In 2012, the NFL opposed gambling so much that it filed a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey to stop sports betting.
Less than 14 years later, Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will kick off on Sunday in Las Vegas, the gambling capital in the U.S.
So what changed?
Everything, from the NFL’s public stance to the way games are broadcast, to the league’s sponsors, contributed to Las Vegas landing the Big Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
The relationship between the NFL and sports betting has always been tricky. Both needed each other and both have greatly benefited, even with a shadowy history.
The defining moment that led to Las Vegas hosting the Super Bowl, of course, came in 2018 when the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and states could determine if they wanted legal sports betting.
That and putting the Raiders, a storied franchise, in Sin City has led to a monumental and financially lucrative about-face.
“We did not make the decision,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said. “Ultimately, the decision was a decision by the Supreme Court when they legalized sports betting. We have to adapt. We have to embrace it.”
History of (no) gambling
Embracing sports betting wasn’t always the case. For the vast majority of the NFL’s history, it’s tried to stay away from it, at least publicly.
Some of the league’s early roots can be traced back to owner’s buying up or starting teams with money made from horse racing, but when Bugsy Siegal helped create a gambling haven in the desert during the 1940s and sportsbooks began sprouting up over the next couple of decades, pro sports leagues wanted no part of it from a marketing standpoint.
When the NFL was finding its footing, merging with the AFL merger and holding Super Bowl I in 1967, the U.S. Congress was passing the Federal Wiring Act, the Travel Act, the Sports Bribery Act, and the Illegal Gambling and Business Act between 1961 and 1970.
These legislative measures helped cripple the growth of sports betting and make it taboo and illegal for pro leagues like the NFL to get involved commercially.
PASPA was passed in 1992, outlawing sports betting except for Nevada, where legal, in-person bets continued far from the reach of the NFL.
In most states around the rest of the country, it was also taking place with local bookies and by the 1990s through online, offshore sportsbooks.
More legislation in 2006 aimed to take that away, and the NFL, despite the explosion in popularity and TV revenue, continued its stance that sports betting was not good for the sport.
Timeline of events
At the forefront, the league was part of a group comprised of the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NCAA that helped keep New Jersey from legalizing sports betting in 2012, citing integrity concerns.
“If gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust, and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing,” Goodell argued in 2012.
Once PASPA was overturned in 2018, partnerships began in 2021 with legal sports betting operators like DraftKings, Caesars, FanDuel, and BetMGM.
Following the sponsor partnerships and influx of money, and the Raiders’ move in 2020 to Allegiant Stadium, a Las Vegas Super Bowl seemed inevitable to many.
“We saw that evolution with quotes from Commissioner Goodell over the years and a somewhat softening of this stance as gambling became a little more prevalent and mainstream,” Ben Fawkes, a sports betting industry expert who has worked with ESPN and VSiN, said. “It made sense to put it in the rotation now.”
Goodell said this week in Las Vegas that the league has worked diligently to protect the integrity of the game and prioritize “making sure that our fans understand that what they see out there does not have any undue influence.”
Still, Las Vegas was too good to pass up. It has much of the infrastructure, like hotels and venue availability, weather, and big-sports-town feel that the NFL covets.
Despite its decades-long stance on sports betting, the league helped build that attraction and vice versa.
"People at the NFL are very smart. They know why people are watching the games," Fawkes said. "There are fans, fantasy, and gambling. I think the NFL was always doing due diligence in the background."
Now, more than $100 billion was legally wagered on sports in 2023, with some states’ reports still pending. The financial and marketing ramifications have greatly enhanced the league.
“I thought (a Las Vegas Super Bowl) would come but I probably thought it would be 2030 or 2040 before it happened,” Fawkes said. “Money talks.”
Welcome to the rotation
With 38 U.S. states now having made sports betting legal, the NFL would limit its Super Bowl destinations if it had a completely non-gambling stance.
Arizona was the first legal sports betting state to hold the Super Bowl last year.
New Orleans, where sports betting is legal in Louisiana, is hosting next year’s Big Game. California, which hasn’t legalized it yet, will host in 2026 and 2027.
Before the game was even played, the NFL announced Las Vegas would be in rotation with the likes of regulars Miami and Tampa, where online wagering is legal. Indianapolis, another past destination, is also in a legal betting state.
The NFL’s stance change has not only allowed sports betting operators to partner with the league. It’s also helped the media and television networks to integrate sports betting into mainstream coverage and telecasts, but there’s still a limit to it.
“I don’t think we’ll see in any short period a third commentator, let’s say, in the booth who is focused on sports betting,” Fawkes said. “I don’t think it’s going to be Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Cousin Sal breaking down his halftime prop bets.”
Fawkes believes much of the NFL’s sports betting focus will held for pregame or possibly mega-casts for a wagering avenue.
“I think the NFL still wants to keep the main product and main telecast separate and then have some potentially other betting elements for people who are really interested in that,” Fawkes said. “They don’t want to oversaturate the product and have too much advertising and people be turned off by that because there are also plenty of who don’t want to bet on the game and NFL wants to respect those fans as well.”
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