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A Risky Gamble: NFL and its Legacy of Betting

The National Football League.

When one thinks of the NFL, images of American football, cheering crowds, and gambling often come to mind. But how did this dominance of betting begin?

The story starts on the night of September 17, 1920. Ralph Hay's dealership wasn't in search of a new set of wheels, but rather, a new professional football league, which would later become known as the NFL. This marked a radical turning point in the history of American football. At the time, professional football was largely overshadowed by the college game and various other factors. Team owners were struggling to make money and yearned for a strong league, akin to the baseball league, which would give them more control over the sport and the financial benefits it could yield.

The helmet and "The Duke"

Hay, the reigning owner of the Ohio League champions, the Canton Bulldogs, had invited representatives to form a professional league and outline its foundation. The confederation was named the American Professional Football Association. The first game involving an APFA team took place on September 26, 1920, at Douglas Park in Rock Island, Illinois. While the game did not adhere to many of the official guidelines we see today, it marked the beginning of the NFL, which was later renamed under the leadership of Joe Carr. Red Grange, also known as Harold Edward Grange, would go on to become the reason for the much-needed popularity of the NFL.

The NFL vehemently affirms its stance against gambling and emphasizes the importance of upholding its integrity. Despite the wide array of protests and the supposed 'stance' it has taken, gambling has undeniably been a driving force behind the league. The founder of the Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona), Charles Bidwill Sr., had a noteworthy connection to the world of gambling. He was a racetrack owner, and it is documented that he acquired the team while out on his luxury yacht, where one of his guests presented him with an offer he simply couldn't refuse. Bidwill was widely recognized for his association with the infamous horse racing track - Sportsman’s Park - founded by none other than Al Capone.

Timothy James Mara, the founder of the New York Giants, had a history of betting that can be traced back to his teenage years. He set up a stand in a betting enclosure near Belmont Park, where bettors shopped among a wide range of bookies for favorable odds in the last few minutes before the start of a race, and then placed their bets directly with the selected bookie.

Art Rooney, whose family still owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, made headlines by famously turning his two days at the racetrack into a substantial $300,000. These numbers would come to define the intricate and often tumultuous relationship between gambling and the NFL.

In 1946, an incident caught the attention of then-Commissioner Bert Bell, revealing the presence of gambling in the league. Gamblers had attempted to bribe Giants quarterback Frank Filchock and running back Merle Hapes before the championship game against the Chicago Bears. Hapes admitted to being approached and was subsequently prohibited from playing in the game. Filchock, who initially denied any involvement in the betting, was allowed to participate in the game. However, later, Filchock confessed that a bribe had indeed been offered to him. As a result, Commissioner Bell suspended Filchock and Hapes indefinitely.

A 2014 Sporting News story introduced Rich Baccellieri, who served as a supervisor at the Caesars Palace sports book in the 1980s. In the story, he outlines what he believes to be the motivating factor behind the NFL: a deep-rooted history dating back to the 1980s, when Nevada casinos were receiving free feeds from satellite dishes. Instead of putting a stop to this, the NFL started charging a fee. The consistent priority has always been to ensure a steady flow of money

“They are not against gambling; they are not against making money.”

It is estimated that sportsbooks handle nearly $4 billion in bets annually, with roughly half of that total attributed to professional football and college football.

In the early 2000s, Oscar Goodman, then-Mayor of Las Vegas, sought a meeting with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. He envisioned a future in the city for an NFL franchise, but his dreams were ultimately in vain. Las Vegas was symbolically synonymous with gambling, and this association couldn't be allowed to flourish if the NFL hoped to win back the trust of its fans.

However, in the five years since the federal ban on sports betting was lifted and widely legalized by the states, the NFL has rapidly shifted its stance. The league now boasts three official sports betting partners: DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars Entertainment, and sportsbooks even operate next to or within stadiums. This year's Super Bowl will be played in a city that was once perceived as a threat to the very integrity the NFL sought to uphold.

The league, therefore, reaps the benefits of this profitable change, but it also comes with risks, such as the potential for addiction and the exploitation of fans, which can erode trust in the integrity and truth of game outcomes. Players are strictly prohibited from betting on the NFL or engaging in any form of gambling while at team facilities, including team buses or planes, and during team-related business. The NFL has suspended 10 players who violated this rule.

The repeal of the federal law simply confirmed the NFL's pre-existing views; it was just given more freedom to act on them. As Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis once stated, gambling "kind of saved sports in the short term" in the post-coronavirus pandemic era, which clearly affected the business landscape.

The substantial television rights contract provides a safety net for regional sports networks facing crises, allowing them to avoid promoting gambling. The broadcasts are primarily geared toward non-gamblers, ensuring that fans are not adversely affected. Discussions about betting are limited, and broadcasters are discouraged from delving into the topic. Nevertheless, some pregame segments do focus on point spreads and prop bets. The league permits the network to air a maximum of six commercials from sports betting companies.

According to Joe Browne, an NFL spokesman, "We are doing everything we can to ensure that our games are not used for betting purposes." Browne also expressed the NFL's support for the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which was enacted in 1992. This law prohibits state-licensed sports betting and only allows it in a small number of 'grandfathered' states. Additionally, the Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act of 2006 restricts the placement of bets via check and electronic fund transfers to domestic locations and overseas gambling operations. The NFL has also opposed the New Jersey Legislature's renewed efforts to legalize sports betting in state casinos.

Despite the vocal opposition, gambling has played a significant role in helping the NFL generate $7 billion in annual revenue. This, in turn, has made it the most-watched sport among American households. The total amount wagered on the 267 regular NFL season and playoff games exceeded the bets placed on college football games in 2006. It also surpassed the money wagered on college and professional basketball games, as well as Major League Baseball games.

Rooney and Mara, quite understandably, foresaw how gambling would come to define the NFL's history, ensuring it remained profitable for its founders and sustaining continued interest. Even today, the web of gambling continues to grow more intricate, portending numerous potential scandals and controversies for the association in the near future. NFL And Betting NFL And Betting NFL And Betting