The NFL usually puts money first, so why isn't it going all in on legalized gambling?

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

When news broke last month about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states outside Nevada to legalize sports betting, many assumed the NFL would immediately become infatuated with finding a way to monetize that opportunity.

Given the league’s well-earned reputation for putting the almighty dollar first — and the potential to horn in on the billions of dollars that illegal sportsbooks are believed to rake in yearly in America — it hardly seemed unreasonable.

But while the NBA and MLB have already partnered together to introduce legislation in several states that, if passed, would allow them to get a cut of those profits, Sportscorp Ltd. co-founder Marc Ganis — whose sports business consulting firm has worked closely with the NFL and its owners for years — told Yahoo Sports that America’s biggest sports league is wise for eschewing action at the statewide level in favor of a more holistic approach.

Roger Goodell and the NFL have asked Congress to enact ‘four core principles’ for sports gambling.
Roger Goodell and the NFL have asked Congress to enact ‘four core principles’ for sports gambling.

“Federal legislation is by far preferable, rather than having to debate this in each state legislature,” said Ganis, who is so respected in league circles that he’s jokingly referred to by some as the league’s 33rd owner. “[Utah senator] Orrin Hatch has already said he’s going to submit legislation. That’s really where the focus needs to be for everything from economics to the integrity to the consistency across state lines.”

That opinion is shared by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who recently released a statement urging Congress to pursue legislation with the following four principles in mind:

  • There must be substantial consumer protections;

  • Sports leagues can protect our content and intellectual property from those who attempt to steal or misuse it;

  • Fans will have access to official, reliable league data; and

  • Law enforcement will have the resources, monitoring and enforcement tools necessary to protect our fans and penalize bad actors here at home and abroad.

That statement is fairly boilerplate stuff, but overlooking the key phrase dropped in the middle of principle No. 4 — “bad actors here at home and abroad” — would be a mistake.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has reportedly been preparing federal legislation to enact legalized sports gambling. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has reportedly been preparing federal legislation to enact legalized sports gambling. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The NFL has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons recently, thanks to the ongoing furor over its new anthem policy and President Donald Trump’s insistence on taking shots whenever his mood suits him, and the last thing the it needs is to evoke a game-fixing scandal — like something you might see in Europe — by rushing to capitalize off sports betting profits without first putting the proper protections for its teams, players and fans in place.

Hence Goodell’s concern about “bad agents,” and the league’s cautious approach to monetizing sports betting efforts.

“If there’s legal wagering, the expectation is the wagers that will be bet will grow astronomically and that kind of growth also creates incentives for bad actors and actions,” Ganis said. “There’s been, almost, a regular litany of alleged game-fixing [in Europe] — primarily in soccer, but also in tennis. [These are things] that seem to have their source being gambling in one form or another.

“Knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate we haven’t had that since the ‘60s here.”

That’s right. Ever since Detroit Lions star Alex Karras and Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung were suspended for placing bets on NFL games in 1963, the NFL has not dealt with a single public gambling controversy. This is not a coincidence, either.

“The NFL has to be vigilant, constantly, because there’s so much illegal wagering taking place,” Ganis said.

From the commissioner to the teams themselves — many of whom hire full-time security directors who are former federal agents — the NFL has devoted a significant number of resources to prevent and snuff out any issues its players or team/league personnel may have with shady characters before they become problems. There’s a concern that a more open gambling marketplace will only increase the number of shady characters the league must protect the game from, particularly from other continents.

“There’s a lot of overseas gambling that takes place, and you want to be a position where you’re not just protecting against what might happen within the 50 United States, you want to protect against what might happen if there’s broad-based gambling on the NFL in sports books, legal and illegal, anywhere in the world,” Ganis said.

Given the additional millions the league stands to gain from a more open gambling culture, however, the NFL is willing to take the risk. In fact, the league is already doing some things to prepare for the future. A spokesman for the NFL told Yahoo Sports that the league is providing training this summer for players, team and league personnel on ways to avoid precarious sports betting situations, and Ganis said that at some point, the league will reach out to the players’ and referees’ association so they can all get on the same page about the best way to protect their constituents from tricky situations without infringing on their rights.

“There may be some privacy issues,” Ganis said.

But the big focus, at least for the immediate future, will be on pushing Congress to enact laws that will not only force above-board gambling entities to reach agreements with the content rights holders (i.e. the leagues) before taking bets, but also neutralize the “bad agents” the league is so wary of.

And while the timeline for the enactment of those laws — or even whether they are likely — is unclear at the moment, what is known is that there is plenty that still needs to be done before the NFL will feel comfortable cashing in on the looser sports betting economy that is almost sure to come in America.

“We have barely scratched the surface on this topic,” Ganis said. “ … It has a long, long way to go. This is just the beginning.”

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