In January 2019, in front of hundreds of college sports administrators and executives at the NCAA’s annual convention in Orlando, Mark Emmert made a prediction about the impact of sports betting on the college athletics world.
It will “threaten the integrity of college sports,” he told the crowd before him.
Less than three years later, sports betting has become the new frontier in college sports—a previously shunned category now being accepted in an industry that long leaned on archaic amateurism principles.
In the latest such evidence, the Fiesta Bowl is partnering with Caesars Entertainment, the Nevada-based gambling company, in what is believed to be the first sports betting and fantasy gaming alliance between a college football bowl game and a gambling property. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed, but it is a “multiyear” agreement, officials from both sides told Sports Illustrated in interviews.
Caesars will play host to a newly created fan lounge within each stadium of both the Fiesta Bowl and the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, providing fans with an educational and engaging experience with company ambassadors. The 800-person, standing-room-only area will feature bars and a DJ. Caesars will become title partner of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl pregame parties as well, and the company is gifted club and suite seats at both events for its high-rollers.
Not coincidentally, the deal coincides with the legalization of sports betting in the state of Arizona. That takes effect on Sept. 9.
“It’s game-changing,” says Jose Moreno, chief marketing officer of the Fiesta Bowl. “It’s only a matter of time before the other bowls get into this space.”
Caesars will make an annual financial contribution to Fiesta Bowl charities. Moreno declined to reveal the amount but described it as “significant.”
Searching for a unique experience for its fans, the Fiesta created a request for bid to some of the major sports betting companies in the U.S. Caesars won a competitive process, Moreno says.
Dan Shapiro, Caesars chief development officer, says the company jumped at the opportunity to become the first gambling outlet to partner with a bowl game. Shapiro describes the deal as breaking barriers in college sports, an initial spark that could ignite the industry into similar deals.
“We are going to see more,” Shapiro says. “A lot of the pro teams have been benefiting from it over the past years. It’s a new way for college programs to generate revenue.”
College sports, specifically bowl games, were rocked financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The distress has happened during an already trying time for some bowl games. Attendance has fallen, star players have skipped games and the impending expansion of the College Football Playoff further threatens their existence.
Nick Carparelli, the Bowl Season executive director, says the deal is the next evolution in corporate partnerships and advertisements. He compares gambling to alcohol—another industry ostracized from the college game before recently.
“Every sports entity is under pressure to increase revenue. It’s logical that we’re now seeing the gambling category open up, especially as we’re seeing the laws in most states open up on gambling,” he says. “I certainly expect more of this. Any time somebody does something for the first time, it’s going to open up some people's eyes to the opportunity it presents.”
The partnership is gambling’s latest step into college athletics. Last year, the University of Colorado entered into a five-year, $1.65 million advertising agreement with PointsBet. It is believed to be the first high-profile sports gambling deal in major college athletics. In 2017, the University of Nevada, both Las Vegas and Reno campuses, struck a deal with William Hill.
The Arizona Bowl sent waves through the college bowl landscape earlier this year when it agreed to have Barstool Sports as its title sponsorship. Barstool also operates a digital sportsbook.
Both the Colorado and UN deals grant the companies the ability to post signage in athletic venues. The Colorado deal even includes a finder’s fee, so to speak. The Buffaloes receive a $30 referral fee for each new gambling customer they send to PointsBet, which claims to be America's fastest-growing online bookmaker.
The deals buck a long-standing resistance in college sports to any association with gambling. In fact, the NCAA still enforces several antigambling policies. In this new world of name, image and likeness (NIL), the association was against allowing athletes freedom to cash in within the gambling industry. In the organization’s draft of NIL legislation that never took effect, athletes would have been prohibited from striking NIL deals with gambling sites and casinos.
At least 13 states have NIL laws that expressly ban players from entering into NIL deals with gambling outlets, says Julie Sommer, a member of the Drake Group and a leading expert in state NIL legislation.
In more long-standing NCAA rules, players, coaches and administrators are banned from betting on sports, and the organization does not allow gambling signage in the view of television cameras during bowls, Moreno says.
In keeping with NCAA standards, the Fiesta Bowl will not involve teams in its promotion of Caesars, Moreno says.
“I don’t think it’s taboo or I don’t think there is a stigma around it anymore,” he says. “We’re proud we can be pioneers of this.”
Dustin Gouker, a sports betting analyst who operates several sites covering the industry, says college sports is in a slow crawl toward fully embracing gambling. Professional leagues have moved at a quicker pace. In Arizona, pro leagues can even be licensed to operate sportsbooks at their own venues. The Cardinals, Suns and Diamondbacks all plan to do so once the state’s law goes into effect, Gouker says.
States began legalizing sports betting after the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on single-game wagering in 2018. More than 25 states could have some kind of legal sports wagering by the end of '21.
“The wall came crumbling down when the federal law changed,” Gouker says. “I’m not sure I see a world with a sportsbook at a college stadium, but who knows. In 10 years, you could see that maybe.”
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