The NFL is entering a new frontier.
After decades of opposition to the legalization of sports betting, the league has gradually changed its stance on gambling since the historic PASPA ruling, despite becoming the last of the major North American pro sports leagues to develop a comprehensive policy on sports wagering. For the first time ever, the league will open a season with an official sports betting partner — three to be exact — in DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars Entertainment.
While the leagues have worked feverishly to monetize an industry that has a total addressable market of $40 billion per year, according to Goldman Sachs, major TV networks have also spent hundreds of hours creatively brainstorming ways to integrate sports betting into their broadcasts. On Thursday night, the intersection between sports betting and live broadcasting will be on full display when the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL regular season opener.
Here is a breakdown of each television network’s plans for integrating sports betting into its NFL coverage for the 2021 regular season.
In the waning moments of a blowout, sardonically known as garbage time, Al Michaels has developed a reputation for throwing in a wisecrack when an otherwise meaningless play affects the line. Befitting of his self-described rascal tendencies when it comes to gambling, Michaels pushed the envelope numerous times during the pre-PASPA era with his subtle references to the line when the league expressed a clear aversion toward sports betting.
Take, for instance, a Hail Mary caught by former Detroit Lions receiver Anquan Boldin in January 2017 when the Lions faced the Green Bay Packers in the final game of the regular season. With the NFC North division title up for grabs, the Lions trailed 31-17 with 22 seconds left (over/under 50 points). As Aaron Rodgers celebrated with teammates on the sidelines, Michaels remarked, “Hmmm, just a little bit under what some folks would like to see this one wind up.”
Moments later, when Boldin artfully snagged the pass in the end zone in between two Packers defenders, Michaels turned to broadcast partner Cris Collinsworth and exclaimed, “Well, that’s OVERwhelming!”
Al Michaels willed the over on that total! Thank you, Al!!!! Hearts beating indeed.
— Brett Smiley (@brettsmiley) January 2, 2017
Whereas in the past, Michaels made a “backdoor reference” to gambling or slyly worked in a line through the “side door,” as he explained on a recent Sunday Night Football conference call, broadcasters are now allowed by the league to come in through the “front door.” The increased latitude, Michaels admits, is not as fun as alluding to the point spread in a subtle fashion.
“There will be certain references the way it is right now,” Michaels said. “I’ve got to see how this plays out, but you can’t do a show predicated upon thinking that almost everybody in the audience has a bet on the game.”
Michaels, an avid horse racing fan, has also made reference to craps on the Sunday Night Football, alluding to a “two-way yo” during a Cowboys-Eagles telecast in 2019. Despite his fondness for gambling, Michaels does not appear to be a fan of so-called micro bets, where customers can wager on the results of each play. On Thursday, Simplebet will launch real-money, next-play markets on DraftKings, allowing users to bet on whether a play will be a rush or pass, or if the next play will result in a first down.
“I think where you could run into some trouble and people could run into trouble, you start betting on every play, and look out, the next thing you know, they’ll foreclose on your mortgage.” Michaels said. “Hopefully we don’t get to that point.”
Beyond the NFL’s official sports betting partners, the league named four others — BetMGM, PointsBet, FOX Bet, and WynnBet — as authorized gaming operators last month. On the eve of the NFL season, it appears that all seven will have the opportunity to purchase commercials during game broadcasts.
PointsBet, which provided NBCUniversal with a 4.99% equity stake in the company through an August 2020 deal, is investing in ad integrations for Sunday Night Football, an industry source told Sports Handle. Without disclosing the names of the advertising partners, NBC has seen significant demand for the ad units, with the majority of the companies expressing interest in its inventory, said Dan Lovinger, NBC Sports Group’s executive vice president of advertising sales, on a conference call Wednesday.
Several top sportsbook operators did not respond to requests from Sports Handle for comment. This weekend, FanDuel will run TV spots during NFL games on NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC, a company spokesman told Sports Handle.
📺 10 spots spread across Sunday night games:
− two in Sep.
− one in Oct.
− five in Dec.
− two in Jan. pic.twitter.com/sw5zBgTxJv
— Sports Business Journal (@sbjsbd) August 30, 2021
Once again, ESPN will offer a second-screen, gambling-focused broadcast for the Monday Night Football season debut on Sept. 13. Last season, ESPN rolled out the alternative broadcast, Between The Lines, for an AFC Wild Card matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans. Hosted by the casts of ESPN Daily Wager and NFL Live, the broadcast featured an array of on-screen graphics, data, and statistics from a gambling perspective, including live odds on the game.
Widely lauded by the gambling industry and backed by the league, Between The Lines will appear on ESPN+ for Monday night’s opener between the Ravens and the Las Vegas Raiders. Lee Fitting, senior vice president of production at ESPN, noted Wednesday that although sports bettors remain a “fairly niche audience” for game broadcasts, the network is acutely aware of the opportunity gambling presents.
Last month, reports surfaced that ESPN has held discussions with two prominent sportsbooks on a multi-year deal to license its sports betting brand at a starting price tag of $3 billion. Though the second-screen format presents an opportunity for ESPN to innovate and experiment with betting content, there will be a clear delineation between gambling and the main broadcast for now, Fitting explained.
He characterized all discussions between the NFL and ESPN on sports betting as extremely positive.
