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The Mixed Messaging of Professional Leagues Embracing Sports Betting

Your favorite professional sports league wants you to bet on games, and it wants you to know that it loves gambling…except for the people that work and play for their teams


When I was in college, I had a marketing professor that went on a bit of a tangent on advertising. One of my classmates brought up a point about the idea of “sex sells” as a marketing tactic. My professor insisted that those types of marketing campaigns are never truly effective and that impactful advertisements are more aspirational. If he was right, sports betting apps did not get the memo.


These apps are everywhere, as are their flashy promotional materials with attractive spokeswomen that are intended to speak to a largely male demographic (68% of sports betting customers are men). Gambling on sports has become more commonplace than it ever was in the past. What was once a hobby reserved for degenerates in Las Vegas has become a casual activity that is encouraged while watching your favorite team.


The most interesting part of the rise of sports betting apps is not the embrace from the average fan at a sports bar or the sports media networks having dedicated gambling segments and shows. But it is the fact that the leagues themselves have embraced these apps as part of the core messaging of the sport. And with that decision, we have seen mixed messaging and a lack of consistency in how our favorite sports leagues feel about gambling.


Growth and Normalization


About a decade ago, I used to work in a restaurant. And in that restaurant, one of my coworkers was very involved in betting on sports. He introduced me to his bookie and I started placing wagers on NFL and college football games. In those days, that is how it needed to be done. Either you knew a bookie or you took your chances on an offshore betting service and hoped that you would get your winnings.


Like most things, gambling apps changed this. They allowed customers to sign up, deposit money securely through a bank account or PayPal, and make bets anywhere as long as they were in a state that legalized gambling. Currently, more than 30 states in the United States have legalized gambling in some capacity. This has allowed sites like FanDuel, PointsBet, DraftKings, BetMGM, and others to find success. By creating a solution that is accessible, enticing, and fun, sports betting is an industry that is projected to continue growing over the next decade.


This growth is tied to the way that gambling has been normalized. It can be argued that betting on sports is now more “normal” than wagering money in casino slot machines and card games. The way that these companies have done this is by a simple message: you’re watching the game anyway, why not try and make some money off of it. Additionally, the bulk of advertising for these services is centered around building a parlay (a single bet that is dependent on multiple bets winning, ensuring a larger payout). These messages have an essence of “get rich quick”, and are the types of bets that people are making. If you spend any time on the gambling side of Twitter, you will see countless screenshots of users sharing their parlays in hope of turning $100 into $1000 and more.


The ease of entry into these apps is what has made them normalized in society. You can get started on these apps for as little as $25, and in many cases they will match an initial deposit to ensure that you stay as long as possible. What used to be a bit of a taboo subject has now become incredibly normal to speak about. If you walk into any sports bar, you will likely hear people talking about point spreads, over-unders, and parlays as they watch their favorite team on the TV. This has all been made possible by the proliferation and convenience of smartphones and the leagues have started to follow the market in this regard.


The Embrace of the Leagues


If you live in a state with legalized betting, there is a strong chance that you have seen lounges pop up with the logo of a well-known sportsbook. And starting this next season, those physical sportsbooks will be allowed to open and take wagers during the NFL season. Sports leagues have fully embraced the thrill of betting by incorporating partnerships in marketing and even having segments centered around placing bets during the game.


The NFL currently has three sportsbook partners: Caesars, DraftKings, and FanDuel. The NBA has two official partners in FanDuel and DraftKings. FanDuel also has exclusive rights with both the MLB and MLS as well. This creates legitimized marketing opportunities for these companies to mention that they are official partners of a league, and therefore can be trusted by the public. These apps have also infiltrated the commentary section of sports as well. Many shows are now sponsored by betting companies, a further way to normalize and integrate gambling into sports.


From the perspective of a league like the NBA or NFL, having fans bet on their games is good for business. It gives people a reason to watch, to remain engaged with content and follow the sport. Anyone that has ever bet on a game will tell you that when you are betting on a game you now have something invested, something to lose. So that makes the exercise of watching a game that much more exciting and enticing. While the leagues feel that gambling on their games can be a mutually beneficial business practice, we have entered murky water when it comes to the players and league officials using these apps.


Slippery Slope


When you think of a professional player making a bet and facing the consequences, one name usually comes to mind: Pete Rose. Rose famously was handed a lifetime ban from the game of baseball for betting on baseball. The way that Rose has been blackballed from baseball history and subsequently left out of the Hall of Fame, has been the standard viewing of how professional sports leagues view gambling: a necessary but unfortunate evil. But with the normalization of sports betting apps and the willingness to accept their money as an advertiser, leagues are sending more of a mixed message these days.


The professional leagues have clear policies about betting on games with varying levels of strictness. The NFL for example, does not allow players or league officials to place any sort of wagers during the NFL season or on any team facility, in addition to not being allowed to endorse sports betting services while employed by the league. The NBA and MLB, meanwhile, allow sports betting on other sports just not on the league itself. The leagues have taken action against players and employees that have violated these rules. Just weeks ago, the NFL suspended multiple players from the Detroit Lions for violating this policy for instance.


But this stance does ring a bit hollow when they allow such prominent advertising from sportsbooks in their broadcasts, on their websites, and in their stadiums. But when it comes to the people that deliver the product it is suddenly a bridge too far. There was a lot of conversation about the point of these policies when former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for a year for placing a parlay while out injured. It is safe to assume that almost every person is against players putting wagers on games where they are participants. But what about games that they do not participate in?


There are two ways to look at this conundrum. On one hand, if a player is not involved in a game it can be argued that betting on that game shouldn’t be a big deal. On the other hand, players have the unique situation of having relationships with their contemporaries and perhaps know more than the average fan about what is going on behind the scenes, creating a sort of “insider trading” type of dynamic. As someone that works in an industry that has many confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, I can understand the nature of viewing players betting on games as a conflict of interest. The issue becomes that the leagues had no problem accepting the money of services that it feels lessens the value of their product.


Sports leagues are doing a bit of a high-wire act between morality and profitability. They want to maintain the integrity of their game, something that they feel would be in question with more players betting (despite the challenges of regulating this practice is challenging at best). But while attempting to do that, they are also looking to make sure that the league is making money, and accepting advertising dollars and stadium space from gambling companies is a good way to do that. Sports gambling and the apps associated with them are not going away any time soon, so this is a problem that leagues will continue to grapple with. Only time will tell if the notions of the purity of sport will always overtake the need for continued profitability.


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