Inside the NFL’s Embrace of Sports Gambling

From a Washington Post story by Adam Kilgore headlined “Inside the NFL’s careful, complicated embrace of sports gambling”:

In the early 2000s, during his nascent days as mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman asked for a meeting with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. He envisioned a franchise in his city, which at the time professional sports leagues treated as a third rail. Vegas meant gambling, and gambling meant a threat — whether perceived or real — to fans’ trust in the integrity of the games. Tagliabue met with Goodman, but he made clear that Goodman’s vision would never happen.

“We were poison,” said Carolyn Goodman, who replaced her husband as Las Vegas’s mayor in 2011. “It was solid steel never, no. There was no wiggle room there. The door was closed, locked, sealed.”

The city would discover just how firmly the NFL stood against it. In 2003, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority attempted to buy airtime for a Super Bowl commercial. The league refused, a fortification of the barricade it had erected between itself and gambling. “The NFL has a long-standing policy that prohibits the acceptance of any message that makes reference to or mention of sports betting,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy explained at the time.

But in the five years since the federal ban on sports betting fell and states widely legalized it, the NFL has changed with America at dizzying speed. Gambling has driven the NFL’s popularity since its earliest days, but the league always repelled any sanctioned connection. It has now wrapped its arms around sports wagering, holding dollars in both fists. The league has three official sports betting partners. Sportsbooks operate next to — or, in the case of the Washington Commanders, inside — stadiums. This year’s Super Bowl will be played in a city whose existence the league once refused to acknowledge during Super Bowl commercial breaks.

In 2022, Carolyn Goodman watched the NFL draft with her husband. They saw Goodell standing on a stage adjacent to the Strip. The NFL had already awarded Super Bowl LVIII to Las Vegas. It would be played in Allegiant Stadium, the home of the Raiders since 2020. The firewall between league and city, between the NFL and gambling, had been razed.

“It’s an amazing thing when we were at the draft, to see him onstage and just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, and here we were, this poor little city couldn’t even get an advertisement up during the Super Bowl,’ ” Carolyn Goodman said. “Now look. Here we are. We’ve got it coming.”

While the league reaps the spoils of revenue from its partnerships with gambling companies, it also has confronted the pitfalls it once feared, from the potential addiction and exploitation of fans to the erosion of trust in the outcome of games. Today, NFL players are strictly forbidden from betting on the NFL or from gambling of any kind while at team facilities — including team buses and planes — or on team business. When a team stays overnight on a road trip, its players cannot visit casinos in that city.

The NFL has suspended 10 players who violated league rules since 2021, but it openly admits the lure of a business opportunity outweighs the risks of damaging its competitive integrity.

“It’s one of the reasons we oppose legalized sports betting, because of the risk to the integrity of the game,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an NBC interview before the 2023 season’s opening game. “And so that’s always going to be our number one priority. When the Supreme Court overruled that, we have to be in that space.”

The NFL rushed into the space more tentatively than other sports league. Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis once said gambling “kind of saved sports short term” after the coronavirus pandemic rearranged the business landscape. These days, many MLB, NHL and NBA broadcasts can feel like hours-long gambling advertisements.

The NFL’s colossal television rights contract, which immunizes the league’s owners from the regional sports network crises that other leagues face, has enabled it to not be reliant on sports gambling. The league caters its game broadcasts to nongamblers, understanding bettors can seek out alternative content and not wanting to turn away fans. It discourages broadcast partners from openly discussing betting lines during games, although some pregame segments focus explicitly on point spreads and prop bets. The league allows networks to sell a maximum of six commercials per game to sports betting companies.

“The NFL has approached these topics at a more deliberate pace,” said Chris Grove, an emeritus partner at gambling consulting firm Eilers & Krejcik. “The NFL just took the position of: ‘We are the center of gravity when it comes to the intersection of professional sports. We generate the most interest, the most volume, the most revenue. We are the crown jewels. Let’s let the rest of the market settle. We’ll get a sense of where the value is, where the value isn’t, and we’re not going to surrender any leverage by doing so. In fact, we’ll probably increase leverage by doing so.’ The NFL definitely moved at its own pace and definitely waited for the rest of the landscape to settle.”

Still, sports gambling has transformed the NFL’s sponsorship revenue. In 2018, the first year the league allowed teams to strike marketing deals with gambling companies, it made $35 million from gambling-related sponsors, from tribal casinos to fantasy football, according to data compiled by research firm SponsorUnited. The NFL now makes $132 million per year from gambling-related sponsorships, “which is the equivalent of, like, adding two to three NFL teams and their sponsorship revenues, just from this one category,” SponsorUnited CEO Bob Lynch said.

Gambling once constituted 2.3 percent of the NFL’s sponsorship dollars, Lynch said, and it now constitutes roughly three times that. Those figures do not take into account intangible benefits such as increased interest and customer data that sports betting companies can share with the league.

“They’ve been able to unlock a lot of value beyond the actual money coming in,” Lynch said. “It’s been like a unicorn category that’s been sustainable for a pretty long period of time.”

