Gambling, the NFL’s boogeyman, is why league got $3B for despised ‘Thursday Night Football’

Dan Wetzel

MINNEAPOLIS – Roger Goodell and the NFL continue to say they are opposed to legalized sports wagering, battling it all the way to the Supreme Court and usually trotting out some tripe about the “integrity of the game” or “protecting” their fans.

In reality, the league and Fox Sports agreed to a five-year, $3 billion-plus deal to broadcast a mere 11 Thursday night games per season. According to a CNBC report, that is an average of about $60 million per game, up from an average of $45 million last season. That’s a 33.3 percent increase for a short week contest that many fans and virtually all players detest. It doesn’t include early season games, Thanksgiving or even the digital rights, which reportedly fetched $50 million for the season from Amazon in 2016.

This occurred despite a ratings decline for NFL games in general and Thursday night games this season. It occurred despite both NBC and CBS, which shared the Thursday night package over two seasons, having reportedly lost money on that deal.

The Supreme Court will decide if sports wagering can occur outside of Nevada. (AP)
The Supreme Court will decide if sports wagering can occur outside of Nevada. (AP)

This occurred, whether the NFL wants to admit it publicly or not, because the Supreme Court this spring is expected to strike down the federal law that essentially bans sports gambling outside of Nevada. Legalized sports wagering, which the NFL has fought in courts of law and public opinion, may already be its saving grace.

“Broadcasters and advertisers who desire highly engaged viewers would reap the benefits of shifting tens of millions of sports bettors from the massive underground market to the legal, transparent environment,” Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association said.

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Goodell knows that. NFL owners know that. Network bosses know that.

“We had a tremendous amount of interest from all of the broadcast partners, all of which wanted the rights exclusively,” Goodell said here Wednesday. Even NBC and CBS bid again.

It wasn’t a coincidence. For the NFL, the rich Fox deal meant more than extra millions. It was a win. Battered by news of sagging ratings, turned into a political piñata by President Donald Trump, and dealing with technology, safety and demographic trends, this hasn’t been the best of times for the league. When the money keeps going up though, something must be working.

“It shows the strength of our game,” Goodell said. “We’re seeing our content standing above all else.”

NBC president Mark Lazarus says that when you factor in streaming and mobile viewership to the linear Nielsen ratings, viewership is actually up, not down. “I think more people are consuming football content,” Lazarus said.

That doesn’t necessarily help the networks that are bidding on the broadcasts. They’d prefer old-school viewership, where 30-second commercials can fetch big money.

Enter gambling. AGA research found regular gamblers watched 19 additional NFL games during the 2015 season than non-gamblers. Despite representing just 25 percent of the market, they watched 47 percent of the all-minutes broadcast. The organization expects up to a 50 percent boost in those gamblers if it becomes legal.

Money on the game means interest in the game, especially as technology allows for in-game wagering that can keep even blowout contests intriguing.

Roger Goodell on why the NFL stands in opposition to nationwide legalized gambling:
Roger Goodell on why the NFL stands in opposition to nationwide legalized gambling: “To me it it’s very clear, which is about the integrity of the game, you don’t want to do anything that’s going to impact negatively on the integrity of our game.” (AP)

The boom is coming. At least as long as the Supreme Court strikes down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). The case, Christie v. NFL, was brought by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. If PASPA is gone, not only will New Jersey immediately begin taking bets at its Atlantic City casinos and statewide race tracks, but a flood of other states will jump in. Industry estimates as many as 32 states could legalize sports wagering within five years. Some will be operational by the 2018 season, when the Fox deal kicks in.

The NFL is going to want more than just increased television rights. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently proposed that his league receive 1 percent of all money wagered. The NFL has long said it doesn’t want others to profit off its game, so similar negotiations are expected as state legislators and the gaming industry sort out a post-PASPA world.

Officially Goodell is still holding to his stance that Americans need their football protected. It’s as much nonsense now as ever. An estimated $47.6 billion will be wagered on Sunday’s Super Bowl between Philadelphia and New England, everything from offshore money-line wagers, to prop bets, to charity squares at neighborhood parties. The public clearly feels confident in the integrity of the game.

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Besides, nothing would increase that integrity more than legalization. Law enforcement has for decades said the best tool it has in detecting point shaving is how the lines in Las Vegas sportsbooks move. And that’s just an estimated 3 percent of the action in the Super Bowl.

It goes without saying the public would also prefer wagering that is taxed and provides jobs. Instead most illegal betting goes offshore or into the coffers of organized crime, who then use it for human trafficking or drug sales.

Fox just gambled that the Supreme Court will, indeed, rule PASPA unconstitutional. Otherwise, this deal makes little sense.

Which means the NFL is already cashing in on sports wagering, or at least the specter of sports wagering. No matter how much Roger Goodell says he opposes it, it may be what keeps the NFL on top.

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