Sports betting will be infused into the NFL experience more than ever this season.
Point spreads and over/under totals for the first time began scrolling across the bottom of the screen on NFL Network this week. Betting lounges showcasing mobile sportsbook options are opening in at least seven stadiums, and commercials for bookmakers will air during national-game broadcasts approximately as frequently as ads for beer.
We're going from no mentions of sports betting last season to six ads during games this season, and that's on top of increased and more overt discussion of point spreads and odds during preview shows. It's all new, and the change will be jarring to a significant segment of the NFL's massive fan base that is not interested and is often turned off by gambling. America's most popular league knows it is facing a difficult balancing act.
Chris Halpin, the executive tasked with the NFL's gambling challenge, recognized the challenge while working out in the United Kingdom a few years ago.
"Every ad for a given sports event that I was watching in the gym was a sports betting ad," Halpin recalled during a recent interview with ESPN. "The international precedence here leads anyone who wants this to be a healthy, long-term market, to think about frequency capping [for sports betting ads], to limit oversaturation."
The U.K. has since put a "whistle-to-whistle" ban on sports betting commercials during games, a policy aimed at lowering the number of gambling ads that children consume.
Halpin stresses that the NFL took its time and examined the public's reaction to a new legal sports betting market that's been expanding in the U.S. over the past three years. The league reviewed its total ad inventory, considered the pacing of its game broadcasts and, in agreement with its media partners, landed on six sports betting commercials per game: one in each quarter, one at pregame and one at halftime. According to data from ad measurement company iSpotTV, there was an average of five beer commercials per NFL game during the regular season last year. Now, there will be six commercials for bookmakers.
"It is more art than science, but when you looked across our total ad inventory, thought about the pacing of our game ... it made sense," Halpin, chief strategy and growth officer for the NFL, said.
"We viewed it as a balanced way to introduce sports betting advertising into our national broadcasts."
The sportsbook companies also recognize the challenge and importance of not only the frequency of their advertisements but also the content. During the peak of the daily fantasy sports advertising blitz, leading up to 2015 NFL season, commercials for DraftKings or FanDuel combined to air an ad on national TV every 90 seconds, according to iSpotTV. The commercials alluding to big checks for winners were lampooned by critics and eventually led to investigations by state attorneys general into misleading advertising practices. The NFL and the sports betting industry hope to avoid similar backlash to this season's sports betting commercials.
WynnBET, one of the NFL's six official sportsbook partners, recently released its new advertising campaign, which was directed by actor Ben Affleck and features Shaquille O'Neal. To avoid redundancy, WynnBET produced multiple commercials and plans to roll them out over the next several months.
"Our goal was to appeal to a wider audience, introduce the concept of sports betting and having it come across as a fun, lighthearted story," said Cyler Pennington, vice president of growth for sportsbook operator WynnBET.
While there will be commercials, the NFL has asked its media partners to refrain from addressing sports betting during national game broadcasts. So, aside from the occasional veiled reference to the point spread or over/under from Al Michaels, betting enthusiasts will need to look to alternate, betting-focused broadcasts with analysts with more experience in the space for more open discussion on gambling.
"Game broadcasts will still be consistent with prior years," Halpin told ESPN. "The talent broadcasting the games will not be heavily entering into sports betting. We think it's more natural."
Lee Fitting, a senior vice president of production for ESPN, who oversees the company's NFL properties, understands the balancing act that the league and media outlets are facing when it comes to implementing sports betting into coverage. In 2014, Fitting helped infuse point spreads and betting talk into "College GameDay," ESPN's award-winning Saturday morning preview show. Now, he's attempting to do the same with the network's NFL preview and shoulder programming. Fitting says he is not in a rush, though.
"We all collectively recognize that the landscape is changing in this space across the board. We recognize the opportunity it provides," Fitting said. "We have to serve those fans who are interested in the gaming content; however, things don't change overnight. They're gradual, especially with something that has been such a no-go across the board for so long.
"I think all of us are moving in a direction to serve gambling fans," Fitting added, "but we want to get there as smartly as humanly possible. Frankly, the goal is not to be the first here, but to be the most successful in the area for the longest amount of time. Collectively, that's sort of where we're at here. We know there's interest, but in terms of the game broadcast, we're moving slowly and we're doing so in conjunction with the NFL."
Still, sports betting will be more visible than it ever has the NFL season, including at stadiums.
On Wednesday, the New York Jets announced a multiyear partnership with Fubo Sportsbook and plan to build a 7,000-square-foot betting lounge inside MetLife Stadium that will open later this year. The Fubo Sportsbook Lounge will be open to guests of 21 and over and have the "look and feel of a casino-style sportsbook with betting odds integration." Per NFL policy, there will be no betting windows, and all bets must be placed through mobile betting apps.
MetLife Stadium is one of several NFL venues opening betting lounges. The Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, through partnerships with sportsbook operators, are among the teams expected to have betting lounges this season, some of which will showcase data from sportsbooks regarding the action on the day's games.
"Initially, it's about getting more statistics into fans' hands, so they can make more informed bets," Josh Linforth, media and engagement director for Genius Sports, the NFL's official data distributor, said. "The next evolution of that will be providing a more personalized experience when you got into that betting lounge.
"If you've got a FanDuel app on your phone, when you walk into that betting lounge, perhaps some of the screens personalize around past bets you've placed," Linforth said as an example of what he believes is the future. "If you're a guy who always likes to do a five-leg parlay with the average stake value of 30 bucks, maybe when you walk into that betting lounge, the screen's showing you a parlay."
In addition to the lounges, point spreads and odds will be move visible on video screens and scoreboards inside stadiums, alongside sportsbook signage. It may all be welcomed by the millions of NFL fans who do enjoy the betting-side of sports, but there's also potential for backlash, as has happened in the U.K. and in the U.S. after the daily fantasy sports advertising blitz.
"I think there's negative outcomes far before you get to a regulatory backlash that we would see out of it," Halpin said, "such as fan annoyance, such as broad-based criticism of oversaturation, which, put aside the U.K., we saw it in 2015 with the DFS category across sports.
"This is going to be a long development of this market that we're in, and so are the media and sportsbooks. We got to do it right and be thoughtful."