ventrelle.
‘Together, we oversee the way that we handle our salary cap, how that plan is structured for the coming years, and then plan out the contracts that are coming up and how to handle them. It’s a balancing act between projecting player growth and performances, how the financial structures in place stand to change, then putting that together into a plan to ensure we’re making prudent decisions for the team.’
This off season saw the Raiders sign the most lucrative player contract in League history [at the time], as 26-year-old quarterback Derek Carr put pen to paper on a five-year deal worth $125m USD. The deal was a clear sign from management of the confidence they have in Carr as a key component in a team with ambitions of winning football’s ultimate prize – the Super Bowl – come February 2018, an achievement Ventrelle said would be the ‘ultimate reward’ for the franchise, the fans, and of course himself, before they depart for Las Vegas.
‘But to be honest with you, on a personal level, my whole career with the Raiders, right from the beginning, has been hugely rewarding. It’s literally a dream come true for me,’ says Ventrelle.
‘Having the opportunity to play a key role in the process that ensures the viability of the team, the success of the franchise and, ultimately, a new home in Las Vegas is incredible. But more than that, being able to give back to the team I love, the organisation that I love, the Davis family, and those who gave me an opportunity to live a life in football – that overshadows everything. That’s the ultimate reward.’