Despite dipping TV ratings, concussion concerns, and decreased patience for three-plus hour games, the NFL remains America's most popular sport by a wide margin.
There are many reasons for the league's sustained popularity, like how easy it is for fans to 'participate' through sports betting and fantasy sports. Although the league might play coy to the fact that gambling has contributed to its success, betting and the NFL have been intertwined since the beginning.
The Early Days
For the modern NFL's first several decades of existence, the only place you could (legally) bet on the games was in Las Vegas. This of course wasn't viable for those who didn't live near Nevada, so some states tried to come up with other ways to capitalize on the league's growing popularity as well as fans' desire to bet on it.
In 1989, the Oregon Lottery launched a betting game called Sports Action that let bettors predict the outcome of NFL games each week. Since it still technically had to be a lottery game, payouts were only awarded to entries that picked every game correctly against the spread in each category (four-game pickers, five-game pickers, etc). If no player predicted every game right in a week, the pool rolled over into the next week, sometimes creating jackpots as high as $50,000 (which translates to over $100,000 in 2017 dollars).
Enter the Internet
Then the Internet flipped nearly every industry on earth upside down — sports betting was no exception. Online gambling boomed around the turn of millennium, offering NFL fans an easier, safer, and more reliable way to bet on the league. Growth since then has been virtually non-stop, and over $95 billion was expected to be bet ahead of the 2015 football season.
That figure is more than five times the amount wagered in legal and regulated sports betting markets in the UK, according to ESPN's David Purdum. Another industry expert, OnlineGambling.ca's Alan Spencer, estimates that it's only a matter of time before the NFL fully embraces gambling on its product:
"While the NFL and other leagues are understandably cautious about openly supporting betting, all signs seem to point to its legalization and regulation happening sooner rather than later. And when it does, the league will be ready to become even richer overnight."
The Rise of Fantasy Football
Fantasy football was originally invented in the 1960s, but its growth was slow until the rise of the Internet. Today, nearly every major sports network offers their own version of the game, which has been extremely influential in increasing the league's popularity across all demographics. And nearly as long as it's been around, people have been betting money that their imaginary football teams will beat their friends'. While most pools with coworkers or friends are for humble amounts money, some 'high stakes' have been known to pay out several hundred thousand dollars.
Daily fantasy sports (DFS) only furthered the popularity of the NFL and fantasy sports over the past few years. After an up and down ride that saw services like DraftKings and FanDuel go from being advertised seemingly every ten seconds on NFL broadcasts, to having their operations suspended for several months, the game is thriving again. Now officially classified as a game of skill in most states and not as gambling, DraftKings alone boasts eight million users. DFS services like DK offer a number of NFL games including 50/50 leagues (where players win money by finishing in the top half of their league) and guaranteed prize pool contests (guaranteeing a select number of players’ bigger prizes based on their final placement).
Interestingly, although the U.S. government classifies fantasy football as a game of skill, each state is allowed to create their own label for fantasy sports. But even in those states that do label the game "gambling", and have rules against it (particularly how winnings can be paid out), they don't seem to be enforced. Betting on fantasy football remains as popular as ever.
Outside the U.S. and the Future
The NFL's popularity hasn't been contained to just the United States, and neither has betting on it. In the UK, home of at least one regular season game since 2007, sportsbooks say they receive double the amount of action on games played in England compared to those played in the States. In 2014, a William Hill spokesman told ESPN that the amount Brits bet on the NFL increased about 40% from year to year. While there's no exact data, it's reasonable to assume this number will continue to grow with the league announcing a slate of four England-based games for the 2017 season.
Even where no NFL games are played, betting on the sport is extremely popular. In Canada's British Colombia (where sports betting is legal through province-run sportsbooks), residents made more than a million bets worth $14.6 million during the league's 2015-16 season.
As the NFL further cements its status as America's top sport, the American gambling industry will progress as well. With the sweeping popularity of "skill" games like fantasy and DFS, the increase in legal gambling venues, and the addition of two pro sports teams in Vegas (including the Raiders for the 2020 season), an American Gaming Association spokeswoman foresees that the United States will "have a legalized, regulated, national sports betting system in place in 10 years".
And when it does, the NFL will likely be the first to let you know.