For years, the NFL has stood against the legalization of sports gambling. For years, the idea of a football team calling Las Vegas home was preposterous. But times have changed, and the Raiders are moving from Oakland to Sin City to the joy of many who work in the sports gambling industry.
The Raiders’ move to Las Vegas represents a big first step for those hoping to see sports gambling legalized in the United States.
“While this may seem very slow and incremental, when it’s viewed over a slightly longer time such as a decade, this is a stunning advancement from each of the professional sports leagues in a multitude of different settings,” says Daniel Wallach, a gaming and sports law attorney with Becker & Poliakoff. “When viewed in its totality, the possibility of legal sports gambling is closer than we realize.”
The Raiders’ move suggests a change in the NFL’s position on sports gambling, but it’s difficult to draw conclusions when the league’s public messaging differs so much from its actions.
“I think we still strongly oppose [among ownership] legalized sports gambling,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the owners meetings in Phoenix in late March. “The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that.”
This gap between actions and public statements elicits laughter from many sports bookmakers in Vegas. Jimmy Vaccaro, who has worked as a bookmaker for nearly 40 years, says the results of the ownership vote speaks to general softening on the gambling issue:
“For someone who was so against [sports gambling], it’s clear that [Goodell] works for the owners and 31 of the 32 owners thought it was a very good idea to go to Las Vegas. With that, listening to some of his statements in the past few days once the vote was in, I found it funny.
“He was acting like a Georgia mule, just backing up on everything he was saying in years prior.”
Chris Andrews, a bookmaker for South Point Race and Sports Book, says Goodell has nothing to fear in regards to the integrity of the game. Andrews cites the industry’s highly audited reports and the record of every transaction as a reason to alleviate any concerns.
“I think he’s acting very lawyerly, similar to the concussion case. They had a mountain of evidence that at least something was going on, but they denied it all the way,” Andrews says. “It was just a lawyer strategy. I think it’s the same here.
“[Pete] Rozelle started the fear of gambling, and it probably wasn’t irrational at the time, but the world has really changed since then.”
The NFL’s recent embrace of daily fantasy sports suggests, according to Wallach, a willingness to embrace this change. While the NFL was the only major sports league that didn’t have an equity stake in FanDuel or DraftKings, the league’s willingness to accept their advertising money is a shift from a few years ago when it wouldn’t accept money from Las Vegas for Super Bowl commercials. FanDuel and DraftKings also signed deals with 28 of the 32 teams, worth as much as $7 million according to research firm IEG (h/t Forbes).
For many bookmakers, daily fantasy sports and sports gambling are one in the same.
“The opportunities for the NFL and the teams to benefit from sponsorship and advertising tie-ins, there’s tremendous upside,” Wallach says. “Daily fantasy sports are just the tip of the iceberg for the monetization of sports gambling.
“This could become colossal for the league, at least economically. The scale of the two types of projects are vastly different. The money for DFS is around $5 billion and the money wagered on sports through illegal gambling [is] 30 times greater.”
The root of the league’s gambling concerns gambling stems back to the 1960s, when Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions were suspended by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle after the league determined they gambled on NFL games. The league’s long-standing stance against gambling recently showed itself when the NFL shut down the appearances of more than 100 players at the National Fantasy Football Convention in 2015, which was being held on casino property.
“You can be against something just because your predecessors are against it or you can become educated and come to a different view,” says Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill Sports Book. “This country tried prohibition a century ago and it failed. The country adapted and changed its view. Then regulation was better than a ban. I think we’re in the exact same place with sports betting. There’s a market run by criminals benefitting criminals and the alternative is legalizing it and regulating it.”
The consensus among the bookmakers is that the Raiders move to Vegas signals that the legalization of sports gambling is a lot closer than many thought it would be just a few years ago. While Goodell hasn’t come out in favor of its legalization like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the move to Las Vegas shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“Earlier in the week, two NFL owners were pretty emphatic that legal sports gambling is going to take place eventually and the league will get behind it,” Wallach says. “[The Raiders moving to Las Vegas] could be viewed as a pilot program for the NFL’s increasing comfort level with sports betting.”