Gambling has gone from the forbidden topic in the NFL to a key part of the league’s present and future.
The days of lobbying against widespread legalized sports betting, preventing broadcast partners from even discussing point spreads and even prohibiting players from holding a fantasy football convention because it was at a casino are firmly in the past.
With a team playing in Las Vegas just a short walk from the casinos on The Strip, sponsorship deals with gambling companies that pay millions for in-game advertisements and teams having sports books next to their stadiums, the relationship between America’s richest sports league and gambling is stronger than ever.
“The NFL has evolved quickly with the growing importance of sports betting on the overall ecosystem,” said Robert Fishman, a senior analyst with MoffettNathanson, a division of SVB Securities.
“Sports betting is continuing to grow in importance and will continue to be a driver of growth. We’re still in the very early days, and there will be a natural evolution of how this continues to grow.”
The growth has been astronomical already since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, setting the stage for legalized sports betting to spread outside Nevada to most of the rest of the country.
More than 30 states and Washington, D.C., allow sports betting either online or in person, with several more set to join them in the next few years.
The NFL is doing its best to capitalize on that just a handful of years after Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to the court considering the overturning of PASPA that said sports betting “threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, NFL football.”
While there have been some issues, like star receiver Calvin Ridley getting suspended for the season for betting on his own team’s games while being a member of the Atlanta Falcons, it has been a relatively smooth evolution.
“We’re happy with the growth and the structures that we’re seeing across most places,” said David Highhill, the NFL’s vice president and general manager of sports betting.
“It’s hard to call anything smooth when you’re dealing with a state-by-state structure. But overall, we’ve been happy with the partnerships we’ve built.”
Highhill said the league also is focused on “responsible gambling” and gave a grant to the National Council on Problem Gambling to focus on that area.
The NFL has signed deals with DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment that reportedly could be worth about $1 billion for the league over five years.
Those companies have fueled an advertising spending spree that saw gambling companies spend $129 million in advertising during NFL games during the 2021 season, according to research from the Kantar Group.
Research from MoffettNathanson shows that legalized sports betting revenue in the United States grew from less than $500 million in 2019 in the first year after PASPA was overturned to more than $3 billion in 2021.
“In a few short years, the very idea of sports betting has been transformed from a taboo and sub rosa vice into a major business opportunity,” the company said in the report. “From sports leagues to rights owners to consumers, it is clear how important sports betting is today and how quickly sentiment has reversed the stigma that once was attached to this industry.”
The company projects the legalized sports betting market will generate $12 billion in revenue in 2025, with the NFL the most popular sport for bettors.
A poll conducted by Morning Consult for the American Gaming Association reported that about 47 million people plan to bet on NFL games in 2022, a 40% increase from just two years ago as sports betting has been legalized in more and more states.
More than one-third of NFL fans plan to bet on games this season, with many taking advantage of innovations like same-game parlays.
“We’re also seeing there’s more casual betting interest,” Highhill said. “We see overall less people that are totally uninterested in sports betting. So, the people that are interested are sort of more interested, and the people that had more issues with it, we see less and less of that. It shows broadly the population is getting used to sports betting and interested in it.”
Teams are taking advantage of the opportunities. The Arizona Cardinals opened a 17,000-square-foot sportsbook next to their stadium, and the Washington Commanders are planning to open one adjacent to their stadium.
Several other teams have betting lounges where fans are able to place wagers on their phones.
That could one day lead to fans being able to place live in-game bets from their seats in a stadium.
“That’s certainly possible,” Highhill said. “For those bets to have scale and significance to the operators that are creating them, they’re going to need a lot of people interested in placing those bets.”