This season, the NFL reveals its newest superpower: legal sports betting.
At stadiums, on TV, and especially on screens, phones, and at sports books in states where there’s sports wagering — and even where there isn’t (like Massachusetts) — it’s going to be impossible to miss the league flexing its latest lucrative asset class.
Having convinced all 32 owners that the NFL brand will be enhanced, not sullied, by sports betting, and convinced that nearly 90 percent of its fan base accepts the idea, if not the practice, of sports betting, the league might as well mark a start date for widespread adoption of sports wagering with the start of the 2021 season.
“I think we’re in a good spot now where owners very much see us taking a balanced approach, a long-term view, and that sports betting is just inherently a part of the US sports industry landscape and it’s going to continue grow and roll out,” said Christopher Halpin, NFL executive vice president and chief strategy and growth officer.
“Based on the rate of legalization across states and the momentum in the legal markets, you can see this becoming a billion-dollar market [for the NFL] over this decade.”
For a league historically leery, if not outright hostile, toward betting, revenues have begun to roll in thanks to multiyear partnerships with businesses on the data and technology side — Genius is the official data provider of the league — and gaming companies.
A two-tier system will allow the NFL’s seven sports book partners, for a fee, the right to advertise their products on NFL platforms. Three official sports book partners — DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars — can use the coveted NFL shield logo and other trademarks in their marketing, while four other sports book operators — BetMGM, Fox Bet, Wynn, and PointsBet — are paying to join the group of approved advertisers.
The Patriots are among the clubs in states where sports betting is not yet approved, but expect them to be ready to embrace sports betting. In an interview with Forbes this past spring, Patriots owner Robert Kraft expressed enthusiasm for sports betting and eagerness for Massachusetts to get on board.
“Look, Massachusetts doesn’t have it, New Hampshire does; the governor of New Hampshire loves this situation because people are pouring over the border going up to New Hampshire and dropping a lot of change,” said Kraft, who declined to comment for this article.
“I think our game, especially given that we have the 40-second breaks, is made for prop betting and all kinds of interactivity and gaming opportunities.”
Kraft’s son, Jonathan, president of the Kraft Group, is one of eight members of the league owners’ Legalized Sports Betting Committee.
Boston’s pro sports teams have been lobbying Beacon Hill legislators the last couple of years to pass sports betting legislation, and their respective leagues, as well as gaming and tech companies, have joined in the effort.
Jonathan Nabavi, NFL vice president for public policy and government affairs, expressed a degree of optimism that a Massachusetts bill could gain momentum in the next couple of months as legislators continue with their “thoughtful approach.”
“We’re really trying to protect our product, the integrity of the game, and make sure there are principles in place, like the use of official data, limiting certain types of prop bets that might be objectionable, information sharing, dedicated regulator, know your customer — all those types of things that see a shift from the illegal to the legal market,” said Nabavi. “That’s all part of the conversation in Massachusetts, where we’ve had a lot of productive conversations, and we’re looking forward to official action this fall.”
In the meantime, Gillette Stadium has its DraftKings Fantasy Sports Zone and Encore Boston Harbor Zones while other teams and stadiums in states where sports betting is legal have been quick to capitalize.
The Superdome in New Orleans is now the Caesars Superdome thanks to a 20-year, $138 million deal. BetMGM will have a sports book in the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium next season, the Indianapolis Colts have partnered with FanDuel and Caesars, and the Baltimore Ravens with DraftKings and BetMGM.
The NFL, which limits betting ads to six per game, does not want betting to dominate in-game or pre- and postgame conversation among analysts, said Halpin.
“You’ll continue to see it as limited,” he said. “Those settings and talent are much more comfortable with traditional presentation of the game. They may talk about odds.”
An alternative broadcast devoted to a combination of sports betting data visualization and advanced analytics on ESPN+ in a wild-card playoff game last season was an experiment that the NFL deemed a success, and the league will “continue to toy” with using odds as a graphics tool, Halpin said.
The league believes the risk of alienating anti-betting fans (and owners) has been significantly reduced in the three-plus years since the Supreme Court opened up betting across the United States.
When that happened in 2018, the NFL surveyed its fan base and found four main groups: existing, frequent sports bettors (about 15-18 percent); casual, aspiring bettors (around 35 percent); the indifferent (30 percent); and “active rejectors” (20 percent).
NFL sports bettors, said Halpin, “are overwhelmingly 21 to 40 years old and male — 75 percent and 75 percent.”
The active rejectors skew 55 and older and more female, and their numbers have shrunk, from around 20 percent to 12 percent.
The NFL’s dominance as a favorite of the betting public is not in question. PlayUSA estimates that at least $12 billion will be bet legally on NFL games this season, and that’s excluding parlays.
DraftKings’s own metrics show that the average handle for an NFL game dwarfs those of other sports: 20 times more than an NHL game, five times an MLB game, four times most college football games, and 3.5 times an NBA game.
“Pro football has always been a dominant force but probably more of a dominant force now with the NFL partnering with DraftKings and other companies out there,” said Johnny Avello, DraftKings director of race and sportsbook operations.
“One thing I always noticed betting on the NFL is you’ll find people betting on it that don’t bet anything else. Women like to bet the NFL on a weekly basis but not necessarily like to lay baseball or the NBA. I think it’s the favorite of fans in general and the bettors in general.”