NFL’s Rapid Adoption of Gambling Generates Mixed Signals

Over the next week, National Football League players, coaches, fans and executives will gather for an event that was virtually unthinkable just 10 years ago: the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, the gaming capital of the United States.

Since the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law that effectively banned sports betting outside of Nevada (a ban once supported by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell), the NFL has embraced the gaming industry. He has forged partnerships that are reportedly worthwhile almost a billion dollars for five years with sports betting companies and allowed a sportsbook to operate inside one of its stadiums. It now even has a team in Las Vegas, which the league avoided for decades because any affiliation was seen as a threat to the integrity of the game.

However, the rapid incorporation of sports betting into the league’s culture has led to jarring contradictions. The NFL is pushing to popularize and profit from sports betting while protecting itself against the potential dangers it has long condemned. While the league donates money to promote responsible gaming, its broadcasts are littered with ads from sports betting companies. The NFL is part of a growing apparatus that encourages casual fans to place regular bets on games, while punishing league employees, especially players, who might do the same.

The NFL and other sports leagues “have moved into this area quickly, fully considering the revenue-related benefits of engaging in sports betting, but without necessarily thinking about everything that could go wrong,” said Marc Edelman, a law professor and sports director. ethics at Baruch College in New York.

“Even if it makes a lot of sense to prohibit employees of sports teams from betting on games,” Mr. Edelman added, “there is undeniably a level of cognitive dissonance” when NFL players and staff frequently encounter content that encourages gambling, including signs in stadiums. and bet on NFL broadcasts, while doing their job. The league’s partnerships also give gaming companies the right to use the NFL logo in their marketing and be a part of major NFL events.

The NFL says its stance on sports betting, which is in line with the other major American sports leagues, has changed with the changing legal landscape, and that working with gambling operators allows it to better protect the integrity of the game. However, as with many positions the NFL takes, the effects are magnified due to the league’s cultural influence. More than simply responding to the landscape, the NFL is helping to shape it.

Americans legally bet more than $115 billion on sports in 2023, according to the American Gaming Association, the gaming industry’s national trade group. Nearly 25 million more Americans bet on sports last year than in 2018, the group said, and the number of states where sports betting is legal will reach 38 this year.

While the NFL numbers in particular are more difficult to analyze because not all states report by sport or league, the gaming association referred to a market analysis from investment firm Citizens JMP Securities. The report projected that about $1.5 billion would be legally bet on next Sunday’s Super Bowl, more than 1 percent of the money legally bet on all sports last year.

There is little data on whether the legalization of sports betting has increased addictive behavior. But those tracking the effects of gambling have concerns. The National Council on Problem Gambling said its survey data pointed to an increasing risk of problem gambling for American adults in the three years after the federal ban on sports betting was repealed.

Dr. Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist and director of the Yale Center of Excellence in Gambling Research, described “a perfect storm” that could lead some people to develop a gambling problem. He cited factors including easing regulations, the accessibility of mobile betting, intense advertising and the amount of free time devoted to sports. Particularly vulnerable are young men who highly value sports, Dr. Potenza said.

In 2021, the year the NFL reached agreements with its three sports betting partners, it awarded the National Council on Problem Gambling a three-year, $6.2 million grant that was used in part to modernize the helpline that appears at the bottom of betting ads. . The league’s contribution is a small fraction of what gaming companies pay to be part of the NFL’s marketing apparatus, but it is the largest grant in the council’s history and exceeded the nonprofit’s total grants. of profit during the previous four years, according to tax returns.

“We’re in this now, we’re in this business,” said Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “What can we do to ensure we don’t cause undue additional harm?”

However, the league’s approach to gambling violations within its own ranks remains punitive. For decades, sports leagues have believed that gambling could damage the integrity of the results (for example, with concerns that a player will abandon a game due to a bet), so attention has focused on enforcement and punishment over prevention and treatment.

The NFL prohibits league and team personnel from betting on any sport, while players may bet on sports other than the NFL, as long as they do not do so at team facilities or while on team or league business. league. While in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl, members of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers and the league’s hundreds of employees, many of them staying at Caesars Palace, are not allowed to play casino games and are allowed to enter a sports betting house only if they are passing through. to another part of the hotel.

The NFL said it educated 17,000 people annually about its policy, and last year, amid a series of player suspensions, league officials began visiting teams to conduct in-person training sessions with players. Players suspended for at least one full season are told that receiving counseling is one of the factors the league will consider when applying for reinstatement, and the league said it shared resources on responsible gaming during its training sessions.

The NFL has not disclosed the number of employees leaguewide who have been disciplined under its gaming policy. The league had gone decades without any player violating betting before the Supreme Court ruling, but 10 players were disciplined this season, including seven who served season-long bans for betting on NFL games. In September, the league toughened penalties for players who bet on their own teams and reduced them for first-time offenders who bet on other sports while working.

Two former NFL employees who were fired in the past two years for violating the policy said in interviews that they had not been offered the opportunity to undergo rehabilitation and return to their jobs, as is often the case with struggling league employees. with problems such as substance abuse. The former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, said they had been fired without severance or benefits.

One said the person’s firing was for betting less than $1,000 on the NFL and other sports four years earlier, through a company that is now a partner in the league. The New York Times confirmed the details by reviewing a record of the former employee’s account at the company. The other employee said one of the league’s main concerns seemed to be the possibility of any debt being used as leverage against the employee.

When asked for comment on the firings, the NFL said in a statement: “We take any threat to the integrity of the game seriously, and violations of our gaming policy may result in the termination of personnel, who receive extensive training and other resources to help. them in compliance with the policy.”

David Highhill, who was named the NFL’s general manager of sports betting in 2022, said the top priority in drafting and enforcing the league’s betting policy was preserving the integrity of the game.

NFL audiences, however, see a constant stream of ads from betting companies. In response to fan annoyance when FanDuel and DraftKings ads for so-called fantasy football, in which fans choose their own teams of NFL players, saturated game broadcasts in 2015, the league limited the number of sports betting ads to six per stream when it began accepting them in 2021.

Still, more Americans watched sports betting ads during NFL games than any other nationally televised programming in each of the past three years, according to data from iSpot, a television measurement company. Three betting ads will air during this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, Highhill said.

Throughout the week leading up to next Sunday’s game, the business ties between the NFL and betting operators will be on display in Las Vegas. It’s booming business for the league, but it worries those who long fought to keep the game away from professional sports.

“They would say they think it can be controlled now,” said former Sen. Bill Bradley, a retired professional basketball player and a driving force behind the repealed 1992 law that effectively banned sports betting, referring to the NFL and other leagues. . “And I just don’t think it’s controlled. I think it will permeate the culture.”