As the NFL sprints toward embracing gambling-related revenue, this is the start the league was looking for.
Close games. Parity among Super Bowl favorites. Entertainment. Television ratings bounding back.
Not only is the NFL in the midst of a great season, it’s showing very quickly how much good football matters in the sports betting industry. And you needn’t look much further than New Jersey, one of the pioneer states in sports betting that is considered a bellwether of where legalized gambling is headed, particularly during football season.
According to figures released by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, Atlantic City’s swath of casinos and race tracks took in more than $1 billion in bets in September — much of it on the strength of the NFL and college football seasons. That marks the first time in history that a state-regulated sports betting industry has punched through the $1 billion mark for a single month. And if you’ve been watching the NFL this season, you know why.
The NFL's entertainment value is through the roof in 2021, largely driven by a league that is awash in parity and keeping fan bases engaged week to week, game to game and quarter to quarter. It's the kind of thing that powers casino sportsbooks and in-game betting that takes place on smart phones. The close games offer entertainment and intrigue for fans and gamblers, and keeps them connected to broadcasts and betting over longer periods of time. And the NFL has been nothing if not a collection of tight finishes, blockbuster prime-time results and, improbably, road teams have a higher win percentage than home teams this season.
The Week 6 slate was a perfect example. The wall-to-wall run of entertainment began improbably on Sunday morning, beaming in a game from London between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins that had an exceedingly low bar for expectations. Somehow, four quarters later, it had become interesting enough to trend on social media, as Jaguars coach Urban Meyer won his first NFL game on the foot of a practice squad kicker Meyer elevated only days before.
By the time the NFL’s Week 6 concluded — with Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen flattened in a pivotal last-second fourth-and-1 stop near the Tennessee Titans' goal line — five of the league’s 14 games had been decided either in overtime or the final minute of regulation. The entertaining gifts included a walk-off, 35-yard overtime touchdown pass that elevated the Dallas Cowboys over the New England Patriots; a similar walk-off OT touchdown pass that pushed the Minnesota Vikings past the Carolina Panthers; and a stunning forced fumble in overtime that helped the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks on an overtime field goal.
That’s five more games decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime — bringing the season total of final-minute or overtime winners to 24 in only six weeks. That tally includes 11 overtime games, which is the second-most in league history at this point in the season. That puts the 2021 slate ahead of the pace when it comes to challenging the all-time record of 25 overtime games in a single season. Now imagine what kind of impact that will have on sports betting in states like New Jersey.
It’s going to be massive. Likely to the point of New Jersey setting a billion-dollar betting record in October that exceeds the one it just set last month.
Not only will that added interest tie into the league’s television ratings and enhance advertising slots for its network partners, it means nothing but good things for those gambling-related revenues the NFL is now courting along with everyone else. It makes the league and team partnerships with sports betting operators more valuable through the rising use of advertising, licensing and media inventory that comes in those agreements.
It also feeds the NFL’s seemingly insatiable quest for deeper engagement, which Commissioner Roger Goodell once opined could be another renaissance period similar to the fantasy football explosion that began in the 1990s. To understand the power of that engagement, look at that Cowboys-Patriots overtime game and what happened in a 27-point fourth quarter that saw the two teams trade scores three times in the last three minutes before going into overtime. According to numbers released by CBS, nearly 30 million viewers were tuned in between 7:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. ET, when the outcome see-sawed and went into overtime. It was the most-watched October national game for the network since 2015 and it drew the network’s largest-ever streaming audience.
These are the kinds of eyeballs the NFL expected — not to mention the ongoing broader ratings rebound — when the league opened up the lanes to gambling partnerships. While the league might be wading through a swamp of issues off the field, it’s on nothing less than a race track between the lines, largely thanks to dominating quarterbacks, mercurial field-goal kicking, fourth-down dice rolls, a turnstile of Super Bowl favorites and a product that is looking as entertaining as ever.