"Even though the NFL might not come out and say it, they know the gambling aspect of it has certainly increased the popularity of the NFL without a doubt," Tony Sinisi, the odds director for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, told the Houston Chronicle back in January 2004.
Fast forward to today, and the NFL makes no bones about it: A large section of their audience loves to gamble, every day, if not every week, especially on their product. All of their actions over the past five years have demonstrated that they know a key aspect of their growth will be tapping into and maximizing their share of all the dollars bet on NFL Sundays. The challenge lies in delicately balancing this reality in the face of decades of their supposedly staunch opposition to the industry.
Gambling's Deep Roots in the NFL
While the NFL has historically distanced itself from gambling, the thrill that comes from the intersection of betting and football has been undeniable since the early days of the sport. Monetary incentives have long fueled the vibrant spectacle we witness today. Each NFL season sees an estimated $100 billion wagered at licensed sportsbooks, with billions more bet on the Super Bowl alone. This raises the question: Is this surge in popularity sudden or a transformation of pre-PASPA betting practices?
In reality, gambling has always been part of the NFL's playbook, despite the league's public denials and internal battles against potential corruption. Prominent NFL figures, like former owners Carroll Rosenbloom of the Colts and Rams, were known gamblers, and star players such as Paul Hornung and Alex Karras faced suspensions for betting on games. Yet, these instances never dampened the public's fascination with the excitement of the game and the high stakes involved.
Cultural Portrayal of the NFL-Gambling Relationship
The beloved 1992 Simpsons episode "Lisa the Greek" perfectly exemplifies the interdependence between the NFL and gambling. The episode depicts Homer Simpson bonding with his daughter Lisa over their shared ability to predict winning football teams. The Simpson family dedicates the entirety of their Sundays to “the savage ballet that is pro-football”. The premise of the episode is that pro football + betting – like ice cream mixed with sprinkles – combine to create an experience that even an eight-year-old found captivating enough to dedicate their Sunday day to. Where the only question after the morning games is: "Who do you like in the afternoon games?". Cut to three hours later with the father & daughter pair cheering on their latest cash.
Lisa had her handicap affirmed, betting on the Raiders “because they always cheat”. The final call of the game: “And on an extreeeeeemely suspicious play, the Raiders win!”
Admittedly or not, that thrill has sparked interest in the NFL beyond any other sport in the US. The only question now is how can the NFL make gambling on football their own.
The NFL's Evolving Stance on Gambling
In recent years, particularly since the 2018 Supreme Court decision to repeal PASPA, the NFL has shifted its stance and embraced gambling as an ally rather than an adversary. Americans have legally wagered over $220 billion on sports since 2018, according to the American Gaming Association. Betting companies have transformed from outsiders to valuable partners, with Las Vegas, once an off-limits city, now hosting the Raiders and major NFL events. The NFL has become increasingly intertwined with the growing gambling industry.
Maintaining Integrity: Crackdowns on Gambling Violations
Despite its growing partnership with gambling, the NFL remains resolute in cracking down on gambling violations among players and personnel. The league's PR team, like a relentless linebacker, maintains a firm stance against any infractions that could compromise the integrity of the game. Recent player bans, such as those imposed on Quintez Cephus, C.J. Moore, and Shaka Toney, serve as examples of the NFL's zero-tolerance policy. The imminent return of Calvin Ridley – now on the Jaguars – recalls the initial shock of his suspension for the entire 2022 season after he included his NFL team on a multi-sport parlay while on a mental health leave from the Falcons during the 2021 season.
Moving forward, the NFL faces the challenge of balancing the benefits of legalized sports betting with the need to maintain its reputation. The league must carefully manage this situation to shape its future. While the partnership between the NFL and gambling offers financial rewards like sponsorships, advertising revenue, and in-game betting, it also poses risks such as potential impropriety and match-fixing. These dangers could undermine the growth integrity of the sport. But, then again, a league official could argue, making a few less billion would undermine the growth and integrity of the sport, as well.