The NFL can’t get out of its own way of late, feuding with its players, feuding with its fans, feuding with wedge-seeking politicians and, of course, feuding among itself.
So it’s of little surprise it will do the same Monday, getting in the way of common sense, a popular idea and increased NFL fan interest in America’s ultimate stage for feuds, the United States Supreme Court.
Oral arguments will take place in Christie v. NCAA, which will determine the constitutionality of 1992’s Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) that bars sports wagering in all but four states and really anywhere outside of Nevada.
“Christie” is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who sued in an effort to allow casinos and race tracks in his state to open sports wagering. The NCAA is the NCAA, which opposes the idea and is supported by major professional sports leagues and the Trump Administration. A decision will come in 2018.
If it were smart, the NFL would march its high-powered lawyers into the Supreme Court on Monday and go stand on the side of New Jersey. The case will be determined by the 10th Amendment and not whether someone should lay the points on the Eagles, but for the NFL, this is about more than complicated constitutional law or even abandoning the tired trope that sports wagering threatens a peaceful society.
It’s about getting one right. It’s about getting on the side of fans. And it’s about the future of its business.
There was a time when the NFL had the luxury of holding its nose aloft and decry sports wagering. There was a time it could trot out baseless arguments about supposedly protecting the integrity of the game from point shavers. There was a time when the league could brush off gamblers as just fringe degenerates.
That time is long gone.
Television ratings are down and there isn’t a single, currently legal, solution to change that. Fan opinion of the league is in the dumps, a combination of endless scandals ranging from player protests, botched commissioner-led investigations, concussion issues, seemingly blackballed talent, franchise relocations, ever-rising ticket prices, taxpayer stadium bailouts and who knows what else. The league is getting hit from all sides.
There’s a reason it’s under near daily social media attack from President Donald Trump. He can spot a weakling to bully a mile away.
Americans’ support of wagering in all forms has grown exponentially over the past few decades, from state-run lotteries to brick and mortar casinos down the street. Gambling is about granny on a slot machine, not wise guys in the desert. Only big government doesn’t know that.
And that’s why the business of the NFL benefits here, too. A 2016 Nielsen Sports study, funded by the American Gaming Association, found that sports bettors watched 19 more regular-season games than non-bettors. They also tuned in an average of 11 minutes longer and consumed more media around the sport than non-bettors.
The study also estimated that while about 40 million people currently gamble regularly on the NFL (either in Nevada or illegally through offshore or local bookmakers) that number would jump to an estimated 57 million if it was legal. That’s a lot of potential Papa John’s.
“This is potentially a game-changer for the leagues,” Sara Slane, a senior vice president at the American Gaming Association, told Yahoo Sports. “Just as daily fantasy sports increased viewership because fans felt they had a skin in the game, legalized sports betting would do 100 times that.”
It’s not just betting the money line or the spread, either. It’s so-called “in play” wagering, which is legal in Great Britain. Via smart phones or computers, bettors can make low-limit bets on what will happen on the next drive or even play, retaining viewers through even lopsided contests.
The NFL played four games this year in London and one in Mexico City, where sports wagering is legal. The Raiders are set to move to Las Vegas in 2020. If fans in Dallas or Davenport, Iowa, had the same accessible, regulated and legal wagering options as fans in those places (in London there is a betting parlor on nearly every city block), then the NFL would be awash in millions of new heavy consumers.
Moreover, the league would be on the side of inevitable progress, riding a wave of pro-gambling momentum. Polls and referendums show the people want this.
Law enforcement has long said it’s ridiculous to claim a ban on gambling protects integrity of the game. They note that Las Vegas sports books are their greatest asset in catching compromised action.
“The only way to protect the integrity of the game is to have a legal, transparent sports wagering system in place,” Slane said. “Right now the system operates in the dark.”
The illegal sports wagering market is an estimated $150 billion to $400 billion, which is untaxed. Much of it winds up either in offshore companies or organized crime, which then uses the money to fund far worse operations such as human trafficking.
If nothing else, for the first time in recent memory, the NFL would be fighting for the average person against the government that wants to place restrictions on entertainment options. The league could run advertisements touting how much tax money legal NFL wagering would produce for local schools, police and fire departments.
If Trump is beating up the NFL about being anti-fan, then Roger Goodell could stand up against Trump’s Justice Department, which filed supporting motions on behalf of the NCAA. Make Trump take a knee against laying $20 on the Packers this weekend and pumping up state and municipal budgets because of some intricacy of the 10th Amendment that neither he nor almost anyone else understands.
PASPA is 25 years old and has not aged well. Already MLB, the NBA and the NHL have expressed a softening on the issue, if not outright support for legalization, although all strangely remain involved in the Christie lawsuit.
The NFL is still the lead dog, though. And on Monday, rather than walking into the Supreme Court and working for its own fans and its own bottom line, it’ll fall back on its same old bad fight, too arrogant to embrace the future.