I’ll start this piece by clarifying that the NFL doesn’t need a life raft the way some casual observers might expect. It’s still by most reasonable measures the most successful U.S. sports league by a fairly wide margin. While we never know for certain what the future holds - remember, once upon a time it would have been unthinkable for boxing to collapse as a major sport as well - the NFL feels a long way from a legitimate loss of power.
That said, public perception and competition are both real factors. Between increasing awareness about concussion risk and long-term health effects on NFL players, to an endless stream of off-field issues, there are a lot of things making fans feel uncertain about watching football. Indeed, Vice did a write-up just this year calling it “the NFL’s impossible mission” to make us feel less guilty about watching. And just as all of this is happening, the NBA is experiencing a golden age, and even soccer finally seems to be catching on in a real way in America. This is not to suggest the MLS is any threat whatsoever to NFL ratings - however, it does mean that a significant imbalance in youth participation is beginning to appear, which could theoretically lead to subsequent generations less involved with football.
All of this is to say that while right now the NFL is still performing well from a financial standpoint, it is also dealing with some worrisome signs and trends. And while it can’t turn back concerns about concussions of off-field issues, sports betting may have the power to drive up interest to the point that the NFL’s apparent immunity to real problems grows even stronger. That is, legal sports betting could conceivably boost both popularity and revenue in a way powerful enough to outweigh any waning interest among fans.
We can recognize the potential of the NFL in a sports betting market in part because such markets already exist, even if betting is widely illegal in the U.S. A guide to this very topic points out that NFL betting is not confined to the U.S., but that interest in the market is growing the world over. It’s a little bit difficult to narrow down betting numbers to a specific league or season in a brand sense taking multiple platforms and sportsbooks into account, but the mere fact that NFL Tips and Odds is popular enough to spawn a market in countries where there is not American football played certainly tells us something.
There’s also the idea of a direct revenue stream to consider. While the NFL has been somewhat reluctant to embrace legalized betting as it goes through a process to be legalized in more states, there’s an argument to be made that the league can get on board with betting by monetizing the hell out of it. The model we have right now, or at least the prevailing idea, comes from the NBA, which has proposed that 1% of all gambling revenue go directly into the league’s coffers. That could quickly amount to enormous sums, and would be even more valuable in the NFL. There are some who believe the NFL owners’ group will monitor the NBA and construct a monetization model according to how things go - though it might be tough to implement such a model a few years into legalized sports betting as opposed to at the outset of the era.
Specifics aside though, two things seem abundantly clear: legal sports betting will be hugely popular with American football fans, and it will produce enough money for the league to benefit directly. Through both of these truths, the NFL can gain a newly enthusiastic fan base willing to overlook certain issues in favor of pure fun and engagement. It can also receive a clear financial boost essentially out of thin air.
Again, the NFL doesn’t necessarily need a life raft just yet. But for the first time in a while we can reasonably say that it could use a boost, and legal sports betting may just provide it.