Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has strong opinions, and often gets his way.
He did not get his way when he tried to either delay or prevent the contract extension that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
But a struggle over how the league approaches the topic of legalized sports betting could be coming. And Jones and Goodell — or at least the owners that back his positions — could again be at the center of it.
Jones recently said that sports betting doesn’t compromise game integrity for the NFL. Meanwhile, Goodell has often said that game integrity is the league’s No. 1 priority, and that legal sports betting is antithetical to maintaining integrity.
Are Jones and Goodell diametrically opposed on the subject? If so, who will win out in the end? Will it even be a battle we witness publicly?
The NFL needs to figure out where it stands on sports betting
The NFL might not be able to punt on the issue of sports wagering much longer.
A decision is pending in the US Supreme Court for Christie vs. NCAA, the case dealing with New Jersey trying to legalize sports betting. A verdict in the case could lead to a widespread expansion of sports betting around the country. The NFL is one of the litigants in the case, along with the MLB, NBA and NHL, in which they are using federal law — PASPA — to block New Jersey’s sports betting aspirations.
A loss for the NFL in the case would mean it can’t dismiss sports betting as a far-off or unlikely proposition any longer. It would have to start articulating where it stands on the issue. Will it fight to stop laws allowing sports betting from being passed? Or will it embrace regulated wagering as an improvement over the current black market for offshore wagering?
The NBA has already ratcheted up its timeline and its public relations response, saying it would be lobbying Congress for a federal framework to regulate sports betting. But the NFL has been biding its time.
What Goodell has said on sports betting
Goodell and the NFL have certainly not been proponents of legal sports gambling, at least not publicly. Even after the league decided it would move the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, that stance didn’t materially change. The only place where single-game wagering takes place legally in the US is in Nevada.
Here’s what Goodell said back in April:
Where we draw the line is when anything can impact the integrity of the game. And legalized sports betting is something that we’re concerned about on that level. So we’ll remain opposed to that. But we’re obviously recognizing what’s going on in society and we’re going to have to adapt policies from time to time. But we think this is something — protecting that integrity of the game is critical.
Still, Goodell left himself some wiggle room, saying the NFL would “have to adapt policies from time to time.” And Goodell even said that environment for Nevada sports betting could be “beneficial” to the NFL, in his words.
But going from opposed to sports betting to calling for legalization would be a big jump for the NFL and Goodell, which has been loud and clear about its stance.
Jones’ (and other owners?) point of view
Before Jones’ recent comments, we don’t really have much to go on when it comes to his or other owners’ views on sports betting. Are there others that share his view that sports betting doesn’t harm game integrity? Almost certainly. (That group might include New England Patriots’ Bob Kraft, whose investment arm has interest in casinos with sportsbooks.)
Jones and other owners are likely very aware of the engagement that sports betting provides for the underlying sports. It’s something leagues have discovered on a small scale with the rise of daily fantasy sports alongside more traditional seasonlong fantasy offerings. (Jones is invested in DraftKings.)
Many also probably see sports betting as a way to increase their bottom line.
TV ratings in play?
Let’s start here: NFL ratings aren’t awful, but they’re also not anything to write home about.
The NFL’s games are some of the most-watched content on television, and the Super Bowl will be the most-watched thing on TV in 2018. But its ratings year over year are trending down.
The bad ratings could be due to any number of variables, such as President Donald Trump’s feud with the NFL over the anthem protests, a sometimes poor product on the field or people streaming the games online.
No matter what the rationale, TV ratings are important, and drive revenue for the league and its teams. The advent of widespread legal sports wagering in the US would almost certainly create an uptick in ratings. We know bettors watch more games and watch games longer. Those are metrics that would be good for the NFL.
The sports betting debate may not play out publicly
The NFL has at least a few months to try to figure out what its public stance will be on sports betting moving forward.
A decision in the NJ sports betting case is not expected until March at the earliest and June at the latest. That gives the league time to fine tune a message it should have been preparing ever since the Supreme Court agreed to hear Christie vs. NCAA.
The NFL could try to present a united front once the decision comes down. Or it could see a fracture: Jones and pro-sports betting owners on one side, and Goodell and anti-sports betting owners on the other.
Even though the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl in awhile, would anyone bet on Jones to lose to Goodell again in a rematch?