fan celebrating victory standing in the stands of a stadium

The NFL, once sports betting’s biggest adversary in the legal and legislative arenas, is now fully on board with the new sports betting laws which have brought sports betting to almost half of U.S. states. The NFL had lobbied aggressively against any law that would legalize sports betting and was a major force behind the passage of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PAPSA) that outlawed sports betting. The NFL led the fight against the State of New Jersey in the 2018 US Supreme Court which, eventually, overturned PAPSA.

Now that 23 states have legalized sports betting and bills to do so are pending in another 9 states, the NFL has turned pragmatic. The league and individual teams have official betting partners and are actively pursuing venues for expanding their involvement in the new era of legalized sports betting in the U.S.
New Horizons for the NFL

SCOTUS struck down the federal ban on sports gambling in May 2018. That ruling gave each state the opportunity to legislate sports betting in its own jurisdiction. The move changed the sports industry forever. The NFL and other major sports leagues now sees sports gambling as a significant future source of revenue and no league has been as aggressive in embracing sports betting as has the NFL.

DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars are now official sports betting partners of the NFL. NFL stadiums are empowered to allow in-stadium betting while official NFL broadcasts are infused with gambling content.

Even in the midst of the pandemic the NFL and its teams say that they are expecting to generate approximately $270 million in sports betting revenue from their partnerships just this year. But analysts believe that the market could grow to $1 billion by the end of the decade.

Christopher Halpin, NFL chief strategy and growth officer and executive vice president told the Washington Post, “For adult fans who want to bet in legal markets on sports, have products and partners that serve them best in class and advance their experience….. And on the flip side, don’t alienate the fan like my mother who doesn’t want sports betting in her national CBS broadcast.”

History

The NFL’s shift to embrace sports betting is pragmaticism at its highest level.  When New Jersey sought to legalize sports gambling at its Atlantic City casinos and racetracks just a decade ago the NFL, together with other major sports organizations including the NBA, NHL NCAA and MLB, fought tooth and nail to prevent sports betting from becoming a reality. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a New Jersey court that sports betting, “threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, NFL football.”

When, however, it became clear that New Jersey would fight the case up to the Supreme Court, the NFL prepared for an eventual loss. In order to make sure that, if and when sports betting became a reality, they would be ready to move forward quickly and efficiently, league officials researched how sports betting was conducted in other legal markets.

“For a long time, legalized sports betting was this sort of great unknown for the NFL," Halpin told the Post. "I think a lot of people just naturally assumed it would be the worst…. We started to say, ‘Okay, the practical reality [is] on the other side of the Supreme Court, there will be legalized sports betting.’… We said, ‘Okay, now let’s make sure this is the best market possible and best development possible for NFL fans.' ”

Offshore Gambling

The league’s research showed that billions of dollars were being gambled on sports every year, primarily online via offshore betting sites. The research also indicated that 20% of sports fans aged 21 and older were frequent sports betters while 30% placed sports bets on a casual basis. Therefore, the NFL concluded, the ideal sports betting legislation should demonstrate responsible betting with licensing requirements that would demonstrate consumer protection.

Some of the points that the NFL believed needed to be addressed included:

  • Having bets resolved using league’s official data
  • Prohibitions on betting by insiders
  • Operators’ responsibility to ensure ethical practices

The research that had been completed meant that, when the Supreme Court’s ruling came, the league was prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities. League officials needed to first gain the backing of the NFL’s 32 teams. Not all were supportive, with many owners expressing the view that sports betting was something that the league should stay away from.

But, said Halpin, “at the end of the day, you’d much rather, if someone is going to bet, have it be in a legal, regulated market as a sport than done offshore.”

Making it Happen

After the league convinced the majority of the team owners to get on board, they hired an analytics firm to create exclusively licensed official NFL data including scores, staffs and performance data collected during games. The league also started to sign sportsbook sponsorships. Teams may also sign with sportsbooks as sponsors. Betting kiosks and betting windows are not to be allowed in stadiums but teams may open sportsbook-sponsored betting lounges for online bets.

Halpin says that the NFL is still committed to protecting against corruption. Teams provide gambling-related training to players and team staffers.

One of the biggest changes involves broadcasting. Just a few years ago, broadcasters had to be very careful to avoid any mention or even hint of a mention of odds, points spread, under/over or any other mention of betting during their broadcasts. Now NFL media partners are investing heavily in betting content. Fox Bet is Fox News’ sportsbook and is the most aggressive media company push but other networks including NBC, CBS and even ESPN – which until a few years ago wouldn’t even use NFL teams’ official marks and names in its gambling content – are partnering with betting operators in an effort to get in on the action. ESPN built a set to film gambling content in Las Vegas in partnership with Caesars.

The league’s market research shows that it must be careful when infusing gambling into its broadcasts. Fans may like sportsbook apps on their phones but, according to league research, they don’t like sports-gambling content on national TV broadcasts or in-stadium betting kiosks. This season the league is permitting ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC to sell up to six sportsbook commercials per game broadcast, to operators such as PointsBet, WynnBe, Fox Bet and BetMGM and to the league’s three exclusive sportsbook partners.

Broadcasts now include some betting lines and spreads. But overall, the networks are being careful to not alienate casual fans with an overload of betting content. But, says Trey Wingo, formerly of ESPN, “It’s inevitable.”

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