Angst over Colin Kaepernick, player protests will be washed away as Supreme Court ruling on sports gambling takes root

The NFL’s Colin Kaepernick problem? It’s over, at least in terms of the business of football.

Kaepernick, and player protests, remains a hot-button issue for the league to sort out. Whatever slump the NFL suffered from backlash over Kaepernick in 2016 sitting and then later taking a knee during the national anthem to protest inequality will likely be a blip compared to the coming wave of legalized sports wagering revenue and interest. And, really, when is the NFL ever about anything but revenue?

The gold rush is on for the NFL after Monday’s 6-3 ruling by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which for 25 years has essentially limited sports betting to Nevada.

Industry experts are unanimous in their predictions. Higher revenue. Higher television ratings. Higher engagement with fans. Higher advertising and sponsorship deals.

Higher everything.

Colin Kaepernick remains a lightning rod for the NFL. (Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick remains a lightning rod for the NFL. (Getty Images)

For the NFL, which experienced a multi-decade boom until a softening of popularity in recent years, the good times are back.

Some of that “slump” was overstated. The NFL overwhelmingly remained the most popular sports or entertainment property in the United States. Media executives said lower television ratings were often misrepresented, used out of context or ignored technology advances.

NBC president Mark Lazarus said that when streaming and mobile viewership were factored into the linear Nielsen ratings, viewership in 2017 was actually up.

“I think more people are consuming football content,” Lazarus said.

Still, it was enough to rattle owners who didn’t want to see any dips, let alone contentious relations with fans who found the player protests as disconcerting.

Worse, the league had allowed itself to become fodder for President Donald Trump to fire up his political base. Last September, even as player protests had dwindled to just over a dozen individual cases a week, he enflamed the issues again by calling any player who protested a “son of a bitch.”

The league has struggled to juggle the issues ever since. It has complained privately about Trump. It has met with players and pledged money to aid their social issue movements. It also left Kaepernick unemployed and are now dealing with litigation from the former San Francisco quarterback and current free agent Eric Reid.

The issue was considered central to the upcoming owners meeting.

Now? The league has money to make and so much of it that whatever remains of the protests against the league is likely to fade or be completely meaningless. Sorting out this gambling thing is about all these billionaires are going to care about.

“I think everyone who owns a top four professional sports team just saw the value of their team double,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNBC Monday morning.

That’s especially true for the NFL, which is America’s No. 1 sports wagering category, according to the American Gaming Association. The NFL will fight for a cut of all wagering done on its games. The NBA has already proposed a 1 percent share. That is to be negotiated but represents a potential tidal wave of money.

The Supreme Court ruled that states can decide the legality of sports gambling. (AP)
The Supreme Court ruled that states can decide the legality of sports gambling. (AP)

A 2015 study by the AGA said NFL gamblers represented just 25 percent of all NFL fans, yet 47 percent of all the minutes of NFL football broadcast. They also watched 19 additional games. The AGA predicts once legal, sports bettors will increase to 50 percent of the viewing audience.

Clearly ratings aren’t going to be a concern. It’s one reason Fox Sports agreed in January to a five-year, $3 billion deal to broadcast a mere 11 Thursday Night games per season despite ratings on that night being down of late. That was a 33.3 percent increase in rights fees ($60 million per game from $45 million).

And that was when the Supreme Court was just “expected” to rule against a PASPA lawsuit brought by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Further, in-game mobile wagering will keep audiences engaged even during blowouts and add steroids to that equation because gamblers increasingly will be focused on more than just the spread or the over/under.

There is additional revenue coming in advertising and marketing deals from sports wagering companies that are trying to claim market share – by comparison, in England, some 50 different wagering companies have deals with professional soccer clubs.

Proprietary NFL data and advanced analytics now have increased value. NFL media properties that discuss the NFL should see a boost – gamblers are heavy consumers of all related media.

There isn’t a category of the NFL’s business this won’t touch – even as the league opposed sports wagering all these years and was a defendant in the Christie lawsuit.

No matter. Maybe they lucked into it. Maybe they knew all along. Whatever it is, the bump that’s coming will overwhelm whatever dip there is.

There is no question that some people tuned out the NFL after the player protests. And there are others that tuned out because Kaepernick lost his job. While many have undoubtedly come back, there are some who never will. For a stretch there, they were a thorn in the mighty NFL’s side.

In many ways, they still are. The issue is real and raw, and remains important, just not to the bottom line.

That’s the only score, however, the NFL really cares about. In the business of league business, everything changed Monday.

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