Opinion | The N.F.L. Bets on Betting

If you watched the N.F.L.’s first weekend of action, there is a good chance you saw more ads for BetMGM, FanDuel and Caesars Sportsbook than you had ever seen in your life. The N.F.L. now has an official casino sponsor (Caesars) and partnerships with seven sports books. Nearly 60 million football bets were processed online in the United States last weekend — likely an all-time high — and the N.F.L. was probably thrilled about every single one of them.

It wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the 1990s learning from shows like “Law & Order” and movies like “Casino” that betting on sports was most often a very, very bad idea — one that could cost you a great deal of money, or even your life.

It seemed, back then, that the N.F.L. also believed that sports gambling — at least, gambling on N.F.L. games — was a very, very bad idea.

The league fought to stop casinos and racetracks in New Jersey from allowing bets on N.F.L. games. When in 2015 Tony Romo, the Cowboys quarterback at the time, wanted to hold a fantasy football convention with about 100 other N.F.L. players at a casino, the N.F.L. canceled it, with a spokesman telling Fox Sports, “Players and N.F.L. personnel may not participate in promotional activities or other appearances at or in connection with events that are held at or sponsored by casinos.”

Announcers had to dance around the gambling issue, too. I talked to Trey Wingo, formerly of ESPN, who told me that when he hosted “N.F.L. Live” from 2003 to 2018, gambling terminology of any kind was verboten on air. “We couldn’t say, ‘over/under’. We had to say ‘more or less than’ to get around it. You really had to split hairs.”

So what the heck happened between “Law & Order” telling us that sports betting was for sad sack gambling addicts and the N.F.L. working hand in glove with casinos and online betting operations?

Well, the Supreme Court weighed in with a decision in 2018 to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, the act essentially outlawed sports betting outside of Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana.

The bill originally passed after an uproar in the early 1990s over the risks of sports betting, with Senator Bill Bradley (a former N.B.A. player) arguing that gambling sent the wrong message to kids and that athletes should not be “turned into roulette chips.”

But the Supreme Court ruled that the act violated the 10th Amendment, which gives states all rights and regulatory powers not explicitly granted to the federal government. With that, the gambling floodgates opened as 26 states and Washington, D.C., started offering some form of legalized sports betting. And for the N.F.L., despite its long public stance on gambling as the enemy of sportsmanship, legalized sports betting offers endless possibilities.

Wingo told me, “At the end of the day, once the Supreme Court ruling happened, the N.F.L. was really good at three things. One, they put out a product you just can’t get enough of. Two, they know how to market the hell out of it. Three, they know how to make money. And once this thing came open, they knew that there was money to be made. And the NFL is a moneymaking machine.”

Wingo himself recently joined Caesars Sportsbook as chief trends officer and brand ambassador. He told me that he sees his job as having changed little from his work with ESPN. He’s still the “why” guy, explaining to an audience on his podcast and on YouTube how a player’s stats and performance might influence how they do on any given Sunday (or Thursday or Monday.) But with respect to gambling, he said: “We can talk about it now. It’s a little more open.”

An historical aside: Gambling was part of the N.F.L. at its inception. It’s rumored that the Steelers founder Art Rooney kept the team afloat through the 1930s with gambling winnings, and the Giants founder Tim Mara was a successful bookmaker. Even basic aspects of the game’s operations — like the weekly injury report teams are required to submit to the league — are arguably done for the benefit of Vegas casinos looking to set the lines and determine which teams they think will win and by how much.

But despite the game’s betting origins, gambling on the N.F.L., if it took place at all, was heavily discouraged by the league, meaning that it was largely kept an open secret, an activity only for mobsters and the very sad.

Some with close ties to the league aren’t happy about the changes in recent years. In a conference call with reporters, the former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said that he didn’t support the N.F.L.’s new stance on betting. “I don’t think we should encourage people who are watching the N.F.L. to gamble, especially young people,” he said. “I’ve got boys, and I want them to enjoy the game for what it is, the headiness of it and those kind of things.”

There are two main concerns about legalized sports betting and the N.F.L.: first, that the game itself could be corrupted if players, coaches or referees “fix” games to help gamblers, and second, that users may risk developing gambling addictions with the prevalence of so many options for betting.

Wingo told me that he hoped that legalized sports betting would actually help stop players (or coaches) from intentionally trying to score fewer points or lose games. He gave me the example of a 2007 tennis match held in Europe, where in-game betting is far more common than it is in the United States. After noticing suspicious activity — namely, a lot of money coming in favoring a player who was already losing — the sports book Betfair halted all transactions and notified the A.T.P. of its concerns.

“Because there was legalized gambling and in-game gambling,” Wingo said, “they were able to notice the trends and go, ‘Wait a minute, now this is really fishy.’ ”

But the second concern is far harder to quantify. About 1 percent of American adults have a problem with gambling, though that number is most likely far higher in reality. In March, the National Council on Problem Gambling released a report stating that people who bet on sports were three times more likely to engage in other risky betting behaviors, like asking someone else to cover gambling debts. The number of people calling gambling support hotlines has increased, particularly during the depths of the Covid pandemic.

With sports betting easier than ever before, developing a problem is too.

Wingo said that what excited him about this new era of legalized betting was that “we’re at the top of the first inning here. Like this is just the beginning.” He told me that he’s excited to help “set the landscape” for what legalized sports gambling can look like.

But, like me, he has no idea what the future has in store.

If you have thoughts on the N.F.L. and gambling, or on anything else, please send me a note at [email protected]

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