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The biggest storyline of the 2020 NFL season isn't the pandemic—it's gambling

focused on how the NFL will handle COVID-19 safety precautions, there’s a larger tide this season that will permanently change the NFL: the explosion in legal sports betting, and the league’s open embrace of casino partnerships.

U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting, allowing individual states to legalize sports betting, 16 states have done so, joining Nevada in allowing some form of legal sports betting. According to the American Gaming Association, revenue from legal sports betting is up 19% in 2020 through July compared to the first seven months of last year, and the total amount wagered is up 3.2%—all this despite the pandemic shutting down live sports for four months.

expressing caution about any embrace of gambling. The NFL’s senior counsel for labor relations said at a 2016 gambling conference, “One point to think about that people don’t mention as much, but is very prominent in the league’s discussions, is: Would legalized gambling affect the product itself… does the money-making enterprise become more important than the game?”

But with $16 billion in 2019 revenue, the NFL is a money-making enterprise above all else. And it has all but overtly opened its arms to betting businesses.

named Caesars its first official casino sponsor, in a three-year deal reportedly worth $30 million to the league per year. The league was careful to caution that it’s a marketing deal only and does not include betting contests; Caesars cannot use NFL branding on its betting products.

advertises its betting business); it named Gateway Casinos its official casino partner in Canada; and just this week, it named Betcris its official betting partner in Latin America.

will now allow NFL franchises to ink their own individual casino sponsorships (separate from the league’s Caesars deal) and, in states that have legalized sports betting, teams can build out betting lounges in their stadium. The Dallas Cowboys moved first, signing a deal with WinStar Casino. The New York Jets have an existing deal with 888 Casino.

founding partner” of the stadium, so it gets a designated entrance and digital signage inside the stadium.” data-reactid=”28″>And this season the Las Vegas Raiders debut in their new $2 billion home of Allegiant Stadium, a few short miles from the casino Strip. Caesars signed on as a “founding partner” of the stadium, so it gets a designated entrance and digital signage inside the stadium.

Many thought the NFL would never have a franchise based in Las Vegas, after it kept the city, and any whiff of gambling, at arm’s length for decades.

Now the same league that shut down a 2015 fantasy football convention in Las Vegas headlined by quarterback Tony Romo will host its 2022 NFL Draft in Las Vegas, pushed back two years after the pandemic turned the 2020 draft into a virtual event.

View photos

An aerial view shows Delano Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay Resort on the Las Vegas Strip, just east of Allegiant Stadium, the $2 billion glass-domed home of the Las Vegas Raiders, on May 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Will gambling boost viewership?

The NFL’s public position is that all of these moves leave the “integrity of the game” intact and still ward off the stigma of gambling. But the writing is on the wall: just as fantasy football has been a benefit to NFL viewership, legal sports betting is likely to boost NFL eyeballs.

should make the league’s next round of broadcast rights 50% more valuable.

Even amid the endless parade of betting partnerships, the American Gaming Association, in a new survey conducted by Morning Consult, finds that slightly fewer fans plan to bet on the NFL this year: 33.2 million people, down from 38 million last year but still 13% of U.S. adults. Only 20% of those bettors will place their bets at legal sportsbooks, but that’s up 18% from last year. As more states pass legislation and more legal sportsbooks crop up, that slice is expected to grow, though very few experts see the illegal market going away any time soon.

Chalk up that temporary drop in planned betting to the pandemic (which led the NFL to cancel its preseason), and indeed, the AGA finds less excitement for the season overall among NFL fans: only 41% say they are excited. But among sports bettors, 54% are excited for the season. That backs up the theory that people who bet on the games are more interested in watching them.

Betting deals rapidly going mainstream across leagues, broadcasters

voiced their united support for “integrity fees.”

But in a few years, no one will remember or care that the NFL waited six months longer than the other leagues to announce its first DFS sponsor and first casino sponsor.

View photos

In this Sept. 5, 2019, file photo, people watching the first NFL game of the season in the sports betting lounge at Bally’s casino in Atlantic City N.J. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)

DraftKings landed Michael Jordan, an NBA team owner, as a strategic advisor to the board in exchange for an equity stake.

first NCAA program to sign a sports betting partner.” data-reactid=”84″>The tide of American sports leagues embracing sports betting appears beyond reversal now. If you doubt it, look no further than the University of Colorado Boulder, which this week linked up with PointsBet to become the first NCAA program to sign a sports betting partner.

PointsBet CEO Johnny Aitken, asked about any potential bad optics around the deal, told Yahoo Finance: “It is a different world. To even think that colleges would strike beer partnerships, for instance, three years ago, would be very different and foreign, but we’re now seeing that. A lot of colleges are looking for new funding channels.”

led two of the “Power 5” Division I athletic conferences to cancel fall sports, schools will be even more eager to find new funding channels.

readDanwrite.” data-reactid=”88″>Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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