Odds are Gambling Drives NFL Audience

By Jeremy Fuchs

The big board tells all in Las Vegas. (Photo: goleatherheads.com)

The Eastside Lounge, part of the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, is hosting a party to watch the Super Bowl. For $150, there will be an all-you-can-eat and drink menu. There will, however, be one thing missing from the party.

“The NFL prohibited the casinos from using the [phrase] ‘Super Bowl,’” Jessalyn Strauss, a professor of communications at Elon University who studies the city, said by phone. The NFL forced the party at the Eastside Lounge, along with the countless others along the strip, to be called “Big Game” parties, instead.

Strauss said that this change is emblematic of the NFL’s attitude when it comes to Las Vegas and gambling. “It’s a very public attempt to distance themselves from gambling, but at the same time, they’re benefiting from it,” she said.

While opposing legalizing sports wagering as a matter of policy, the NFL still benefits from the widespread gambling — legal and illegal — on its games. The league generates more interest in its sport, while distancing itself from the harm that gambling causes and avoids the stain of corruption.

When the Patriots and Seahawks kick off Super Bowl XLIX, Americans will have placed $100 million in legal bets, Andrew Smith, a research analyst at the American Gaming Association, said in a phone interview. Additionally, bettors will spend $3.8 billion in illegal wagers, according to Smith. The legal bets can only be placed in four states: Delaware, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

In January 2012, one more state was added to that list. New Jersey passed legislation legalizing sports betting in the state. In February 2013, after the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA filed a federal lawsuit against the state, Judge Michael Shipp ruled that the legislation was in violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. Shipp’s brother, Marcel Shipp, was a NFL running back for seven seasons and was recently hired as the running backs coach for the New York Jets.

In its opposition to sports betting, the NFL has invoked the phrase, ‘the integrity of the game.’ Betting on the game, the league has argued, could influence players and officials to involve themselves in point-shaving and match-fixing schemes. Ray Lesniak, a New Jersey State Senator who has led the push to bring legalized sports gambling to the state, said in a phone interview that regulating betting would only make protecting the integrity of the game easier.

Lesniak was pro-gambling in New Jersey. (Photo: northjersey.com)

Lesniak backed gambling in New Jersey. (Photo: northjersey.com)

“The best way to avoid hanky-panky is to study unusual gambling patterns,” Lesniak said. “You can’t determine [it] when it’s done underground.” Lesniak said that by legalizing gambling, it would become easier to track trends and investigate anything out of the ordinary, thereby reducing the potential for any game-fixing schemes.

Beyond just protecting the integrity of the game, the NFL wants to protect its image. “If people were fearful there was a scandal, it could destroy the brand,” Rodney Paul, a sports management professor at Syracuse University, said by phone. “They fear the idea of something happening that would put a damper on the sport.”

Headshot of Keith Whyte (Photo: masscompulsivegambling.org)

Whyte would like the NFL to be more responsible about gambling issues.  (Photo: masscompulsivegambling.org)

The NFL’s anti-gambling stance might protect its brand, but it also discourages a discussion about gambling responsibly. “We’d like to see them do a lot more,” Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said by phone. “We would like to see more of a conversation about responsible gaming.”

The league is involved in a number of products that resemble sports gambling. They offer fantasy games on their official website, lottery tickets with team logos on them are available in multiple states, and the league plays games every year in London, where sports gambling is legal. Whyte said the NFL has to make up its mind.

“We’re not seeing counterbalancing efforts,” he said. “If you’re going to embrace fantasy sports, if you’re going to allow advertising, have NFL-themed [lottery] tickets, where is the harm minimization message? If you’re trying to maximize revenue, how are you minimizing harm?”

The NFL did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone.

Football, in particular, works well with the gambling market. Every play is measurable, every trend easily tracked. Websites like Pro Football Focus analyze every player on every play of every game. The availability of statistics can foster more gambling, Whyte said, because participants might think they have an insight into the outcome. “You’re more likely to bet the more you think you [can] control the outcome,” Whyte said.

It’s not just that there is more information available to make a more informed betting decision; gambling itself has become a part of enjoying the game. “A better way of viewing sports gambling is [that] it adds to the entertainment value of watching the game,” Paul said. “A lot of people are watching a game if they are invested in it. It makes the experience more enjoyable. Without it, the game might not be as popular.”

More money was spent gambling on football last year than on any other sport in Nevada. In 2014, Americans bet $1.4 billion on college and professional football in Nevada, according to Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst at the Nevada Gaming Commission. That is a 206 percent increase from 1989. The popularity of the sport and the popularity of betting on the sport go hand in hand.

“It’s so widely televised, but one of the reasons that some of those people are watching is because they’ve got money on the game,” Whyte said. “People put money on the game because the games are televised. These things reinforce each other.”

Football gambling, in which bettors spent 134 percent more than on baseball gambling in 2014, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, has become an industry — the odds reported in newspapers and on the scroll on ESPN, the over-under analyzed on talk radio. With the Super Bowl, a dizzying array of bets will be made available.

Some of the more popular bets are the so-called prop bets. These bets often don’t concern the final score of the game, but rather more innocuous things. For example, according to the Bovada Sportsbook, an online betting site based in Canada, there are 3-2 odds on orange being the color of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach. Odds are +750 that Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, will wear a red hoodie, while the over-under has been set at two minutes and one second for the length of the national anthem sung by Idina Menzel.

Prop bets are often silly and fun. At the countless Super Bowl parties across the country, these bets can add enjoyment to the game, according to Paul. “People aren’t betting more on the Super Bowl because there’s easy ways to make money,” Paul said. “People are making a big deal out of the Super Bowl. It’s a big event, they get together with many others, and they like to enhance the experience by being able to have something going through the game.”

Not all gambling activity is harmless, however. Between 0.4 to 2 percent of the American population are pathological gamblers, according to a 2012 study done by researchers Nancy Petry and Carlos Blanco at the University of Connecticut and Columbia University, respectively, in the journal “Addiction.”

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Sen. Sweeney fought legalized gambling in New Jersey. (Photo: Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger)

The NFL has been clear in its lack of support for legalizing gambling. At the same time, the league reaps the rewards of fan interest in the activity.

“They’re hypocrites,” Stephen Sweeney, the New Jersey State Senate President, said by phone. “To make the argument that we’re going to hurt the game while they’re promoting [gambling]—they put the lines out, they give you the injury reports. It’s a joke.”

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