Is NFL King? You Bet, It Is

At the Super Bowl party I attended last Sunday, everyone was glued to the television for the coin toss. Would it be heads or tails? It was a question someone (OK, me) included on the prop bet contest distributed at the party. “It is heads,” the ref said, to the delight of everyone except my friend Griffin, the only tails backer.

When the broadcast went to commercial, Griffin’s dad asked me which team won the toss. I had no idea. “Does anyone know which team is getting the ball first?” he asked. Nobody did. “You’ve turned me into a degenerate gambler!” he said.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell approves. He won’t admit it—in fact, he publicly expresses complete disapproval—but gambling is a big reason why his league is by far the most popular in America.

Fantasy football, a form of betting based on the statistical production of players, is an $800 million industry with over 20 million participants. Nearly $100 million in wagers were placed in Nevada on this year’s Super Bowl, with an estimated $1 billion in illegal bets. Every week during the NFL season, even casual fans fill out sheets picking winners against the point spread or choosing a team for their Survivor pool.

The Super Bowl is going to get huge viewership no matter what (this year’s game was the most watched program of all time, with 111 million viewers), but the regular season might draw numbers closer to the NBA’s were it not for betting.

And yet, Goodell continues to shun gambling (outside of fantasy leagues) just as he ignores the league’s concussion crisis. But without all that money riding on the outcome of the games, the NFL would not be nearly as popular.

For some Americans, the end of the Super Bowl means a shift towards basketball, whether college or professional, until the fall. But for a large group of devout fans, the countdown to April’s NFL Draft has begun.

The league, for the most part, can count on fans watching their favorite teams. But the sole reason I, a Jets fan, cared about a Sunday night game between the Bears and Vikings was because my weekly pick ’em contest was riding on the outcome. I’m not alone.

So it was no surprise that nobody at my Super Bowl party knew which team had won the coin toss. Betting and the NFL are a perfect couple, with no divorce on the horizon. To be clear, I have no problem with this. The prop bet contest and standard box pool made the Super Bowl more fun. The weekly betting contests are enjoyable and keep me up to date on what’s happening around the league.

The similarity between gambling and severe head injuries is that the league pretends neither exists. Roger Goodell would have you believe the NFL’s popularity has nothing to do with gambling. He also thinks his league is safe. He’s wrong.

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