An NFL fan cannot attend a game or watch one on television without at least a mild bombardment of gambling advertisements, and the league must grapple with how much it risks exploiting fans by accepting that ad revenue. Between 2018 and 2021, National Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Keith Whyte said, Americans 18 and older experienced a 30 percent increase in risk for problem gambling.

“The NFL, their embrace of legalized sports betting, has certainly led to a massive explosion in the amount of sports betting advertising that reaches not just adults where sports betting is legal; it reaches a lot of adults where sports betting is not legal,” Whyte said. “And it reaches a lot of kids and adolescents. We think there’s been a big increase in risk, and obviously the NFL is part of that.”

Since the legalization of sports betting, the NFL has become the National Council on Problem Gambling’s largest donor. The NFL committed $6.2 million over three years, Whyte said, while other leagues have contributed roughly $50,000 per year. The NBA, as one example, paid $6,000. The NFL “recognized they needed to balance both sides of the equation — costs and benefits of their support for expanded gambling,” Whyte said.

When the NFL still publicly opposed gambling, Goodell repeatedly stated the league’s primary objection was how betting could affect the perceived integrity of games. If a player dropped a few passes, he once argued, fans might wonder if he was shaving points.

Never mind that the problem could have existed just as easily with illegal gambling — or that the league had been confronting it for decades. In 1963, the NFL suspended Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras and Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung for betting on NFL games and associating with gamblers and people the Detroit police described as “known hoodlums.” During that same episode, the league fined five other Lions $2,000 each for betting on the NFL championship game. (They won $50 apiece by picking the Packers over the Giants, resulting in a net loss of about $1,950.)

The last surviving player fined during that incident is Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. He is 91 and lives in an assisted-living facility in Florida. He is still sharp in conversation, but age and a career of hard hits have eroded his memory. He did not recall details of his punishment, but he could place in context a problem the NFL still has: how to police players’ sports betting.

“It’s part pastime and part of people’s enjoyment,” Schmidt said. “I think what they’re worried about is ballplayers throwing games and stuff. I don’t know how the hell that happens, or if does happen how they stop that.”

For professional athletes, gambling on their sport has been a cardinal sin for more than a century. But for most of that time, athletes did not have the option to carry a sportsbook around in their pockets. The NFL does not only have to ward off known hoodlums; it must police cellphone apps that are promoted during breaks of its games.

The technology in some ways protects the league. Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley, then with the Atlanta Falcons, was suspended after regulators in Florida tracked him making a bet on his phone and notified Genius Sports, the firm that oversees gambling integrity for the NFL. But it also means players in states where gambling is legal have constant access to wagering.

NFL officials visited every training camp over the summer to explain the rules to players and warn them about the penalties. The league views as them straightforward and easy to follow. Teams have emphasized the rules on their own, wary of losing a key player out of the blue.

Cincinnati Bengals Coach Zac Taylor addressed his team directly each time an NFL player’s suspension surfaced. He strongly recommended his players not bet at all — on anything, anywhere — summarizing his message as: “You’re going to have plenty of time after football to have all the fun you want to have and gamble.”

“You can’t tell grown men what to do when they’re at their own home and it is legal for them to do other things,” Taylor said. “But our message has been: ‘It’s just not worth it. Why even toe the line?’

Some felt the NFL’s rules are out of step with societal shifts — and, with backing from the NFL Players Association, pushed the NFL to change its policy. Last month, Goodell sent a memo to players explaining changes that made penalties for betting on the NFL harsher and punishment for betting on other sports at team facilities or on road trips more lenient. A player can now receive lifetime banishment for fixing a game, and first-time offenders for betting at a facility now receive two-game suspensions instead of six.

“The NFL is strongly committed to protecting the integrity of our game,” Goodell wrote in the memo. “As NFL players, you have a special responsibility to yourself and your legacy, your club and teammates, the fans, and the game to ensure that it is always played fairly, honestly, and to the best of your ability. This includes taking all appropriate steps to safeguard our game against possible gambling-related risks that can undermine the confidence and trust of our fans and colleagues in America’s greatest game.”

The NFL has allowed players to return after suspensions. Ridley, sidelined for all of 2022, became the Jaguars’ top wide receiver instantly once this season began. Some believe it is imperative for the league to provide rehabilitation, not just punishment, for players who break the rules.

“It’s critical that NFL players who may have gambling problems have a safe harbor to seek help,” Whyte said. “There’s a big difference between someone who is breaking a rule because they’re unconcerned and trying to hide their behavior and someone who is doing it because they have the mental health problem of gambling disorder.”

The issues raised by legalized gambling will only grow thornier. Betting is less something adjacent to the sport than an activity interspersed with the game, a web laid over the entire enterprise. It has made the NFL wealthier, but it also promises to provide more controversy.

Gambling is not going away — and it has always been here. Sixty years ago, Schmidt found himself in the middle of a scandal. He believed Commissioner Pete Rozelle would have been justified had he wagered consistently on NFL games. But he insisted he only bet on one game he had no role in. Given his surroundings, he is not sure he deserved punishment.

“I don’t know,” Schmidt said. “America, if you took away gambling, probably all the people would have a fit.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for The Washington Post. Previously, he served as The Post’s Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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