The NFL Goes Long on Gambling

PUBLISHED: September 21, 2018

Elliot Harrison works for a multibillion-dollar limited-liability company, where he studies research reports, crunches numbers, and prepares weekly forecasts about how well his organization’s 32 units will perform.

Odds are you’re thinking Mr. Harrison’s employer is a blue-chip firm and that his forecasts are for internal use. In fact, he works for the National Football League, and the predictions he makes about his employer’s teams are for public consumption.

Mr. Harrison’s official title is "analyst." A better description would be "tout." His work is an example of how the NFL is hedging its bets in the burgeoning world of sports gambling.

Last May a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed states to legalize commercial betting on athletic events. A Nielsen study estimated the NFL could make $2.3 billion in a mature domestic gambling market.

The NFL’s position on gambling sometimes appears schizophrenic. The league joined the parties urging the court to keep restrictions in place. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, continues to pay lip service to protecting the integrity of the game from the evils of gambling.

Yet the NFL endorses fantasy-football wagering, in which participants effectively bet on the performances of individual players. The league seems to have even lifted the prohibition on its own players’ participation in fantasy betting, as evidenced by 49ers defensive star Richard Sherman’s recent announcement that he is launching a fantasy wagering website.

The NFL has long maintained that while fantasy is a game of skill, betting with a bookmaker is a game of chance. That always seemed like a distinction without a difference, and it may soon collapse. According to Sports Business Daily, a committee of NFL owners recently voted to allow teams to form partnerships with casinos. A league memo obtained by ESPN states that the NFL wants to force any casino brand that advertises with an NFL team to buy official league data. And in two years the Oakland Raiders will move to a new 65,000-seat stadium in Las Vegas, where fans will be able to place bets as they watch the game.

As the NFL prepares to profit magnificently from relaxed gambling laws, it should do more to avoid the appearance of conflicting interests. That brings us back to Elliot Harrison and the other "analysts" employed by the NFL and its affiliates. In this season’s opening week, Mr. Harrison correctly predicted the winner in 11 of 15 contests (the 16th game ended in a tie). He offers such detailed forecasts as, "Could see Tennessee getting a late field goal to win" and "Don’t see the Colts holding up out east this weekend." It must be depressing for players to find themselves trashed in their own league’s analysis.

The Supreme Court was correct to return control of sports gambling to the states. But the league should abandon the monopolistic idea of forcing casinos to buy its data. It should also get out of the touting business and distance itself from anything else that hints at impropriety.

To do otherwise would be the ultimate sucker bet.

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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