Between the Lines on @ESPNPlus will offer fans deep analysis, analytics & a betting-centric conversation featuring the NFL Live & Daily Wager casts
This will be the first time a Monday Night Football game is available on ESPN+
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) September 8, 2021
In 2020, Steve Levy spent his first season as play-by-play announcer of Monday Night Football, joining the likes of Howard Cosell, Mike Tirico, and Michaels himself in the coveted role. On Wednesday’s conference call with reporters, Levy recalled a bizarre ending in last November’s Eagles-Seahawks contest when the Eagles completed a Hail Mary and converted on a 2-point conversion in the game’s final seconds to cut a 14-point deficit to 6. The decision cost one backer of the Hawks at -6.5 an astounding six-figure sum, as he had $500,000 riding on the outcome.
Those plays are better suited for Scott Van Pelt’s popular “Bad Beats” segment, Levy indicated.
“The world exploded right after that,” Levy said of Gambling Twitter’s reaction to the Eagles’ scores. “I hadn’t locked into that piece of it. Of course, Van Pelt is going to follow us with a ‘Bad Beat’ segment.”
Though Levy will monitor the lines as part of his normal game preparation, he doesn’t plan on emulating Michaels by adding color to a broadcast with a subtle betting reference.
“I’m not ready to stretch out that far; I’m still taking direction from my bosses and from the NFL offices,” Levy told Sports Handle. “Al has certainly earned a lot of leeway in that department. He’s Al Michaels.”
FOX Sports is uniquely positioned as the only network of the four to have its own branding for sports betting under the eponymous FOX Bet platform. Much like NBC with PointsBet, the network’s relationship with FOX Bet raises questions about whether it will sell ads to competing sportsbooks.
Joe Buck, the play-by-play announcer on the network’s top NFL broadcast team, has addressed the rise of sports betting periodically since the PASPA ruling. Buck is deeply familiar with gambling, considering that his late father, Jack, a legendary broadcaster, played the ponies often. Near the end of Jack’s life, the opportunity to wager a few dollars on an NFL game practically kept Buck’s father “breathing sometimes,” Joe told Barstool Sports in 2019.
Buck mentioned the spread in a 2019 Week 3 contest when the Patriots were favored by 16.5 points over the Giants. While Buck may refer to the line sporadically in a broadcast, he indicates that he can broach the subject without “being cutesy” about it all the time. FOX NFL Sunday will continue to promote free-to-play contests such as the FOX Super 6, where viewers will have a chance to win $100,000 of Terry Bradshaw’s money.
🚨 ATTENTION PHILLY 🚨
You'll see this special contest in your Super 6 app if you're in the eligible area.
Just answer these questions to enter ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/6uHStWTB3o
— FOX Bet Super 6 (@FOXSuper6) September 8, 2021
Of the NFL’s four television broadcast partners, CBS has the longest history of commingling gambling with pro football coverage. A segment on The NFL Today in the 1980s, dubbed “The Greek’s Corner,” focused specifically on gambling, as Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy “The Greek Snyder” made his weekly picks with Brent Musburger, then host of the pre-game show.
Beset by injury in a 1987 Week 14 matchup against Washington, the Cowboys started a corps of linebackers so obscure that none of the coaches could identify the players by name, The Greek quipped. The oddsmaker predicted that Washington would control the ball in a 33-20 victory. Snyder nailed the Cowboys’ total, as Washington prevailed 24-20.
"The NFL Today" isn't going back to the days of Jimmy "The Greek." James Brown said the information from the show's cast can be used however viewers want — including for gambling — without it being called gambling information.
— Jeff Agrest (@jeffreya22) September 1, 2021
When Musburger left CBS in 1990, he was succeeded by Jim Nantz as the network’s lead college basketball analyst. Now the radio play-by-play voice of the Raiders, Musburger serves as managing editor of the Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN), a family-run business that in 2017 became the first multi-channel network dedicated to sports gambling information.
“I guess I am a little bit surprised at how quickly the league’s transition from being completely anti-gambling, at least publicly, to being now complete partners with the entire operation,” Musburger told the Associated Press ahead of Thursday’s opener.
The networks will be allowed to reference odds in pregame shows, but only as part of a broader narrative in previewing a game, according to Chris Halpin, the the NFL’s executive vice president, chief strategy and growth officer.
Nantz, meanwhile, assumed Musburger’s old role on The NFL Today for six seasons through 2003, before moving to the announcers booth a season later. Prior to Super Bowl LV, Nantz discussed a bevy of broadcasting prop bets in an interview with SI.com. Asked if the CBS team planned on referencing the spread or total during the broadcast, Nantz joked, “You might want to be careful with that one because you never know when I might want to send out a subtle message to my friend, Al Michaels.” A prop on the “NO” had overwhelming odds of -7000.
For the 2021 season, gambling will not be an integral part of NFL broadcasts, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus emphasized during the network’s NFL On CBS media conference call.
“We’re trying to thread the needle with respect to how much gambling information that we should put in our studio shows,” he said. “When we think it’s appropriate, and it makes the telecast more enjoyable and more informative for our viewing audience, we will add more information.”
Still, FanDuel will have an integration of a free-to-play game called FanDuel Hi/Lo on The NFL Today pregame show, the company spokesman added. The contest asks viewers to predict which team will score the highest and lowest in four statistical categories on the week. NFL Today hosts Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms will introduce the weekly contest and provide their picks for viewers each Sunday.
Elsewhere, Fitting is unsure if ESPN will broadcast Between The Lines on a regular basis. ESPN will evaluate the appetite for the show and whether there is a weekly appetite following the Ravens-Raiders opener, he noted.
“We want to push to grow this brand, [and] the NFL has been interested in pushing to grow this brand,” Fitting told Sports Handle. “We’re going to walk before we run here. We’re not going to be careless in this space. We’re going to be as smart as we can.”