NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell expressed in 2015 that the NFL remained staunchly opposed to legalized gambling. He said the league’s anti-gambling position had always been the same, and that he didn’t anticipate any changes in the future. Less than seven years later the NFL is embracing gambling with open arms. What changed?
Throughout its history, the NFL has publicly stated its opposition to gambling on the game, legal or otherwise. This stance was essential to establishing the league as a dominant form of national entertainment. Any whiff of impropriety could be disastrous for the public’s perception of integrity. The league punished star players Paul Hornung and Alex Karras harshly in spite of the fact that they were simply betting on games rather than influencing them. If fans even suspected that the game wasn’t being played on the level, it could never have grown in popularity as it has.
While upholding the game’s integrity was essential, gambling has been every bit as vital to its success. The NFL didn’t take over the American sports landscape simply by having local fans rooting for their home team to make the Super Bowl. It is no coincidence that the NFL’s rise to becoming the most popular sport in the United States lines up perfectly with the explosion in the offshore gambling market and the massive popularity of fantasy sports from prominent online gambling sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel. Having some skin in the game makes fans interested, and the NFL spent decades reaping the benefit of the increased fan interest while maintaining a strong public anti-gambling message.
These days, as we’re all reminded during every commercial break, the NFL is singing a different tune. The NFL generated a record-shattering $1.8 billion in sponsorship revenue in 2021, with the sports betting and casino partnerships representing the second-largest category behind tech. With legalized sports betting only available in 30 states, there is enormous room for growth in the near future as more states allow their residents to place legal wagers.
So why did the NFL decide after decades that they can exist in harmony with gambling interests after all? There is a strong argument that it’s all about the money. Hundreds of millions of dollars are a powerful force when it comes to changing minds. Sports are a business run by business people after all, and business people are often willing to abandon their moral convictions when enough money is on the table. Has the pile of dollars overwhelmed the league to the point where they couldn’t refuse? Do they really still believe that gambling is wrong, immoral, and detrimental to the sport but no longer care because of the payday?
Another take is that the NFL decided to proactively respond to an inevitability. The public attitude towards gambling has changed drastically in the last ten years, shifting even more since the Supreme Court struck down the PASPA as unconstitutional in 2018. Gambling, on sports or otherwise, was once looked upon as a vice and bordering on criminal. Sports betting is now seen as an innocent form of entertainment or even a skilled endeavor taken on by the highly intelligent. With everyone making money off sports betting and no one having a problem with it, why should the NFL be the only one standing in the corner with their arms folded refusing to share in the fun? One could come to the conclusion that the NFL realized that legalized sports betting would sweep the nation regardless, and so they decided to stop fighting and get involved to exert as much control as possible over the situation.
Similar to the way legalized sports betting took something that already existed in the shadows and thrust it into the light, the NFL’s embrace of gambling operators simply makes public the symbiotic relationship that the league has had with gambling since its inception. The NFL accepting sponsorship money from DraftKings doesn’t make it any more or less likely that a player or a referee will attempt to influence a game on behalf of a gambling interest.
Any occurrence of gambling will always lead to questions about integrity, but the enormous financial upsides for everyone involved to keep the game straight serve as the best protection against corruption. The NFL was never going to be able to stop all gambling no matter how opposed to it they were. No matter what their motivation, by accepting gambling rather than continuing to shy away, the NFL is able to validate a large portion of their fanbase that has been ignored for decades and make themselves a tidy sum in the process.
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