Bowled Under

In January 1982, a recession gripped the country and sliced into bottom lines everywhere. In Las Vegas, Bob Vannucci, then an executive at the Sands, was desperate. Times were tough even for casinos, and he needed another way to entertain the property’s high rollers on Super Bowl weekend. Chartering aircraft to fly those major players to the game didn’t fit the budget. So he figured out a way to keep them on premises: He arranged a game-day party in the legendary Copa Room.

Vannucci expected maybe 100 patrons, but more than 600 crammed into the 450-seat venue. With Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause providing running commentary, they watched San Francisco beat Cincinnati, 26-21.

“We were overwhelmed,” Vannucci says. “From there, it just took off. It became a huge event that every hotel adopted.”

But today the father of the Vegas Super Bowl party believes the best memories are behind us. “It’s still big,” says Vannucci, now president of the Riviera. “But it’s just not the same.”

That’s because, not long before kickoff in 2004, the National Football League clamped down, sending cease-and-desist orders to the major casinos. Citing federal copyright laws, the league threatened legal action against those charging admission to parties that showed the game on screens larger than 55 inches.

“I remember that letter,” Palms owner George Maloof says. “You couldn’t charge and you couldn’t promote it as a ‘Super Bowl’ thing. You had to use other forms of verbiage.”

Hence, you’ll find a “Big Game Party” at South Point, a “Big Game Blowout” at ESPN Zone, a “Gridiron Giveaway” at Luxor and a “50-Yard Line Party” at the Tropicana on Super Sunday.

Admission is free to the 1,700-seat Hilton Theater, where the game will air on a 15-by-20-foot screen. That’s not because of supply and demand, but the NFL police: A no-entry fee and having a theater that regularly shows NFL games allows a venue to show the game to the public.

The party still goes on, and Maloof says Super Bowl weekend still is the city’s top weekend for business, eclipsing the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament and New Year’s Eve. A quarter of a million visitors could be here this weekend, with as much as $100 million wagered on the game. There will be ballroom parties, but they will be invitation-only affairs.

The apex of the Super bashes might have been 2003, when Vannucci’s party drew more than 3,500—without advertising—to the Riviera. Caterers served roast beef, baby back ribs and crab cakes. Balloons in Raiders and Buccaneers colors decorated goal posts at opposite ends of the Riviera’s Royale Pavilion. Former NFL stars Deacon Jones, Roger Craig and Danny White were the hosts.

“We used to give away Super Bowl programs, and hats and shirts,” Vannucci says. “We lost that. The public intermingled with the high rollers, and it was a stadium atmosphere. It’s still a great weekend, but it just doesn’t have the sizzle it had before.”