The NFL has suspended a dozen of its players over the last five years for various gambling offenses, with the overwhelming majority of those cases coming in the past two years. All the while, the league’s relationship with Las Vegas has grown more intimate.
The Raiders franchise has taken up residence in Sin City; two iterations of the NFL Pro Bowl and one NFL Draft have been held there in recent years, too. As both the Associated Press and Front Office Sports noted in articles published today, such a reality was once unthinkable, with the NFL distancing itself as far away from sports betting as it possibly could.
“The NFL treated Las Vegas, the most concentrated hub of legal gambling in the U.S., like a toxic waste dump and a threat to the integrity of the sport,” wrote Front Office Sports. Longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg told the publication, “There was always a Berlin Wall separating the NFL from gambling.”
Las Vegas Really Wants the Oakland Athletics to Move ThereThe Oakland A’s played a spring training series in Sin City last weekend. Many hope next time the team plays there, the games will count.
Back in the 1980s, the NFL charged Vegas casinos $25,000 a year to televise league games in-house. Then, in 2003, the NFL refused to run a commercial for Las Vegas during the Super Bowl, even though there was no mention of gambling in the ad. And nine years ago, the league forbid Tony Romo, then of the Dallas Cowboys, from hosting a fantasy sports convention because it took place in a space adjacent to a casino.
But after a Supreme Court ruling opened up avenues for legalized sports betting outside of Nevada, the NFL began embracing all the revenue possibilities that come with sportsbook partnerships and formalized relations with Las Vegas. Not only will Romo be in Vegas as part of the CBS broadcast of the Big Game this year, but so will hundreds of current NFL players, descending upon the city for paid appearances with the league’s blessing. According to one Front Office Sports source, these bookings can command six-figure fees for players across the week.
But so much more could be at stake. Front Office Sports describes persistent confusion over the NFL’s rules against player gambling and general involvement with sportsbooks. One marketing agent said he was unsure whether or not the players he represented could even enter a sportsbook space. They can…but only if they must while en route to another part of a casino. That same agent said he believed players were not allowed to make appearances in casinos, but that’s not accurate. They can…as long as the event is promoted without using their name. (Other agents expressed similar confusion to Front Office Sports and the publication speculated that the uncertainty is keeping even more players from booking paid appearances.)
“You can’t stop a player from going to a casino,” Dexter Santos, an NFL VP told Front Office Sports. But “they can’t go out and promote that. … So, if they did an appearance, they could do a private meet and greet. But they can’t promote it. O.K., so a player can make an appearance, but [the casino] couldn’t promote that the player is making an appearance, and the player can’t promote it on his social [media].”
Providing an example of the “straddling” NFL players have to do while they presumably tiptoe around Vegas this week, Front Office Sports explained that Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams openly endorses MGM, but cannot be a pitchman for its BetMGM product. “To some, that may be a distinction without a difference, and such gray areas appear to be leading to some misunderstanding in the market,” Front Office Sports wrote.
Taking stock of all this, it sounds like the NFL is playing with fire — and with the actual Super Bowl being played in Las Vegas, it’s a potential conflagration that could see player careers go up in smoke. A few of the lower-profile personnel suspended for gambling the past five years have been waived by their teams. We’ve already seen wide receiver Calvin Ridley, a player of some note, return after a lengthy suspension, but what will the NFL do if a top-tier player is seen taking literally one false step in sportsbook this week? Hopefully, we won’t find out, and the NFL can keep enjoying all the profits of sports betting without feeling that kind of pain.