In September, the Las Vegas Raiders will play their first regular season games at a packed Allegiant Stadium, a momentous occasion for the city and for Raiders fans, who were shut out from attending games in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When fans stream in, they’ll be met with a sight unthinkable even a few years ago: signage in every direction promoting gaming corporations that for decades were shut out by the National Football League.
The MGM Club sponsored by MGM Resorts will offer fans a full-service bar and luxury lounge. A Caesars-branded Owners Suite at the 50-yard line will give VIP guests an unparalleled view of the action. The Wynn Field Club will let a lucky few watch games from the north end zone while taking in a premium nightlife experience. Outdoors, the MGM Resorts Stadium Walk will connect Allegiant and Luxor Hotel & Casino with an ultimate tailgate experience that physically embodies the bridge being built between the NFL and gaming.
This is the brave new world of professional football. The once highly constructed barriers separating casinos and gaming operators from the NFL have been demolished.
The NFL began to change its tone on sports betting after the Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018. PASPA’s repeal didn’t come without significant risks for the NFL and other pro and college sports leagues, who now had to worry about the spread of legalized sports betting interfering with the integrity of their games. Ever since the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, during which eight players of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, American sports have successfully stamped out athletes and coaches wagering on games, save for a few notorious examples like MLB player Pete Rose and NBA official Tim Donaghy. League commissioners, nonetheless, used the PASPA repeal to demand greater regulations.
Immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked Congress to enact uniform standards to protect the league’s integrity. Congress has mostly balked at treading into those waters, leaving the NFL to rely on its own policies. In the three plus years since the repeal of PASPA, the NFL has only dealt with one public incident of a player gambling on an NFL game. In 2019, the league suspended Arizona Cardinals player Josh Shaw nearly 16 months for betting on games on multiple occasions.
“The continued success of the NFL depends directly on each of us doing everything necessary to safeguard the integrity of the game and the reputations of all who participate in the league,” Goodell said in November 2019. “At the core of this responsibility is the longstanding principle that betting on NFL games, or on any element of a game, puts at risk the integrity of the game, damages public confidence in the NFL, and is forbidden under all circumstances. If you work in the NFL in any capacity, you may not bet on NFL football.”
As the NFL put the hammer down on employees wagering on games, the league was also nailing down casino and sports betting operator partnerships. The league’s first casino deal was with Caesars Entertainment ahead of the 2019 NFL playoffs. As part of the agreement, Caesars Palace will get to host part of the 2022 NFL Draft held in Las Vegas.
The NFL upped its ante in April 2021 with the announcement of its first-ever US sports partners: DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars. The agreement gives the three operators the right to integrate relevant sports betting content directly into NFL media properties. The operators agreed to adhere to the NFL’s core integrity policies including intelligence sharing, advocacy efforts and responsible gaming education.
“The way fans consume sports years from now will look drastically different, and it will be due in part to forward-thinking collaborations like our expanded relationship with the NFL,” said Jason Robins, CEO, chairman and co-founder, DraftKings. “We share the same vision as the NFL on fan engagement and believe this agreement will lead to new innovations that will ultimately enhance both the product on the field and on the screen.”
The velocity at which America’s most popular sports league has come to not only accept but embrace the gaming industry leaves some NFL teams gasping to keep up with latest developments.
“It’s created a lot of confusion,” said Scott Erdmann, Raiders senior director, corporate partnership sales, during a National Indian Gaming Association Tradeshow & Convention panel on sports betting. “We just found out of this [sports betting] app and new technology we weren’t even aware of, so you think you have a grasp on it and the next minute it’s completely different and you’re now having to understand a whole other landscape.”
The last few years have been a whirlwind for the Raiders organization, which in 2017 received official approval to move from Oakland to Las Vegas. The Raiders’ move to the desert hit full speed until the spring of 2020, by which time individual NFL teams were beginning to look for partners in the sports betting and casino space.
“The NFL relaxed their rules in 2018 which gave us a little more rights to integrate casinos within the games,” said Erdmann. “The sports betting thing is really intriguing. We get calls all the time of companies and brands trying to get involved. The way we have it structured right now is we have four casino partnerships in Las Vegas, and then we have four sports betting partnerships.”
