Snap to attention: NFL and gambling
The first NFL regular-season game since the overturn of a federal law prohibiting sports betting kicks off Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, a five-minute drive across the Walt Whitman Bridge from New Jersey, where anyone with a mobile device and a sportsbook account will be able to legally place a wager on Eagles vs. Falcons.
Three days later, the New York Giants open their season against the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium, where fans will be able to use their devices to place bets from their seats. In addition, those who are so inclined can stop by FanDuel’s retail sportsbook, now featuring extended 8 a.m. Sunday to 1 a.m. Monday hours, at the harness track next door.
This is the weekend that many have eagerly awaited since the Supreme Court cleared the way for sports betting in May, the opening of the spigot on what has been the nation’s most-bet-upon sport.
With eyes on the commercial promise realized in Europe — where bookmaker logos line the soccer pitch and appear on players’ jerseys, generating millions in sponsor and advertising revenue for leagues, clubs and networks — many in the sports industry are anticipating a windfall.
However, there has been little commercial activity around the category in the NFL thus far, in part because there has been little time, a scant three months since the Supreme Court ruling. Clarity on this topic finally came to NFL franchises last Monday, when a committee of owners agreed that teams could enter into sponsorships with casinos and websites that operate sportsbooks, as long as they advertise their larger brands rather than the sportsbooks themselves. Teams and casinos may use each other’s logos if they are not sportsbook-specific. And casinos with sportsbooks are now in play as naming-rights sponsors of stadiums, clarifying what was thought to be a fait accompli for the Raiders as they prepare to relocate to Las Vegas in 2020.
The boil also has been slowed by a lack of urgency for most franchises, as only two teams — the Giants and the Jets — play in a state that has legalized and regulated sports betting. The other four states that meet that description — Delaware, Nevada, Mississippi and West Virginia — are near markets that casinos value, such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But the NFL’s new clearance could lead to activity in other markets, as teams redo sponsorship deals.
“Even though you can’t gamble in Texas, they market the heck out of Texas to get people to come to Louisiana and Oklahoma to gamble,” said Dallas Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones. “They don’t have sportsbooks yet, but it’s coming eventually. People are going to want to be involved in the category now so when it happens, they’re here. Even with no gambling here, that category is worth more today than it was six months ago. A lot more.”
Although it has loosened its restrictions, the NFL has largely remained quiet about the commercial implications of sports betting. The league denied interview requests for this story.
But there is no doubt that, with sportsbooks and mobile betting apps operated by DraftKings, FanDuel, MGM, William Hill and others already open for business in New Jersey, the new, expanded world of sports betting will be in the spotlight beginning Thursday night. And increased commercial activity is soon to follow.
“I do think you’ll see a lot of [promotional] activity surrounding opening weekend, but I also think you’ll see an evolution throughout the season and the next season, as product offerings get more robust, relationships get more solidified, and people understand the value of assets a little bit better,” said Scott Butera, a longtime casino executive and former Arena Football League Commissioner who joined MGM Resorts International as president of interactive gaming in June. “[Opening week] is important, but I think you’re going to see an evolution for a lot of reasons as people get smarter and more knowledgeable about what this all means.”
Though none of the major emerging sportsbooks have announced sponsorship of a major pro team yet, all are in negotiations to do so. This is a crucial customer acquisition period for the books, who value not only the brand exposure that comes with a team sponsorship, but also the ability to market to the team’s consumer database and integrate into digital media to drive traffic to their sites. League deals such as the one MGM signed with the NBA last month deliver crucial assets, but not the direct connection the sportsbooks will seek as they roll out in each state.
“What’s going to be really important to consumers is understanding who they can trust in this category, because everyone is a new entrant,” said Sharon Otterman, who joined the U.S. division of London-based sportsbook William Hill as CMO in July. “You’re going to trust your local team and that brand because you’ve been a fan of that team since you were a little kid. So in these partnerships you want to make sure that that equity is working both ways; that being the official helps us with the trust and that it will help the teams to be with a trustworthy partner. Borrowed equity is going to be real important for both sides.”
For all the anticipation surrounding this weekend, it’s merely a glimpse into what is coming next.
“We’ll look back on this a year from now,” Otterman said, “and everything will look different.”