The NFL’s embrace of legalized sports betting relies upon the league’s bedrock principle that on “any given Sunday” even the lowliest underdog stands a chance against the heaviest favorite.
That’s why the allegations in former Miami coach Brian Flores’s federal lawsuit — that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 per game to intentionally lose in 2019 in order to improve the team’s draft position — will not only force a closer look into the league’s ties to the gaming industry but also pose a grave threat to the integrity of the 102-year-old league, according to several sports betting insiders and academics.
“This is the largest controversy, the largest issue that the National Football League has ever faced,” said Declan Hill, associate professor of investigations at the University of New Haven, where he heads the Sports Integrity certificate program.
“It’s far bigger than concussion, it’s far bigger than the serious, awful criminal cases involving players who do some murder or drug trafficking outside of the game, it’s bigger than doping, it’s bigger than anything.”
Shortly after Flores’s allegations surfaced, former Cleveland coach Hue Jackson levied similar charges of “lose bonuses” in 2016 and 2017 against Browns ownership.
“In our new world of legalized sports betting, there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to this ‘intentional losing,’ ” said John Holden, assistant professor in the Department of Management at Oklahoma State University and a specialist in sports corruption.
“To tie the league directly to something of this nature, this type of integrity violation, is the first that we’ve seen and it’s the kind of thing that we’ve been waiting on since 2018 [when sports betting became legal]. We all knew it was going to come at one point, but we weren’t sure exactly the form of it.
“This is certainly as bad as it gets. It’s a federal crime to bribe someone to influence in any way a sporting event.”
The Feb. 13 Super Bowl will mark the conclusion of the first season in which the NFL has launched official partnerships with a number of gaming companies, including Boston-based DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars, and BetMGM. Since legalization, 30 states plus Washington, D.C., have operational sports betting operations.
The NFL dominates that action.
Legalsportsreport.com estimates that approximately $165 billion a year is bet legally, with the NFL taking in $100 billion. According to DraftKings, the average handle of an NFL game is 20 times that of the NHL, five times MLB, and 3.5 times the NBA.
According to the Washington Post, the NFL could generate as much as $270 million in gaming-associated revenues this season, up to $1 billion a year within a decade.
Last October, the NFL launched a $6.2 million responsible-betting education and public awareness program.
“The NFL has always prided itself in, ‘Every game matters, no matter what.’ OK, and now all of a sudden, it looks like that’s not quite true, that clearly there are certain times when a team is better off not trying to win, and there’s no penalty for doing that,” said Richard McGowan, associate professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.
In responding to Flores’s lawsuit Tuesday, the NFL did not reference the tanking component of Flores’s complaint, instead focusing on the allegations of discriminatory hiring practices. The league reasserted its commitment to diversity and equity hiring, describing Flores’s accusations as “without merit.”
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the tanking allegations. NFL.com said the league is expected to investigate those charges, which Ross vehemently denied via a statement.
Dustin Gouker, analyst at Legal Sports Report and PlayUSA, did not downplay the integrity risks at stake for the NFL, a league that kept its product distanced from the gaming industry longer than the other North American professional leagues.
“I think the biggest issue here for the league and sports betting is optics,” said Gouker in an e-mail. “The NFL has long held that integrity is its No. 1 priority, and that gambling is the biggest threat to that integrity. If you can’t trust that the game outcomes are above board, then yes, I’d argue there’s a significant issue for the NFL as a betting product.
“Would that narrative cut through with the public? Hard to say. Some amount of people already think outcomes are rigged for any variety of reasons.”
If the allegations are proven, sportsbooks will be thrust into the fray as well, said Gouker.
“[The sportsbooks] are offering markets on games with the idea that the teams are trying to win,” Gouker said. “If it comes out that game outcomes were being manipulated in this way, it’s a deep rabbit hole.”
The draft system used by the NFL and MLB is not new, and teams have long had to manage their short- and long-term risks when it comes roster-building. Sports bettors have had time to factor in those draft-pick positioning realities before placing their bets, said Chris Grove, who has served a variety of roles within the sports betting industry as an executive, founder, and adviser.
“If the NFL makes any change, it won’t be to reassure sports bettors,” said Grove in an e-mail. “It will be because they believe that tanking is detrimental to the product on the field.”
An overhaul to a draft system that incentivizes losing — an issue that is central to the ongoing labor battle between MLB players and owners — could be one such change the NFL makes.
An internal NFL investigation, while likely, may not be enough to prevent an outside investigation. Holden and Hill pointed out that Ross’s actions, if proven, would likely result in his expulsion. They also would be a violation of the US Sports Bribery Act, and an FBI investigation could ensue.
The NFL and many of its owners, as well as other North American sports leagues and sports owners, own equity stakes in gaming companies, a relationship Hill calls a “Faustian bargain, because I’m not suggesting that any executive or any specific team has done this, I’m talking about that kernel of reasonable doubt that a sports fan can have. And as soon as it’s growing in their minds, it’s impossible to get rid of and your sports league is effectively dead.
“I’m not saying the NFL will die instantaneously or the next day, and I’m not saying that any of these allegations are true. I’m saying the issue is that the perception of doubt, that credibility issue, it really is the most important thing to sports, and it will kill a sports league, slowly and steadily.”