LAS VEGAS — After many years of the NFL and other pro leagues staying as far away as they could from sports betting because they said it was necessary to protect the integrity of their games, they now have a much different challenge.
The biggest professional sports leagues today have high revenue-producing partnerships with sports betting companies that they want to maintain — while still making sure a questionable charge call in the NBA or a dropped pass in the NFL doesn’t cause fans to wonder whether the games are on the level. The question of how they strike a balance became a particularly hot topic after the NFL suspended five players for violating the league’s gambling policy.
Seven sports organizations — NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL, MLS, WNBA and NASCAR — as well as broadcasters NBCUniversal and Fox announced on April 19 the formation of the Coalition for Responsible Sports Betting Advertising.
Among the goals, the leagues said, was to not market to those under the legal betting age and to keep ads from being misleading. David Highhill, NFL general manager for sports betting, said in an email the leagues realized they needed to work together to establish uniform guidelines.
“While the Supreme Court’s ruling (allowing legalized sports betting) has presented commercial opportunities for various stakeholders in the sports industry including professional leagues, the NFL’s focus on protecting the integrity of our game is longstanding and has never been stronger,” Highhill said. “Working with our partners in the sports betting space provides critical information-sharing that helps us collectively monitor for unusual activity and have visibility into potential areas of concern.”
John Holden, an associate professor at Oklahoma State and a sports betting expert, was skeptical the coalition would achieve such goals.
“Some of it is working a little harder as a league,” Holden said. “It’s doing more than putting out a statement of a bunch of things that are already done. If the leagues are really concerned about this, stop taking advertising dollars. Don’t put it behind home plate in every stadium. Don’t put it in the batter’s eye in center field.”
Holden pointed to the five suspended players as proof that more could be done. Three were suspended indefinitely and two others for six games each, and Holden pointed out that MLB permanently banned Pete Rose in 1989 for largely the same actions.
Highhill said the NFL in 2021 became the first American league to launch a program for responsible sports betting, and education and training is provided to the players, coaches and staffs at all 32 teams as well as at the league level.
“We have taken a thoughtful, long-term approach to sports betting under the new legal landscape that has allowed us to see how the industry has adapted and to learn from what others have done before us,” Highhill said.
How to navigate legalized sports betting isn’t only an issue in the United States.
Italy, Spain and the Netherlands are banning sports betting sponsorship, and the English Premier League is expected to vote this summer to no longer allow such companies to be represented on the front of their jerseys beginning in 2026. That means eight of the 20 current clubs will need to look for new sponsorship.
Legalized betting has long been a part of the sports fabric in the United Kingdom, but Holden said restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic helped lead to more wagering and more problem gambling. That, he said, got the government’s attention.
Back in the U.S., there is no going back to the times when leagues would completely disassociate from sports betting companies. Sports wagering is legal in 33 states, and four NFL stadiums have sportsbooks either on site or within walking distance.
David Carter, a sports business professor at Southern California, said fans appear to want sports betting and they’re willing to accept there could be “unintended consequences.”
“It’s a very obvious growing pain that each (league) has to go through to find that sweet spot,” Carter said. “It’s inevitable that if the money is there that they’ll take some measured risk, being the trade-off between the potential integrity of the game issues in exchange for building that long-term revenue. Commissioners are primarily interested in helping their owners grow their franchise values over time.”
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