Welcome, NFL, To The National Discussion On Legal Sports Betting

The biggest U.S. sports league has been slow to join the sports betting conversation, but the shackles are off now for the NFL.

Last week’s letter from the NFL to a New York State Senate committee (which on Monday advanced a bill) about its stance on legal, regulated sports betting was a bit out of character for what so far has been the cagiest major pro sport regarding its stance.

But after the first two panels at the two-day ICE North America global gaming conference in Boston on Tuesday, it looks as if the biggest U.S. league of them all is ready to engage in the public conversation. Saying the league’s “gloves are off” on the topic would be an overbid — but “shackles are off” fits.

Christopher Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy officer, joined DraftKings CEO Jason Robins in a wide-ranging discussion on the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the moment that opened the door for any state, not just Nevada, to offer Vegas-style sports betting.

Halpin told the Eurocentric audience that legalization can be thought of as either a gold rush or a hurricane, depending on future steps. Hurricanes, he added, “are always unpredictable.”

What are some of the key steps, in Halpin’s mind, for states to take? No “fly-by-night operators.” Make sure official data is used. Learn from missteps in the gambling-minded places like the United Kingdom and Australia. Pass these lessons on to legislators, state by state.

NFL sticking to its ‘pass’ on integrity fees

Moderator David Purdum of ESPN.com pressed Halpin on why some leagues have pressed harder for “a cut” of wagers than others.

“We have never asked for nor lobbied for an integrity fee or a royalty,” said Halpin, referring to the goal of the NBA, MLB, and PGA Tour. “For those leagues, it makes sense — but I can’t comment on that.”

As for “official data,” Halpin explained that the league has made “major investments” on that front in the past few years, particularly regarding in-game betting. The speed and consistency of the NFL’s data is “miles ahead” of illegal offshore sportsbooks, he said.

DraftKings’ Robins said that there is reason to believe that the NFL next season could offer “a product of significant value.”

“If they have a higher quality product, and you are a sportsbook looking to compete and everyone else has faster, better live data, I don’t know how you compete with that if you don’t have those things,” Robins said. “And the black market won’t have it.”

Thus there seems to be a pathway for the NFL to avoid bickering with sportsbooks and elected officials. They’re not asking for a mandated integrity fee, and if the data is robust enough, as Robins notes, the marketplace will pretty much want to — and have to — pay for the privilege.

The oddity of New Jersey already being full speed ahead on sports betting while neighboring New York is stuck in neutral was raised by Halpin as well. He said that fans under 35 especially reject the idea that they can do something in one state and not another.

Fear not, if you’re a non-gambling couch potato

Betting-centric live sports broadcasts are becoming commonplace, but there was a consensus on the two morning panels that should ease fears of sports fans who have no interest in gambling: the “old school” broadcasts won’t go away. There will just be multiple other outlets for fans who have a casual interest in betting and for those who can’t get enough stats on their screens.

“For people who want nothing to do with gaming, they will be able to watch [a game] the same way,” said New England Patriots executive Jonathan Kraft.

Purdum playfully offered an “over/under” of 18½ on how many states will be offering legal sports betting by the start of the 2020 football season. Robins went “over,” while Halpin, after clarifying that he can’t actually bet on anything NFL in real life, picked “under.”

With a bold line of 15½ states having mobile betting by then, both took the under (the fictitious Purdum sportsbook might have to lay off some of its “action” on that one). And both also agreed that by 2025, Congress will have passed a sports betting bill that provides some federal standards to the industry.

Robins said the NFL’s pivot to public discussion is helpful because “we all need to band together, and not have infighting.”

For the younger crowd

On the first panel, Kraft was at ease discussing the post-PASPA world.

Kraft said that legal sports betting fits the leagues’ “baseline” of trying to appeal to those under age 30 who “always want to be engaged in what they are doing — not just passively watching.” He added that daily fantasy sports, and what the leagues as partners to those companies were able to learn about consumer behavior, was “a great precursor for what will happen with sports betting.”

As for new frontiers, Kraft said that “esports was made for wagering, if you can deal with all the governing issues to do it legally.”

William Hill US CEO Joe Asher, on the panel with Kraft, pointed out that Washington, D.C. approving sportsbooks at the Capital One Arena, home of the Wizards and Capitals (the Redskins play in Maryland), represents a “seismic shift from where things had been a year ago.”

Asher mused whether at some point Americans might join the Irish and the British in legally wagering on U.S. elections.

And if that sounds farfetched — well, look how far the U.S. has come on gambling in a mere 365 days.

Photo by Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports


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