The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL once viewed sports betting as a threat. Now the league wants the action.

NFL betting odds are displayed inside the race and sportsbook at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Dover, Del., in 2018. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
7 min

For the years he hosted “NFL Live” on ESPN, Trey Wingo always had to be careful. Whenever he wanted to discuss how oddsmakers viewed a game — the point spread, over/under or other topics of interest to bettors — he had to be creative.

“We’d say ‘more or less’ than a number for points scored,” he said with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “Anything to not use the actual words for prop bets. Now the league has three official betting partners.”

Wingo left ESPN last year, and like much of sports media and the leagues, he hitched his future to the gambling business. He started this summer as the chief trends officer and brand ambassador for Caesars Entertainment, where he will host digital shows focused on football and betting trends.

“It’s like turning the ship 180 degrees from where the NFL was, but they’ve embraced it, and it’s absolutely the right move,” Wingo said. “At the end of the day, money is money, and the NFL is really good at making money.”

It was only six years ago that the NFL forced the cancellation of scheduled appearances by then-Dallas Cowboys star Tony Romo and other players at a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas. The nation’s most popular and prosperous pro sports league wouldn’t allow even that tenuous link between its players and bettors, citing a policy prohibiting appearances associated with gambling establishments.

Now, three years after the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports gambling in most states, the sports industry has pivoted from once opposing legalization efforts to embracing sports betting as a significant source of revenue.

And the NFL has been as aggressive as any league, forging partnerships with betting operators, infusing broadcasts with gambling content and allowing betting to seep into the stadium experience. In April, the league announced Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel as its official sports-betting partners.

The NFL and its teams expect to generate about $270 million in revenue this year from their sports-betting and gambling deals, according to a person familiar with the league’s finances. That’s only the beginning.

“You can definitely see the market growing to $1 billion-plus of league opportunity over this decade,” said Christopher Halpin, an executive vice president for the NFL who is its chief strategy and growth officer.

The league’s approach involves a delicate balance.

“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,” Halpin said in a phone interview this offseason. “And on the flip side, don’t alienate the fan like my mother who doesn’t want sports betting in her national CBS broadcast.”

Shifting winds

Less than a decade ago, when New Jersey sought to legalize sports gambling at its racetracks and Atlantic City casinos, the NFL joined other major sports organizations — the NBA, MLB, the NHL and the NCAA — in fighting back. The spread of sports betting, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to the New Jersey court, “threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, NFL football.”

But by mid-2017, the NFL saw the Supreme Court decision coming. So the league began to do its research, looking at comparable situations internationally and speaking to gaming operators, governing bodies and sports entities. The NFL wanted to know: What did sports betting look like in legalized markets? What were the pitfalls? What’s needed with legislation?

“For a long time, legalized sports betting was this sort of great unknown for the NFL," Halpin said. "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.' ”

Between $75 billion to $125 billion was being gambled illegally on sports in the United States at the time, the NFL found, overwhelmingly online via smartphones to offshore sportsbooks.

The league’s research also helped it prepare for how certain fans would react to the shift. It estimated that among its fans age 21 and older, roughly 20 percent were frequent sports bettors. Thirty percent were casual or aspiring sports bettors, saying they’d bet some in their state if it was legal but they weren’t going to bet illegally. Another 30 percent didn’t care, and 20 percent were what the NFL called “active rejecters.” The percentage of active rejecters fell each year that the NFL did such research, now landing around 12 percent.

The frequent sports bettors were mostly young and male. The active rejecters were about 60 percent female and, overwhelmingly, over age 55.

The ideal sports-gambling legislation, the NFL concluded, would include substantive licensing requirements creating clear and transparent markets that protect consumers. Bets needed to be resolved using the league’s official data. There had to be prohibitions on betting by insiders and the onus placed on operators to make certain that wasn’t occurring.

When the Supreme Court’s ruling came, the league office was ready to move but first had to secure the backing of the owners of the 32 NFL teams. Many weren’t ready to pivot so quickly. Halpin said the owners fell into roughly four groups.

