Sponsorships Offer Great Opportunity and Need For Restraint

Responsible Gaming Advocate Sees Cautionary Tale In NY Jets Casino, Sports Betting Deals

Responsible gambling

With great profits, Keith Whyte warns, come great responsibility.

Such is the world today, with legalized sports betting spreading nationwide. Along with these new streams of revenue come markets on which professional teams and leagues see opportunities to capitalize.

It starts at the league level, with the NHL and NBA each partnering with MGM Resorts International.

At the team level, Caesars Entertainment recently partnered with two pro franchises: the New Jersey Devils of the NHL and the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. That came on the heels of a wave of league and team announcements.

The Devils teamed with William Hill, which already had a deal lined up with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. Caesars previously reached an agreement with the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys partnered with WinStar World Casino.

Earlier this week, new deals came to light: the New York Jets teaming both with 888 Holdings and MGM.

Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, understands the logic behind franchises and leagues attempting to maximize the potential. Whyte is “not anti-gambling,”  but responsibility needs to appear more prevalent.

NY Jets bring in 888

The case of the Jets and 888 is patient zero.

While the partnership is not expected to be announced until later this week, the New York Post on Monday reported that the Jets reached an agreement with 888 Holdings. As a result, the company that operates NJ online casino, online poker and NJ sports betting, became the Jets’ “proud sponsor,” according to the 888 poker and casino home pages.

Already the Jets added the 888 colors to their grounds at MetLife Stadium, according to the Post. Several oversized banners feature the 888.com logo, as the Jets and their newest sponsor take advantage of an opportunity afforded by NFL team owners. That group chose in August to allow teams to partner with casinos, a likely result of the end of the federal prohibition on sports betting.

Advertising still technically a no-no

That said, the league prohibits teams from directly advertising sportsbooks, such as 888 Sportsbook NJ. (Conversely, the NBA will allow teams in states with legalized sports betting to advertise sportsbooks.)

The Jets’ execution of its new partnership stirred critics, who, per the Post, “said that the ‘888.com’ ads looked dangerously close to flouting the rules.”

When navigating to the 888 website, users reach something of a common area of its products. It features links to online casino, online poker, and online sports betting.

The Post reported that both the Jets and 888 declined to comment, but Whyte sounded off.

“There are a lot of kids who go to games,” he told the newspaper, “and this kind of marketing may have a big impact on them. They will become much more inclined to see gambling as being part of the game.”

While the Jets do not specifically advertise 888 sports betting, the implication, critics say, certainly exists. And another partnership does not help the franchise’s case.

Jets add MGM to partnership ranks

In a press release Wednesday, MGM announced “a first-of-its-kind partnership making MGM Resorts the official gaming partner of the New York Jets.”

From the release:

“The multi-year agreement marks the most comprehensive and integrated gaming partnership in the National Football League (NFL) to date, promoting the global entertainment company’s best in class casino resorts as well as Play MGM’s online gaming platforms and mobile apps to millions of fans.”

Why this deal draws attention: Jets fans gain access to a “mobile play-along predictive game.” The game, dubbed “I Called It” includes pre-play options, in-play features, prizes, and leaderboards available during games. The game is available via the Jets’ official mobile app.

While free to play, the game resembles a sports betting product, toeing the line drawn by the NFL.

Teams, sponsors need to do more

The NCPG anticipated teams and leagues reaching agreements after the US Supreme Court repealed PASPA.

“We weren’t surprised,” Whyte said in a Tuesday phone call. “We know there’s an enormous market there that everybody’s eager to capitalize on.”

Yet there is still significant risk to address.

NCPG advocates for responsibility — for gambling and for the handling of gambling sponsorships.

“We recognize that there’s going to be a lot of advertising,” Whyte said. “Even New Jersey has some responsible regulation to have a help line number on the bottom of those ads, from how I understand it. But that’s kind of a static response to gambling.

“We would say to the team and the operator, ‘Don’t kill the golden goose.’ If you look at the (United Kingdom) and Italy, which just banned advertising for sports betting … Being upfront and being a leader on responsible gambling helps you preserve and sustain this potentially massive revenue stream.”

In an email, Whyte noted that the NCPG takes “a balanced approach.” The association remains concerned about the influence of increased expansion and advertising of gambling on “vulnerable populations.” At the same time, though, the leagues and teams have an opportunity to “take a leading role on preventing harm and get a lot of great publicity.”

Taking the initiative on responsible gambling

Professional leagues and franchises sit atop wide-reaching and influential platforms. With legalized sports betting, Whyte said, “they could find new and innovative ways to promote responsible gambling.”

Whyte feels the Jets and 888 did not go above and beyond to appear responsible while promoting responsible gambling. Rather, he believes the partners did the minimum necessary and hoped it was enough.

In itself, he said, increased advertising and accessibility resemble potential risks.

“If you’re in the stadium and (are) promoted to bet continuously all throughout the game through you’re mobile phone … if you’ve got a gambling problem or trying to stay off the bet, that’s going to be a significant temptation that you’ve never really had before,” Whyte said. “Yeah, you can bet offshore, but you don’t have the Jets telling you it’s a great idea to bet. It’s never come together in one place. From a consumer perspective, you’ve had to work hard to make it all happen.”

NCPG has made suggestions

The Jets-888 situation obviously has yet to reach a conclusion on whether the team was ‘flouting the rules’ of the NFL. Yet the question could have been avoided, and NCPG has attempted to provide the NFL with foundational suggestions.

Starting in 2016, the council, which Whyte said works closely with the NFL, has put together guidelines that could help the league avoid such controversies.

But, Whyte continued, “the bottom line is we don’t really see our suggestions really surfacing in legislation or the action that leagues are taking regarding sports betting. They’ve publicly stated they support (the NCPG), but beyond that, we don’t see much concrete changes or steps.”

Professional teams and leagues “have got an opportunity to go beyond what the regulations require and talk about innovative approaches when it comes to problem gambling,” Whyte said.

“That’s our value proposition: If you want to maintain and maximize this revenue stream, if you want to avoid this over-regulation, you’ve got to work with advocates (like the NCPG) to get ahead of it. Responsible gambling is the best investment you can possibly make.”

Grant Lucas
- Grant Lucas is a longtime sports writer who has covered the high school, collegiate and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield and Oregon State athletics, the Portland Trail Blazers and golf throughout his career.