At the NFL’s annual meeting back in March, Giants owner John Mara, whose family is in its 10th decade of NFL ownership, was careful when discussing the breadth of what could be coming with the legalization of sports gambling. But he didn’t quibble with the significance of what was happening.
“We’re having discussions that we’ve never had before,” Mara told me in Orlando.
The Supreme Court’s monumental decision on Monday is why. The panel ruled by a 7–2 vote in favor of New Jersey to overturn the long-standing federal ban on sports gambling (only the state of Nevada is exempt), which puts the decision on whether to legalize it in the hands of each individual state. And if most states’ willingness to allow casino construction is any indication, there will be some green lights coming.
And what exactly does this mean for the NFL? Well, it’s been more reluctant than other pro sports leagues to embrace what many have seen coming for a long time, even with owners like Dallas’s Jerry Jones and New England’s Robert Kraft investing heavily in daily fantasy sports—seen by many as a first cousin to full-blown betting on NFL games. But that attitude has changed over the last year. The NFL’s messaging hasn’t just softened on it, but the league has shifted into planning for the new business opportunity that’s about to land in its lap. How? Monetize the hell out of it.
Keep in mind that league-wide gambling may take some time. It’s likely that not all states will immediately legalize sports betting, so NFL might force teams in states that do legalize it to wait to implement initiatives, like in-game prop betting, until it’s legal in every NFL state.
“That’ll create another process,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt said. “One thing that was raised to us is you might have some state laws that conflict with federal laws, which will make it really complicated. What the league is trying to do in preparation for it is figure out how to maintain the integrity of the game, because that’s the most important thing on many, many fronts. And so they’re beginning their work on that.”
Also, the NFL will study, but not necessarily follow, the NBA. The NBA has been aggressive on this front, saying it will seek a 1% cut of all basketball-related bets. My guess is that the NFL will see how that goes and then move on it if it becomes a big revenue-generator in basketball. But one owner told me a few weeks ago that the NFL is looking at taking a fee from bets on point spreads and similar odds as a “low-margin business for us.”
Here’s what the NFL is thinking on a few topics right now.
Casinos and sponsorship. Legalized gambling could impact the NFL’s relationships with casinos. One high-ranking Raiders source explained that his team, and others, are sensitive to the possibility of the league taking a significant cut of the money that casinos make, given the chance for partnerships.
As it stands, teams are not allowed to have deals with casinos that have sports books and can’t use the word “casino” in any advertising they sell. Based on what you see overseas, this is one area where the cliché “the floodgates are opening” might be apt.
It’s fair to say a casino with a sports book wouldn’t mind exposure to 80,000 football-crazy people on a weekly basis.
In-game props. This is a subject I hit hard in my March column. Owners believe there’s money to be made in allowing fans in the stands to bet on game situations via apps on their phones, adding to the entertainment value of the in-stadium experience in the same way Premier League teams in the UK have.
At a time when the NFL is having all kinds of issues convincing the public to get off its collective couch and to the stadium, there’s potential for the change here to be transformative.
TV ratings. Same idea applies here—legalized sports gambling introduces new, creative ways to make an NFL Sunday more interactive than ever. The idea of sitting on the couch for 12 hours straight doesn’t appeal to the younger crowd like it once did.
If you can make it more like video game? Maybe that changes things. And maybe it changes the equation in the foreign countries that the NFL is trying to mine too.
Integrity. Yes, we’re going to bring this up, and maybe the most salient point I’ve heard regarding this topic is one Mara raised to me: “Do we want control of the information that’s out there?” Indeed, information is powerful currency in the gambling world. Now should the NFL do more than it already does with injury reports and other game information to ensure that everything is on the same level?
There’s a lot of work to be done and many questions like that which need answering. But given this recent move by the Supreme Court, we know that nothing will ever be the same.