Keith Strudler: Betting On The NFL
If you follow football news in the US, you’d assume the end is near, or at least predictable. You’ve heard stories of concussions and CTE, about early retirements, and about how kids don’t want to play anymore – at least not at the number that’s long sustained the massive institution of high school football. You’d assume that it’s only a matter of time until the risks become too pronounced and the pyramid crumbles from the foundation, as we all segue to soccer or video games or some other more civilized global pastime.
That is, unless you pay any attention to sports gambling, the massive multi-billion dollar underbelly of professional sports, an institution that keeps everything from horse racing to the European Premier League afloat. And nothing is more bet upon in this country that the NFL, where even blowouts can remain must-watch fare if it’s anywhere near the point spread. That potential became even more pronounced last year when the Supreme Court knocked down a federal law banning sports betting outside of Nevada. Which means that states like New Jersey and Delaware can now allow sports fans – or people that don’t really like sports at all – to lose as much money as they’d like each and every Sunday afternoon. According to a survey from the American Gaming Association, about 15% of the American population plans to do just that for this NFL this season. That means that 38 million Americans will at some point place some amount of money on the outcome of a professional football game. Or perhaps even some part of a game, like whether one team scores more in the second quarter, or even whether the next play is a run or a pass. The vast majority of these transactions are, well, illegal, or perhaps unregulated. That includes everything from the questionable online off-shore gambling industry to buying squares at a Super Bowl Party. And, at least according to the Association, people with money on the game are far more likely to pay attention to the game. Which makes sense, assuming you care at all about money.
The NFL has been slow to embrace gambling as a construct, despite it’s obvious economic impact on the game. It’s been slightly more engaged with the recent legal change, perhaps realizing they’re either going to make money off of gambling, or everyone else is. That’s why the NFL’s partnered with a sports data company that could be something of the holy grail to people wanting to gamble on the smallest of details – like how fast a quarterback might throw a ball. So the pro sports league that was the most vocal opponent of wide spread legal sports gambling has at least decided to hedge its bets.
Which really leads to the crux of the issue here. We are likely moving into something of an inflection point for the NFL, where the future is neither well defined nor guaranteed. That’s for a whole lot of reasons, including but not limited to an understanding of the long-term health risks, the high cost of game attendance, the rise of alternative sports like soccer and lacrosse, and the massive overhaul of the media environment, where increasingly properties can no longer rely on the guaranteed revenue of gaudy television contracts. All of this means that places like the NFL will have to find new ways to ensure a vast percentage of the American public cares enough to watch each and every weekend – and maybe Monday and Thursday night as well. Which is a challenge when Netflix offers about 500 new shows a week. Not to mention things like Bachelor in Paradise. But I digress.
The League has historically fought the frenemy that is the gambling industry because they always believed the most important thing they had was something we’ll call the integrity of the game. So establishing a bright line between what they do on the field and what some shady character might do in the shadows of darkness was the best way to make sure the NFL extended into infinity and beyond.
But now we realize that may not be the case. While the NFL’s numbers are still good, the game’s overall metrics are less so. Which means it’s likely only a matter of time until that all catches up to biggest show on turf. If you don’t believe me, just ask people in boxing or even baseball a thing or two about the lily pond effect.
Which means that while the NFL hasn’t given a full-throated endorsement of gambling – perhaps unlike the NBA – know that endorsement isn’t far away. For better or worse, we’re probably not far from the NFL feeling a bit more like a game of Keno, where every play can be a dollar and a dream. Like it is in the English Premier League, which similarly needs to make sure they can make their massive payrolls.
All of which would make the NFL’s future prospects a little less dire or predictable.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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