On March 18, while Roger Goodell was announcing the NFL’s new TV deals, he made a stunning announcement. According to NBC Sports, Goodell announced that the NFL was “going to find ways we can engage fans through legalized sports betting.” That’s a complete reversal from Goodell’s opinion from the last three years. But the NFL has been creeping toward an embrace of sports betting for years. The NFL didn’t go from opposing sports betting legalization to embracing sports betting after all. A transformation like that had to be phased in.
The NFL’s Opposition To New Jersey’s Sports Betting Lawsuit
In 2014, the NFL and several other professional leagues sued New Jersey. It was the second time that New Jersey had been sued for trying to legalize sports betting. The first time, New Jersey lost. It was one of a handful of states with partial exemptions from the federal sports betting ban. New Jersey tried to legalize sports betting after the deadline to do so had passed. It lost in 2011, and it lost in 2014. But it lost its way to the Supreme Court where the majority decided that the law preventing states from regulating sports betting was unconstitutional.
The professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association opposed PASPA’s repeal. The leagues didn’t want sports betting to impact the games. The NCAA was worried about college students cheating to cash in on lucrative prop bets. Professional leagues worried about the stain that sports betting could have on the most mainstream sporting events in the United States. Match-fixing remains a problem in other parts of the world. The professional leagues didn’t’ want to invite that poison into their games.
But PASPA’s 2018 repeal set off the wave of sports betting legalization we’re still seeing today. New Jersey finally legalized sports betting less than a month after the Supreme Court opinion came out, beginning the cascade of sports betting legalization. The professional sports leagues had to reconcile themselves to coexistence with sports betting companies.
2019: Early Concessions Behind The Scenes
Bettors and sports fans probably didn’t notice the partnerships forming between the NFL and sports betting companies. They did little to impact bettors and sports fans directly. However, they’re important early concessions that make the NFL’s public embrace of sports betting in 2020 and 2021 sensible.
In August 2019, the NFL allowed Sportradar to sell NFL data to legal sportsbook companies. Further, Sportradar had exclusive rights to sell NFL data to sportsbooks. That would allow sportsbooks to offer live in-game bets, which is one of the most popular forms of sports betting. But that was the first major sports betting deal in which the NFL began to profit directly from sports betting. It was a boon to sportsbooks who could use the data to improve their bet selections. But bettors and sports fans likely glossed over this news.
Roger Goodell remained opposed throughout the deal, citing sports integrity as his main concern. But the deal came with a salve to that concern. As part of the deal, the NFL could use Sportradar’s integrity monitoring systems to monitor betting activity. This allowed the NFL to watch for fraud across the nation’s sportsbooks. So, the NFL profited directly from sports betting. But it traded distance from sports betting for a hand in scanning the sports betting landscape for fraud. It was likely a reluctant move on Goodell’s part, but also likely a worthwhile trade in his mind.
2020: Visible Concessions
After the behind-the-scenes deals of 2019, the NFL made two big concessions in 2020. In February, the NFL allowed betting lounges in NFL stadiums. Then in May, the NFL allowed its teams to sign sponsorship deals with “gambling entities.” With these allowances, the NFL crept closer to accepting sports betting as a valid part of its sport.
The betting lounges may have seemed like a big step forward for sportsbooks. However, the betting lounges didn’t allow betting kiosks or betting counters. They were only spaces where mobile sports betting options were advertised. For all practical matters, that limited betting lounges to stadiums in states with mobile sports betting. But it was a recognition that sports betting was becoming an integral part of the NFL. However, Roger Goodell wouldn’t admit that for over a year.
But allowing NFL teams to sign sponsorship deals with sportsbooks brought the NFL and sportsbooks closer together. Shortly after the NFL voted to allow these deals, the Broncos signed deals with:
The Broncos were quick to capitalize on lucrative sportsbook partnerships, and similar deals are now common across NFL teams. As NFL teams embraced sportsbooks, and as sports betting was shown not to invite match-fixing or fraud, the path was clear for Roger Goodell to make his pivotal announcement in March 2021.
2021: Sports Betting In The NFL Is Here To Stay
When Roger Goodell finally embraced sports betting, it seemed like a major announcement that came out of thin air. However, he was softened between the NFL joining the lawsuit against New Jersey and acknowledging that sports betting is a crucial engagement tool. But now, much of the infrastructure that integrates sports betting into NFL games is already in place. Betting lounges can be expanded. Sportsbooks have the best data available to provide live betting. Sports teams have relationships with sportsbooks.
What’s likely coming next is the integration of sports betting and sports media. Sportsbook commercials are the tip of the iceberg. Sports news stations have already included sports betting segments with purported analysts presenting their “best sports betting picks.” Roger Goodell may allow sports betting in commercials and NFL programming now. But he’s behind the curve on that front. Sports betting is already integrated with sports. Sports journalism is next.