NFL’s ‘juxtaposition’ on sports betting spans secret meetings to wagering partnerships By Howard Stutz, Executive Editor, CDC Gaming Reports April 20, 2021 at 6:30 pm In June 2015, the National Football League abruptly halted its participation in a convention focused on fantasy football that was to be headlined by then Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. The reason? The conference was scheduled for the Venetian Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip. The NFL did not want any association with gambling, the casino industry, Las Vegas, and especially sports betting. So imagine how heads would have exploded inside the NFL offices if league officials had learned about a secret meeting held a few months earlier in Las Vegas, three miles east of the Venetian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas International Gaming Institute. The NFL came to Las Vegas when the league voted to move the Raiders to the city in 2017. Mark Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, wanted to learn all about Nevada’s regulated sports betting industry and how sports betting was governed. The meeting was so secret that attendees kept it off their official appointment calendars and UNLV campus police patrolled the perimeter of the Stan Fulton Building to keep away outside visitors. The story of that meeting was excellently told by ESPN journalist David Purdum in a lengthy article that appeared in 2018 – three years after the fact and a year after NFL owners approved by a 31-1 vote the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas. The secrecy of the 2015 meeting wasn’t lost on Bo Bernhard when compared with last week’s news that the NFL had signed its first-ever sports betting partnership agreements with three of the largest sportsbook operators in the U.S. – Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel. “What a juxtaposition,” said Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute and one of the meeting’s key participants. A year after the meeting, Bernhard and an institute team produced a 113-page educational thesis detailing how a Las Vegas professional sports team could co-exist with the state’s legal sports betting industry. The study was used by Davis to help convince the NFL to allow the Raiders to move to Southern Nevada. A year after the relocation of the Raiders was approved, a Supreme Court ruling opened the U.S. to legal sports betting, which is now active in 22 states. Six additional states are expected to launch operations this year. Of those 28 states, 13 are home to NFL teams. And based on their respective states’ gaming regulations, the home stadiums for the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Football Team, Arizona Cardinals, and Chicago Bears could eventually include retail sportsbooks. The NFL was the last holdout of the four major sports leagues to sign on with an “official sports betting partner.” Some analysts considered the partnership a “blockbuster” event, given the NFL’s long history of avoiding any connection to gambling, Las Vegas, and sports wagering. For years, the league blocked Las Vegas from advertising the tourist destination – not just gaming – during Super Bowl telecasts. The league threatened legal action against Las Vegas casinos if they hosted “Super Bowl” parties, arguing the name Super Bowl was trademarked. Instead, casinos up and down the Strip hosted “Big Game” events. The NFL’s opposition to sports betting did not stop individual teams from signing deals with multiple sports betting partners following the 2018 Supreme Court ruling. Caesars, for example, has partnerships with the Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. Even retired NFL players got in on the action. Hall of Fame Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is the celebrity ambassador for BetMGM and the MGM Grand Detroit. Northern Indiana casinos that draw visitors from Chicagoland had Chicago Bears’ legendary coach Mike Ditka and Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher place ceremonial first wagers when they launched sports betting. The NFL signed a multi-year sponsorship with Caesars in January 2019, in which the company became the league’s initial “Official Casino Sponsor.” However, the agreement was noteworthy for the three words it didn’t include: “legal sports wagering.” The focus of the agreement was on the non-gaming attractions found at Caesars’ casinos. UNLV IGI Executive Director Bo Bernhard The Raiders officially moved to Las Vegas and the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium, which offers views of the Strip, for the 2020 season. Both the NFL Draft and the Pro Bowl will be held in Las Vegas in 2022 and the city is expected to be awarded a Super Bowl this decade. Last week, Bernhard recounted a discussion he had with Davis in 2018 when the Raiders played the Seattle Seahawks at Wembley Stadium in London. Bernhard attended the game with then-Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Davis told Bernhard that going into the 2015 meeting, even his own people were telling him the idea of bringing an NFL team to Las Vegas was “a wild goose chase” and a “waste of time.” Following the meeting, one of Davis’ advisors told his boss the NFL in Las Vegas “could be real.” Bernhard, who grew up in Las Vegas, clearly enjoys the role he played in the evolving connection among the NFL, the nation’s gaming capital, and sports betting – all resulting from the six-year-old secret meeting. “Any chance of Las Vegas and NFL having a relationship could have ended if any word of the meeting had leaked,” Bernhard said. “Any leak could have blown everything up.” Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.