Most people in the sports world, from lawyers to pundits to analysts to journalists, believe that we are likely to see a legalized form of sports betting in the US in the next five to 10 years. And of the big three American sports leagues, the NBA and MLB have taken steps very recently that indicate their commissioners and owners are warming up to that likelihood. Not so for the NFL.
Football has kept at arm’s length anything with a tint of gambling to it. Look to daily fantasy sports as a good example: The NFL has allowed its individual teams to sign marketing deals with either DraftKings or FanDuel, and 28 of the 32 teams have done so; the NFL Players’ Association also signed a deal with DraftKings that allows the company to use player likenesses in its advertising. But the NFL itself, as a league, has stayed away. In contrast, MLB took an ownership stake in DraftKings and the NBA took an ownership stake in FanDuel.
Why is the NFL so reticent? A league lawyer’s off-the-cuff comments, made at a gambling conference in New York on Wednesday, helps shed some light.
At the 30th annual National Conference on Problem Gambling, in Tarrytown, NY, following a panel on the future outlook for legalized sports betting in the US, senior labor relations counsel Brook Gardiner chimed in. “One point to think about that people don’t mention as much, but is very prominent in the league’s discussions,” he said, “is: Would legalized gambling affect the product itself? Are we affecting the game itself or how people view the game, and does the game itself become tangential, and does the money-making enterprise become more important than the game?”
That may sound like nothing too shocking, but coming from an NFL staffer, it is significant. The league is notoriously tight-lipped on all issues, and especially so on gambling. Commissioner Roger Goodell, known for his “protect the shield” mantra and for his focus on the integrity of the sport, has said precious little. In a radio interview with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on April 29, Goodell said, “I think all of us have evolved a little bit on the gambling. To me, where I cross the line is anything that can impact that integrity of the game. If people feel like it’s going to have an influence on the outcome of the game, we are absolutely opposed to that. And that’s why we’re opposed to team sports gambling. We do not want to be involved in that.” He also specified that he does not think daily fantasy sports is gambling and that, “we do not see a risk to the integrity of the game” in daily fantasy sports. And yet the league resisted diving in to the extent that its peers in baseball and basketball did. (The NFL did not have any new comment for this story behind directing Yahoo Finance to recent public comments by Goodell.)
Integrity is the magic word for Goodell. Critics have seen this as a form of hypocrisy—is there really much integrity left to a sport that, in the past two years, has been rife with off-the-field domestic violence issues and scientific evidence of player brain damage? But NFL executives have bought in fully to Goodell’s mantra.
And for Gardiner to say that the NFL worries about the “money-making enterprise” supplanting the game itself may ring hollow, considering that the NFL is already chiefly a money-making enterprise. From advertising to digital media to broadcast rights to merchandise sales, money has become the point. The league’s 32 owners shared $12 billion in revenue last year, more than any other sports league. But the NFL has also proven that its product, the game, is strong enough to withstand all criticism, media scrutiny and outrage. No scandal is big enough to matter much for American football.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in sharp contrast to Goodell, penned a passionate, now-famous op-ed in the New York Times in 2014 in which he argued in support of gambling on pro sports. Major League Baseball last year partnered up with Sport Integrity Monitor, a London-based company that says it monitors gambling trends in order to protect sports leagues. It is owned by Genius Sports, which also owns bookmaking service Betgenius. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said he does not believe daily fantasy sports is gambling because it is a game of skill. (A newly passed fantasy sports bill in the New York State legislature concurs.)
The NFL, meanwhile, has made only one similar deal: Last April, it took an equity stake in Sportradar, a Switzerland-based company, ostensibly to reap useful data. But Sportradar, which also provides data to FanDuel, has a sports betting arm, Betradar, that supplies data to hundreds of bookmaker clients including BetCRIS, which has been indicted in multiple US criminal cases.
This is not to suggest that everyone but the NFL has been gung-ho in full favor of gambling. MLB’s deal with Sport Integrity Monitor was criticized in places, and multiple sources that have worked with MLB owners tell Yahoo Finance that many of the owners were not happy when MLB, at the encouragement of MLB Advanced Media, made its big partnership with DraftKings.
Gardiner suggested the same hesitation on the part of many NFL owners. “Obviously, the NFL has been very conservative in this area,” he said at the gambling conference. “And there’s a strong contingent in the league that is focusing on [legalized sports betting], but it is not unanimous. It is not all a rush to legalization.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.