The partnership between professional sports leagues and the sports betting industry took another big step this week with the National Football League’s (NFL) appointment of an executive to oversee wagers on games.
David Highhill, who will be the league’s vice president, general manager of sports betting, has worked for the NFL for ten years.
“We’re going to focus on serving fans and the game rather than becoming a sportsbook,” Highhill told ESPN on Tuesday (June 28).
Highhill said the NFL plans to continue working with the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) and taking a leadership role in addressing problem gambling.
In October 2021, the NFL contributed a three-year grant totaling $6m to the NCPG.
NCPG executive director Keith Whyte said it was “by far, the largest donation NCPG has ever received."
“We welcome David to his new role and look forward to working with him,” Whyte told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in an email.
“He has been involved in NFL responsible gambling efforts from the start, including their historic grant to NCPG and the league’s national multi-channel campaign in support of [the responsible play website],” Whyte said.
The NFL is not the first league to put an executive in charge of sports betting.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) named Scott Kaufman-Ross as the head of gaming and new business in May 2021.
Kaufman-Ross has served in similar roles at the NBA since May 2017, one year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal sports-betting ban in a 6-3 decision.
Dennis Drazin, the New Jersey attorney who wrote the sports-betting bill which led to the Supreme Court’s decision on May 14, 2018, said the NFL’s appointment of a sports-betting manager is long overdue.
“The NFL should have embraced the inevitable fact that someday sports betting would be legal in the United States and worked with New Jersey to settle the [Supreme Court] case and provide a framework for integrity and profitability,” Drazin said.
Before entering the sports-betting market, the NFL joined the NBA, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association in opposing New Jersey’s sports-betting bill in the Supreme Court case.
“The teams and the leagues have been the beneficiary of New Jersey’s efforts to overturn [the federal sports-betting ban], and their teams are worth at least double in value,” Drazin said. “Nevertheless, I wish them well.”
The NFL’s announcement this week “continues to signal the growth and opportunity of legalized sports betting as the industry becomes more mainstream for fan engagement,” said an online sports-betting operator who requested anonymity.
Jay Kornegay, manager of the Westgate Casino’s Superbook in Las Vegas, applauded the NFL’s selection of a sports-betting manager and said he would be happy to cooperate with Highhill.
“We’ll support anything that can assist in protecting the integrity of the game,” Kornegay said. “Operators and the leagues are on the same side of the fence. We both want fair and true games. Integrity is our product as well.”
Robert Walker, director of sportsbook for US Bookmaking in Las Vegas, was not as sanguine.
“League fees will be going up,” Walker said.
John Holden, an assistant professor of business at Oklahoma State University, said the NFL’s announcement reflects an evolution in the leagues’ perception of sports betting.
“For the NFL in particular, which has been slightly less enthusiastic — at least publicly than the other three professional leagues — this is a very public commitment to sports betting,” Holden said.
“While Mr Highhill might be the first, based on his job description, other leagues have executives whose roles seem to primarily focus on sports betting and fantasy sports even if their titles might be broader. I think we will see a continued expansion of these types of roles in the coming years.”
The American Gaming Association declined to comment.