NFL launches responsible betting awareness campaign

The NFL is putting its voice and money behind an initiative to build a safer sports betting ecosystem in the U.S.

On Wednesday, the NFL launched a responsible betting public awareness campaign that includes a $6.2 million, three-year partnership with the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG). It's the largest grant ever for the NCPG, and according to executive director Keith Whyte, nearly doubles the annual budget of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that was founded in 1972.

"The problem gambling field is about 20 years behind where we are with substance abuse, and this grant is going to help us catch up," Whyte told ESPN. "It's massive. It's going to really help us help more people."

The initiative will fund state and local problem gambling resources, modernize the national hotline, develop the website responsibleplay.org and promote responsible play messaging across the league's media platforms. Later this fall, responsible play television spots featuring retired coaches and players will begin airing.

"We feel it is critical that the NFL uses the power of our voice to educate and encourage fans who choose to gamble to do so in a safe and responsible way," Christopher Halpin, NFL executive vice president, chief strategy and growth officer, said in a release announcing the campaign. "We also recognize that responsible betting programs across the country are under-resourced, especially as legalization spreads nationwide."

Three years after a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, legal sportsbooks are operating in 28 states and the District of Columbia, with the majority offering online betting. It's one of the largest expansions of gambling in U.S. history and has prompted fears of a pending spike in problem gamblers.

According to the NCPG, an estimated 2 million adults in the U.S. meet the criteria for severe gambling problems, and studies have shown that sports betting, especially when conducted online, has a higher prevalence of problem gambling than gambling in general.

Whyte said anecdotally he has seen upticks in calls to problem gambling hotlines in recent years as legal sports betting has expanded. He plans to improve the quality of the hotline experience through certification training for workers and by upgrading technology that will lead to better data collection and earlier detection of issues.

The NFL funding enables the NCPG to launch a national grant program to enhance local and statewide problem gambling services and develop prevention programs, including for youth.

The NFL worked with the NCPG on a "plain and straight" tone for the messaging that will appear on league media platforms, as well as on broadcast and sportsbook partners' content. Whyte believes the NFL's voice will help destigmatize problem gamblers.

"Perhaps even bigger than the grant is the power of the NFL megaphone," Whyte said.

Halpin, who is overseeing the NFL's approach to sports betting in the U.S. and has had friends struggle with problem gambling, studied the mature betting markets in the United Kingdom and Australia and consulted with prominent leagues for best practices. After learning of the pitfalls those markets suffered -- oversaturation of betting advertising and rises in problem gambling -- Halpin felt that the NFL had a responsibility to help the growing legal market in the U.S. avoid similar mistakes.

The NFL has put frequency caps on sports betting advertisements during national broadcasts and now is launching the largest public message campaign that the problem gambling field has ever seen.

"Collectively, all of us in the sports and betting industries need to learn from international examples and make sure the development of education and support programs matches the state-by-state growth in legalized sports betting," Halpin said.

Sportsbook operators Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings and FanDuel, who each have official partnerships with the NFL, will participate in the campaign that is centered on encouraging bettors to set and stick to affordable, use licensed, regulated operators and ask for help if needed.

"It's a fabulous opportunity to get the word out to a broader audience and really normalize the dialogue," Christine Thurmond, director of responsible gaming at DraftKings, said. "Not only operators, but leagues and advocacy groups are joining together to work in a way that collectively we can spur innovation and education in the [responsible gaming] space. I think it is a win-win."