As the National Football League’s (NFL) position on gambling references and advertisements during game broadcasts continues to evolve, the league’s flagship television broadcasters say the tone of the games will not change overnight to a heavier gambling focus.
The NFL is allowing up to six gambling advertisements during game broadcasts this year for the first time, enabling seven league-authorized partners — Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, FanDuel, Fox Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBet — to purchase advertising inventory.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told CNBC last week that the league’s relationship with its betting partners will be “great for the NFL ultimately and our partners because what it will do is create more engagement.”
The NFL expects to generate about $270m in revenue from sports betting and gambling deals this year, according to the Washington Post.
The continued shift toward allowing and even embracing gambling mentions during broadcasts marks a far cry from the league’s stance of just a few years ago of prohibiting gambling ads and frowning on point-spread references from broadcasters.
“I’ve always had fun … being the guy who could play a little bit of the rascal role, because the perception of the fan was that the league didn’t want any references to gambling,” said Al Michaels, the legendary sports broadcaster entering his 16th season at NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the league’s showcase game of the week.
“So what I would do, obviously, through the years is I would come in the back door, sometimes I would come in the side door, and now I guess they’re allowing me to come in the front door, which is not as much fun as kind of doing it subtly.”
Prior to joining NBC, Michaels spent 20 years as the voice of the NFL’s Monday Night Football broadcast when it was positioned on ABC as the league’s top game broadcast.
Despite his history of sneaking gambling references into the broadcast, Michaels saud that even though the proverbial “front door” is open that does not mean he will start littering the broadcast with gambling allusions.
“I think one thing we have to remember is that gambling is not pervasive,” he said during a conference call with reporters last week promoting the new NFL season that kicked off on Thursday when the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers overcame the Dallas Cowboys.
“We hope it’s not. I think the majority of people will watch the game and not have a betting interest in the game. Others clearly will. Hopefully they’ll do it in moderation.”
“There will be certain references the way it is right now,” Michaels added. “I’ve got to see how this plays out, but you can’t do a show predicated upon thinking that almost everybody in the audience has a bet on the game.”
Steve Levy, entering his second year as the top play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, another of the league’s three national weekly standalone broadcasts, said he does not plan on branching off into gambling references during the game.
“I’m not ready to stretch out that far,” Levy said during a conference call Wednesday. “I’m still taking direction from my bosses and from the NFL offices, as well. Al Michaels has certainly earned a lot of leeway in that department; he’s Al Michaels.”
“I’m certainly aware of the basics going into a game,” Levy continued. “Some of it is educational for me. I’ll look at it; I know what I think on a Tuesday going into the following game, but I’ll see what Vegas has, hey, should we expect a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game, and those numbers are pretty close quite often.”
“I think I pay a little bit of attention to it just as part of my preparation, my normal preparation for the week, but he’s Al Michaels, and I’m Steve Levy, and I’m still going to take direction along those lines for the next 15 or 20 years probably.”
Lee Fitting, the senior vice president of production for ESPN, said gambling should be a “deviation” from the main game broadcast.
“I guess the simplest answer is that the main telecast is still designed for the mass audience, and to date, gambling remains a fairly niche audience,” Fitting said.
“We’d be crazy not to think and realize that that niche audience is growing,” he added. “We recognize that, obviously, [and] we also recognize the opportunity that gambling provides.
“Along with that comes a responsibility that we have to serve those fans, but however, you’ve been doing this for a while, and we all know that things don’t change overnight. They’re gradual, especially with something like this that has been a “no-go” for a long period of time.”
Although the network's main NFL broadcasts will not have a gambling focus, ESPN will offer a gambling focused “Between The Lines” alternate broadcast for at least the first Monday night game of the season between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders on its ESPN+ streaming platform.
The network debuted the concept during the NFL playoffs last year.
“We want to be smart about where we experiment and where we push, and that’s why we’re doing the Between the Lines show on Monday night on ESPN+, which is a great area to try to innovate and try to experiment,” Fitting said.
Fitting said the network will have conversations with the league following Monday’s game to determine if the alternate broadcasts will continue later in the season.
“I don’t have the answers to that now, but I know we want to push to grow this brand,” he said.
“The NFL has been interested in pushing to grow this brand, or frankly they wouldn’t have brought it back for week one after the wildcard game, and all the conversations between us, between the two parties, have been super positive.”
“But like I said earlier, we’re going to walk before we are run here,” Fitting added. “We just want to make sure we get it right. We’re not going to be careless in this space, and we’re going to be as smart as we can. But hopefully, more to come in that area.”
The gradual introduction of sports-betting content into NFL broadcasts and the limited ad inventory available to sportsbook operators around live games is being informed, at least in part, by the experience of the UK and European markets that have clamped down dramatically on gambling advertising after an initial explosion in ads.
All sports-betting advertising is now banned in both Italy and Spain, with Sky in the UK limiting gambling ads to no more than one per commercial break and bookmakers voluntarily adopting a so-called "whistle-to-whistle" ban on advertising during daytime sporting events.
Allowing just six ads per game is an attempt by the NFL to introduce sports betting in a “balanced way”, according to Chris Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer.
“The international precedence here leads anyone who wants this to be a healthy, long-term market, to think about frequency capping to limit oversaturation,” Halpin told ESPN.
Additional reporting by James Kilsby and Chris Sieroty.