Erdmann said the Raiders have two open sports betting partnerships. The franchise also has a tribal partnership with San Manuel Casino in San Bernardino. In a demonstration of the NFL’s influence on the limits of casino and franchise partnership, the Raiders are not able to advertise with San Manuel in Southern California, where the LA Rams and LA Charges have exclusivity. Though Raiders have only played one full season in Las Vegas, casino and particularly sports betting partners are already seeing a return on investment.
“From a fan perspective, we saw that 33% of our fans last year bet on mobile devices,” said Erdmann. “The propensity to bet last year was up 21%. I think the fans are very intrigued and it definitely brings new fans to the table that may have not watched sports, and who are now a little more invested.”
Entering the upcoming season, nearly every NFL franchise now has a casino, sports betting or daily fantasy sports partnership of some sort. The deals usually include on-site signage, social media promotions, and a space inside the stadium branded under the gaming corporation. Teams that play in states where sports betting is already legal are certain to have a sportsbook partner. The Detroit Lions, for example, recently announced WynnBet as an official sportsbook and gaming partner, which gives WynnBet access to digital and traditional media assets and includes a WynnBet Sports Bar at Ford Field.
In Louisiana, the New Orleans Saints announced a Superdome naming rights deal with Caesars and the Las Vegas-based casino company will shell out $7m a year for the next 20 years. The long-term deal coincides with a $325m investment into Caesars New Orleans (formerly Harrah’s), the lone land-based casino in the city and occurs on the eve of Louisiana legalizing sports betting in 55 of 64 parishes.
“All of us at Caesars are proud to be part of New Orleans’ vibrant culture,” said Tom Reeg, CEO of Caesars Entertainment. “We understand that the Caesars Superdome is more than an iconic venue, it’s the symbol of a resilient and innovative community. We’ve had a strong relationship with the New Orleans Saints for nearly two decades and we're thrilled with the opportunity to strengthen it and celebrate our commitment to the city, the state and the entire Gulf Coast region.”
BetMGM, a joint venture between Roar Digital / MGM Resorts and GVC Holdings, has been among the most aggressive operators at signing partnerships with NFL teams. BetMGM’s team partners include the Raiders, Lions, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. The operator also recently snagged a brand ambassador deal with Marshawn Lynch, one of the most marketable retired NFL players of his generation. Lynch, whose career spanned from the Raiders to the Seattle Seahawks, will feature in BetMGM marketing campaigns, promotions and fan events.
Matt Prevost, chief revenue officer at BetMGM, said: “Lynch is both an incredible athlete and larger-than-life personality. The impact he has made on the game of football, coupled with his status as an electric superstar, makes him a tremendous addition to the BetMGM team.”
Increasingly, partnerships with NFL teams carry more significance than promotional events and stadium signage. A slew of states have granted teams coveted access to online and retail sports betting skins. In Virginia, FanDuel was quick to agree to a market access deal with the Washington Football Team. Not only did FanDuel gain entry to Virginia’s online-only sports betting market, the operator’s partnership with WFT meant it received a three-day head start to launch before any other operator.
Out west, a similar dynamic is playing out with the Arizona Cardinals, who are one of 10 professional sports organizations to receive a sports betting license. The Cardinals, who play at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, home of the 2023 Super Bowl, can offer both a retail sportsbook and mobile sports betting presence in the Grand Canyon State. The NFL team was the only pro sports franchise in Arizona yet to announce a sports betting partner entering August.
Not surprisingly, it’s the NFL season that is dictating the launch schedule for sports betting in Arizona as well as South Dakota, Louisiana, Connecticut, Nebraska, Washington and Maryland. States where sports betting is legalized but not yet operational can’t afford to miss out on weeks of NFL games, lest operators lose tens of millions of handle.
An estimated 33m Americans wagered on the 2020 NFL season, according to the American Gaming Association. That number is sure to be higher in 2021 now that more than half of all states plus the District of Columbia have legalized sports betting.
Once considered a pariah in the eyes of the NFL, casinos and sports betting companies are amassing influence by the day. Come kickoff this fall, it will be near impossible to attend or stream a game and avoid advertising for sports wagering. This is the NFL of the future, a league dependent on gaming.