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Raiders give fans something to cheer in Las Vegas debut

What should have been a red-letter day for local sports fans became a Silver and Black one instead.

The coronavirus left Raiders fans on the outside looking in at Allegiant Stadium on Monday night. But it did not prevent football enthusiasts in the valley and beyond from celebrating the team’s long-awaited Las Vegas debut.

The Raiders defeated New Orleans 34-24 in a showdown of NFL tourist destinations that also attracted Raiders faithful from the Bay Area as well as a contingent of Saints supporters.

Fans began gathering at the $2 billion football facility flanking the Strip at the intersection of Dean Martin Drive and Al Davis Way more than three hours before kickoff of the history-making “Monday Night Football” game.

Anthony Silva, a lifelong Raiders fan and season ticket holder who staged the first tailgate party in Allegiant Stadium history after its completion, set up another one in a parking lot on Hacienda Avenue. He received a phone call from Raiders president Marc Badain thanking him and his wife for their support.

“We’re pumped; wish we could be inside,” Silva said in what on Monday would become a more familiar refrain than “Are You Ready for Some Football?”

The answer was a resounding “Yes!” even if it was pro football played at social distance (and then some) from spectators who have been enthusiastically awaiting its arrival.

Give ’em HellRaider

Masks were worn by those who gathered outside Allegiant Stadium, though many were part of colorful Raider Nation costumes and not of the protective variety.

Fans who could not find parking spaces honked horns at those who did. Raiders super fan “HellRaider” — who answers to Ronnie Carlos Abarca on nongame days — posed for a photo with a Metro police officer as if he was being arrested.

While all but a few of the 65,000 seats inside the Raiders’ palatial new digs went unoccupied, the same could not be said for the 42 tables within sight of the big screens at the PKWY Tavern on West Flamingo Road.

A few seats at the bar and four tables at the rear of the patio were left open for walk-ins. Two of the four tables, in direct 94-degree sunlight, were filled by 4:30 p.m.

It also was beginning to look a lot like pro football at the Northstar Bar &Grill in North Las Vegas, where owner Jimmy Tsunis was presiding over a mini-Black Hole.

“We love Las Vegas, and we’re very happy with the investment they’ve made,” Tsunis said of the Raiders and their passionate fan base. “Of course, we want to support any organization that comes in here and spends a billion dollars.”

Bittersweet transition

Rosemary Gonzales and a group of friends and family members who flew in from San Jose, California, weren’t planning to spend nearly that much at PKWY Tavern. She said making the transition to Las Vegas was as difficult as watching Drew Brees march the Saints down the field in the new stadium that glittered like the Raiders tank top she was wearing.

“It’s hard for us,” she said of the Raiders’ loyal legions in the Bay Area. “I can’t say ‘Vegas’ yet.”

At MGM Grand’s Centrifuge cocktail lounge, about 100 fans, most wearing Raiders gear, were paying a little more for drinks. Jessy Aguirre said he was excited when he first saw Allegiant Stadium. The former Raiders season ticket holder from Southern California said the old stadium in Oakland was “not the prettiest sight.”

As openings go, this one wasn’t as grand as when the Golden Knights brought the NHL to Southern Nevada, although their home debut also coincided with a national calamity; the puck was dropped a few days after the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting.

While most who gathered for the Raiders’ Las Vegas baptismal did not require a primer introducing them to a nonindigenous sport, the same could not be said of a bartender at the Rush Hour Tavern in Henderson.

“Man, I’m ready,” the barkeep Joe H. said about an hour before the home team took the field for the first time in the shadow of neon glow. “I was born and raised here, so I love to see us have a football team.”

He was wearing a San Francisco 49ers jersey.

One suspects he’ll catch on quickly.

Review-Journal staffers Jason Bracelin, Al Mancini, Christopher Lawrence, Mick Akers, Blake Apgar and Jason Orts contributed to this story. Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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