“You would have a quartile for whom it was the new gold rush and: ‘This is going to be the biggest thing ever. Let’s do it tomorrow,’ ” Halpin said. “And at the other end, it’s like people who viewed it as a hurricane coming down: ‘There is no positive. It’s nothing but a terrible thing.’ And then you have sort of the second quartile who are bullish but nervous. And then you have the third quartile who are nervous but know they should feel bullish.”

The league explained to owners that sports betting is not a nefarious activity — that sportsbooks are like financial-services brokers, making markets and seeking liquidity to capture the “vig,” or the sportsbook’s cut of each bet, without seeking to express a view on a game’s outcome.

“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,” Halpin said.

The owners bought in, at least enough for the league to move forward. The league cut a deal with an analytics firm to exclusively license its official data — not just scores and stats but the vast amount of performance and other data collected during games. It licensed video internationally to sportsbooks, using the overseas market to test and innovate its approach. In 2019, the NFL struck its first international sportsbook sponsorships in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Latin America.

Last year brought the league’s rollout on the team side, with teams in states with legal betting finally being allowed to sign up sportsbooks as sponsors. The NFL prohibited kiosks and true betting windows in stadiums. Teams could have sportsbook-sponsored betting lounges, although the bets could not be physically placed there. That prohibition remains in place.

The Arizona Cardinals announced a partnership this month with BetMGM with plans for a retail sportsbook at State Farm Stadium as soon as 2022. But the BetMGM sportsbook will not be part of the stadium; it will be on separate land adjacent to the complex, according to a person familiar with the situation. Stadium signage — at the higher levels of stadiums — was permitted leaguewide beginning last season.

For the NFL, Halpin said, protecting against corruption remains paramount. The NHL provided a stark reminder of that to other leagues when it said last month it would investigate allegations by Evander Kane’s wife that the San Jose Sharks forward has bet on and thrown his games. Kane denied the accusations. The NFL said it provides gambling-related training to players and team staffers while using what it calls best-in-class monitoring to become aware as soon as possible of any potential issues.

A payday for partners

The league’s shift came just in time for its broadcast partners, which are hunting for new revenue streams as cord-cutting upends their business models.

Just a few years ago, ESPN would not use NFL teams’ official names and marks in its gambling content. Now the NFL’s media partners are diving headfirst into betting content. Fox has launched a sportsbook, Fox Bet, marking the most aggressive push of the media companies. Other networks — ESPN, NBC and CBS — have inked marketing partnerships with various betting operators. ESPN has partnered with Ceasars and built a set in Las Vegas to film gambling content.

But the league’s market research led it to move carefully when infusing gambling into its broadcasts. Fans liked sportsbook apps on their phones, the league determined, but they didn’t like in-stadium betting kiosks or sports-gambling content on national TV broadcasts.

“[Jim] Nantz and [Tony] Romo talking about it — the non-betting fans don’t want that,” Halpin said. “And the betting fans are like, ‘I don’t need to hear these non-bettors tell me about spreads and odds.’ "

Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN are being permitted to sell as many as six sportsbook commercials per NFL game broadcast this season to the league’s three exclusive sportsbook partners and other approved sportsbook operators such as Fox Bet, WynnBet, BetMGM and PointsBet.

There have been some spreads and betting lines added to tickers at the bottom of the screen on NFL broadcasts. There have been some free-to-play games, too, such as Fox’s contest telling fans they can win the money from studio analyst Terry Bradshaw, and broadcasters have been permitted to use odds to buttress their football observations.

As for the presentation of games, the networks remain wary of alienating casual fans with too much betting content. ESPN offered a gambling and analytics theme simulcast of a playoff game last year that aired on streaming service ESPN Plus. ESPN and other networks probably will continue to experiment with alternative broadcasts like that, but how much they affect the main telecasts remains to be seen.

Wingo believes that just as there now are designated outside experts to talk about officiating on NFL telecasts, one day there will be similar analysts for gambling commentary.

“To me, it’s inevitable,” he said. “Where you throw to someone or you cut in from another feed and say here’s our sharp and here’s the significance of what just happened for gamblers.”

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