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TOO MANY BETTING ADS ARE SLEAZING UP THE NFL EXPERIENCE
Ignoring America’s 10 million problem-gamblers and the risk of game-fixing, the NFL is so immersed in a money grab that it has turned every Sunday into an unending rotation of gambling commercials
This should be a column about Tom Brady, who, damn right, can play to 50 if he’s throwing nine touchdown passes to start a season at 44. Or a column about Lamar Jackson, who finally triggered the cheat code in his video-game marathon with Patrick Mahomes. Or a column about Sam Darnold, vaccinated in Charlotte to kill a Jets virus now infecting Zach Wilson.
Or a column about the expanding profile (and gut) of Jon Gruden, who finally has hit the Derek Carr jackpot in Las Vegas and proved worthy of his $10 million annual wage. Or a column about Justin Fields, who must start in Chicago as Andy Dalton becomes a red-headed stepchild. Or a column about Urban Meyer, who is 0-2 against the big boys after going 83-9 at Ohio State. Or a column about the Los Angeles Rams, who could be the next team to play a Super Bowl at home. Or a piece about Carson Wentz’s head, which might not be long for this football thing after he was mauled again by Aaron Donald and knocked out of a winnable game.
Except, my own head is too inundated by gambling commercials to focus on the Sunday results. Consider it dangerous territory for the NFL, which is so immersed in its legal wagering money-grab that the actual games are shrinking into mere sideshows. Who really cares about the conference standings when the hot action involves the league’s official gambling partners/co-conspirators at DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, WynnBET and Caesars Sportsbook? All are spending ungodly sums on in-game advertising that is disrupting our viewing pleasure — at least among those of us who don’t gamble on football, a sample size still significantly larger than those who do bet on games.
The swarm is akin to waving cocaine in front of an addict. But the NFL doesn’t care about the estimated 10 million problem-gamblers in America, nor does it appear to care about potential game-fixing scandals that frightened the league for decades but suddenly aren’t relevant as Roger Goodell and the owners eye a piece of the $12 billion in expected wagers this season. Does the Supreme Court realize how radically it changed the way we consume sports when, four years ago, it overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act?
Now, it’s all about whether the guy at home or in the bar won or lost his bet — in sum, an estimated 60 million wagers were made online in each of the season’s first two weeks. I’m surprised the number is that low, given an ad blitz more obnoxious than even Brady’s Subway spots. Is it me, or are the writers going for a subliminal phallic effect when they have Brady, in high-fashion duds straight from the Met Gala, caressing a loaf of multigrain bread as a female voice purrs, “Seductive. Irresistible. And forbidden.’’
“Smells so good. I can almost taste it,’’ Brady says.
“But you don’t eat bread,’’ interrupts the voice, reminding him of his anti-gluten, organic-based TB12 diet.
Hey, it beats another FoxBET Super 6 splash, with host Curt Menefee teasing the audience, “Fans have already won more than $5 million this year,’’ before panelists Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and Michael Strahan pick games against the spread. Flip to CBS, where Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms are giving over-under advice on “FanDuel Hi-Lo’’ as a narrator implores, “You’ve still got about 15 minutes to enter.’’ The drugs are put on the table before the popcorn, with the early games yet to kick off.
The league and its broadcast partners could make the madness more tolerable by minimizing the frequency of the commercials. But the tone is established, with Ben Affleck — attention: the man has had gambling issues himself — joining Shaquille O’Neal, Jamie Foxx and Jordan Spieth among the stars of ads that are allowed a blurry six times every game broadcast. Isn’t it enough to whip open the doors to a lucrative revenue stream when the NFL was recently gifted $113 billion in a media rights bonanza? Does the league really need to keep pumping this oil well during every damned timeout?
It wasn’t long ago when pro football was considered an endangered species, burdened by a concussion crisis, perpetual player arrests and racist overtones connected to the Colin Kaepernick kneeling movement. This is no time to plunge back into the greed pool. It’s an ethical disconnect, to say the least, when a practice considered taboo by Goodell’s predecessors can take such a reckless U-turn just because states now are permitted to legalize sports betting.
Is it too much to ask the league and networks to offer warnings about the dangers of gambling, as Big Tobacco is required? I had to chuckle when one such public service announcement — featuring two teenaged girls vaping — aired after yet another gambling ad. “When an industry makes smoking look cool, they shouldn’t be able to get away with it,’’ came the deep-throated warning.
The same can be said, of course, about betting.
I’m still waiting for the league to explain its security mechanism, how it intends to detect fixing by players, coaches, officials or behind-the-scenes personnel. Will Goodell be transparent about scandals? What’s crazy is that just six years ago, the commissioner was loud and clear about why Tony Romo, then an active quarterback before he became the sport’s highest-paid TV analyst, could not participate in a fantasy football convention at a casino. “Players and NFL personnel may not participate in promotional activities or other appearances at or in connection with events that are held at or sponsored by casinos,’’ the league decreed then. Now, Romo is allowed to appear in gambling ads if he wants.
It appears the league is so absorbed in self-aggrandizement, its prosperity and cultural influence, that Goodell and the owners wouldn’t care much if a game was fixed. Breathlessly, the league’s chief strategy and growth officer, Christopher Halpin, told the New York Times, “Over the next 10 years, this is going to be a more than $1 billion opportunity for the league and our clubs.’’
When pressed, Halpin did acknowledge this much: “We have to avoid over-saturation of the game with sports betting talk or risk alienating fans. My mother loves her NFL, but she doesn’t want gambling talk.”
The mom demographic already has checked out. Others might soon follow, which is what happens when a target audience is tilted toward sweaty bro-dudes whose phones are loaded with betting apps.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.