The NFL’s sportsbook partners were quick to take full advantage of the league’s reversal of its longstanding ban on sports-gambling ads, snapping up no fewer than 90 units across CBS, Fox and NBC during Week One of the 2021 season. The $21.4 million spree included heavy buys across the four nationally televised games, as well as Sunday afternoon’s 13 regional windows.
FanDuel accounted for nearly half of those spots and was the week’s fourth-biggest spender, behind only the flagship insurance brands Geico and Progressive and the rebranded DirecTV Stream. According to iSpot.tv data, FanDuel’s 42 in-game airings earned it 176.9 million impressions between Thursday night’s big Cowboys-Bucs opener and the premiere of Sunday Night Football.
While the sportsbook ads were hard to miss—per iSpot, CBS on Sunday aired a total of 52 spots for the NFL-sanctioned DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars Entertainment and BetMGM, while Fox carried 27 gambling ads and NBC 11—the spigot was shut off again on Monday night. ESPN’s telecast of the Ravens-Raiders nail-biter, which was simulcast on ABC (and repurposed under the guise of the inaugural ManningsCast on ESPN2), didn’t feature a single sports-betting spot.
If DraftKings was the category’s most conspicuous spender, dropping around $9.81 million on in-game units, FanDuel and Caesars weren’t exactly cowed by the competition, as the former invested just over $5 million in NFL inventory while the latter pitched in some $3.84 million.
The three brands were sanctioned as the official sportsbook partners of the league back in April, thereby securing the go-ahead to use NFL branding marks in their promotional materials. The NFL announced it had dissolved its prohibition on sports-gambling ads just a few weeks before the season kicked off.
BetMGM is among the second wave of sportsbooks that have signed similar deals with the NFL—FoxBet, PointsBet and WynnBet make up the rest of the class—but it is thus far the only one among the newcomers that has bought in-game airtime. BetMGM ponied up some $2.7 million for nine units, seven of which aired during CBS’s Sunday afternoon broadcasts and the remaining two landing in NBC’s primetime productions.
While the prevalence of sportsbook ads may have left some bluestockings clutching their metaphorical pearls, the embrace of the lucrative new category has been inevitable since the Supreme Court ruled to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018. Currently, at least half the population has access to legal sports betting; as such, the NFL is working to accommodate the once-verboten sector while also taking steps to ensure that the broadcasts aren’t overwhelmed by point-spread promotions.
Hence the mandated limitations on sportsbook messaging. Under the new rules, the networks have been given the discretion to run as many as six gambling spots per game, a playbook that allows for one ad in each quarter, plus one during the pregame show and one at the half.
Now that broadcasters no longer have to pretend that gambling doesn’t exist, the sportsbooks have established themselves as an advertising tentpole. Over the course of Week One, gambling was the NFL’s sixth biggest ad category behind insurance, cars, streaming services, quick-service restaurants and wireless services.
If the sportsbooks’ free-spending ways are triggering flashbacks to the heady days of 2015, when FanDuel and DraftKings spent a combined $86.3 million on NFL inventory during the first two months of the season, that daily fantasy sports gold rush was seen as an outlier even as the networks were cashing the checks. As one network ad sales chief said at the time, “This is like finding a briefcase full of money on the train. It’s a nice find, but it’s a one-shot deal. You could be the luckiest guy in the world, but you’re not going to stumble across another briefcase, and anyway, the train’s about to be derailed.”
And so it was. By Week 10 of that same season, various legal challenges to the unregulated DFS model and forced shutdowns in a half-dozen states effectively put the kibosh on FanDuel’s and DraftKings’ media splurge. But now that the attendant ambiguities have been resolved and the NFL has stamped its imprimatur on the sportsbook segment, there’s no looking back. At the rate established by Week One’s outlay, the category is on pace to pump some $400 million into the NFL TV coffers.