The N.F.L.’s New Play: Embrace Betting Ads

Betting has long been a part of the National Football League’s (N.F.L.’s) DNA. Two of its founding fathers, Art Rooney and Tim Mara, were gamblers.

Rooney bankrolled the early years of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a small fortune he won at Saratoga Race Course. Mara, his close friend, was a bookmaker who bought the New York Giants for $500.

For decades, however, N.F.L. officials went to great lengths to distance the league from the tens of billions of dollars wagered on its games — legally in Las Vegas but also with offshore sports betting shops, in office and bar pools, and among illegal bookies. The N.F.L. backed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act of 2006 and fought New Jersey’s efforts to allow its casinos and horse tracks to take bets on football games.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to make sure our games are not betting vehicles,” Joe Browne, an N.F.L. spokesman, told The New York Times in 2008.

“We have been accused of allowing gambling because it is good for the popularity of the game,” he added. “If that’s true, then we have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing gambling on our games.”

What the N.F.L. once sold as a principled stand, however, has more recently given way to a far more pragmatic one. As betting on football ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry, and as state, after state acted to legalize it, the N.F.L. was left with a stark choice: to continue to fight gambling on its games or to embrace it in exchange for a significant cut of casino marketing dollars.

And that money the league once spent on lobbying against gambling? This season, the N.F.L. is getting it all back. And then some.

On its opening weekend, celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Martin Lawrence, and Jamie Foxx headlined commercials that aired during N.F.L. game broadcasts, pitching betting as just a click away with a WynnBET, DraftKings, FanDuel or BetMGM account. The NFL Network included betting lines on its ticker for the first time.

Belated or not, the N.F.L.’s embrace of gambling is, well, lucrative. League and industry experts expect the revenue from gambling companies for the N.F.L. and its teams to be several hundred million dollars this season.

“Over the next 10 years, this is going to be a more than $1 billion opportunity for the league and our clubs,” said Christopher Halpin, chief strategy and growth officer for the N.F.L.

To navigate this stark divide, as well as persuade those in the middle, the N.F.L. decided to limit sports betting ads to one per quarter along with a pregame and halftime spot — six in all per broadcast. It also largely eschewed talk of odds and spreads directly during the biggest N.F.L. game broadcasts.

“We have to avoid oversaturation of the game with sports betting talk or risk alienating fans,” Halpin said. “My mother loves her N.F.L., but she doesn’t want gambling talk.”