Vegas and the NFL: How the league plays both sides
Vegas and the NFL: How the league plays both sides
LAS VEGAS - We've seen how the NFL paints the dirty little secret, the one that may not be so dirty after all.
By the end of this weekend, sports books in this town expect to surpass a handle of $100 million on Super Bowl Sunday, making it the single-greatest day in sports gambling history. A seminal moment for the gaming industry and another awkward pause for the NFL's billion-dollar industry.
While commissioner Roger Goodell has spent years publicly keeping sports wagering at arm's length, its impact on the game is undeniable.
"If they wanted to stop gambling, they'd stop the injury report," says legendary Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro. "They'd also not have as lucrative a television deal."
Or if the NFL wanted to stop gambling, they'd demand television partners eliminate the betting line from all graphics -- or lose rights to the games. Yet there it is, day after day on the ESPN crawl on the bottom of your living room flat screen, screaming at you, pulling you in.
Look, there's a reason when you hit NFL.com that the first tag on the home page is Fantasy Football. There's no money involved, no hint of gambling. But you're utterly naive if you think those who use that service -- or any fantasy service - aren't also adding the critical component of cash (league fees, trade fees, etc.) to the equation.
There, screaming at you from the Fantasy page on NFL.com: "injury analysis."
How ironic. The very thing Goodell has spoken out against is the one thing that makes his wildly successful product stronger with each passing season. While Goodell has spoken in the past about the NFL's 'integrity' and how the league must steer clear of gambling connections to eliminate any nefarious actions - or even the thought of it (see: players fixing games) - movement behind the scenes tells another story.
Once the confetti has fallen at MetLife Stadium late Sunday night; once a packed house at more than $1,000-a-head trudges through the sub-freezing temperatures of suburban New Jersey after a new NFL champion has been crowned and the NFL wraps up another hand-over-fist, money-making season, a little-known contract will have expired.
Two years ago, the NFL approved limited casino advertising for teams. That's right, although the league's official list of prohibited advertising categories includes "gambling-related advertising," the league allowed individual clubs to accept casino ads in game programs, on limited signs at stadiums and on local radio stations.
How did the league get around its own prohibitions, you ask? Signage in the stadium could only be from casinos without sports books and could not contain "images of slot machines, dice, cards or a shot of the Strip and casinos, but could contain images of golf, swimming pools and performers."
One television industry insider told Sporting News the NFL this offseason could further relax the league's standards on casino advertising - where "each team makes millions" - or at the very least go another two years with the current setup.
"Why wouldn't they?" the source said. "It's the perfect setup. You publicly decry it while you privately reap the rewards from it."
Football (college and professional) is by far the biggest attraction at sports books. Of the nearly $4 billion bet annually, more than half that is bet on football.
If you don't think television advertisers know this; if you don't think the NFL and its financial team know this, you're kidding yourself. They not only know it, they sell it.
Meanwhile, the league continues to charge Vegas casinos to carry the live feed of games in their sports books. Just like it did nearly two decades ago when television wasn't remotely the money-making beast it is today; when the NFL couldn't sell each and every one of its games and didn't have its own television network. When everyone simply received two or three games a week.
That is, unless you were part of the fortunate few that had the first satellite dishes; those 8-foot monsters in the backyards of the well-to-do. And, of course, in Vegas casinos.
It is here where we introduce Rich Baccellieri, who at 22 was a supervisor at the Caesars Palace sports book and realized early on the importance of the NFL. The 49ers were a seven-point favorite over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, and pro gambler Billy Baxter walked into Caesars and threw $100,000 on the counter to bet on the Bengals.
The 49ers won, 20-16.
"The NFL can't be too much against gambling when in the late 1980s, when the Nevada casinos were getting free feeds from satellite dishes, the NFL said you guys have to pay for that," said Baccellieri, a member of The Linemakers (a Sporting News partner) and currently spokesman for Stadium Technology Group. "They could have said, it's illegal to bet on games. Instead, they said you owe us a fee. It's hypocritical. They're not against gambling, they're against not making money."
And against anything that remotely makes the connection between the NFL and sports gaming.
Last year during his annual state of the league address, Goodell spent nearly an hour discussing the NFL's state of affairs. He focused on player safety and player discipline off the field, and about everything from minority hiring to team relocation and 18-game schedules.
He said nearly 6,000 words. Not one was related to gambling or the advertising deal set to expire at the end of the 2013 season.
This brings us to Vinnie Magliulo, another member of The Linemakers group and a longtime sports book manager. After more than two decades running a book, Magliulo moved to pari-mutuel betting as the vice president of the Las Vegas Dissemination Company, but for years lived the unique relationship between the NFL and Vegas.
"Tuesday night we had the State of the Union Address, and if I were to ask a group of 100 people if they watched, how many would say yes?" Magliulo said. "Let's go high. Let's say 50. You ask those same 100 people who's going to win the Super Bowl, and you're going to get 150 answers."
Just not the one the NFL wants to hear.
If there's money on it, anyway.
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