The NCAA will quietly mark a milestone this weekend, when its most visible championship event unfolds in an arena bearing the naming of a sports betting operator.
Saturday’s Final Four and Monday’s championship will be held in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, the latest sign of a gradual warming between college sports and the multibillion-dollar sports betting industry. It’s a development that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.
In fact, it might not have been allowed at all. In January 2020, the NCAA’s Division I Council voted to change its legislation to eliminate a paragraph that explicitly restricted advertising from “organizations promoting gambling” at championship events. Eighteen months later, Caesars committed a reported $138 million for naming rights to the New Orleans venue.
All of the Caesars advertising inside the arena that the NCAA has the authority to cover will be concealed during the Final Four, an NCAA spokeswoman told Sportico. That doesn’t include the outside signage, or potentially some advertising in spaces controlled by sponsors. She didn’t respond to questions about how the Caesars Superdome would have been received under the prior guidelines.
As professional leagues and teams across the U.S. rush headlong into the betting industry, college sports has so far remained far more hesitant. A handful of schools partnered with operators like PointsBet and Caesars, and the MAC recently inked a data deal that could allow official conference stats to be sold across the industry, but on the whole, college sports has remained more arms-length than leagues like the NFL and NBA.
The NCAA doesn’t have any official betting partners, and doesn’t sell data to the industry. Neither do any of the major conferences. More than a dozen states with legal gambling still prohibit betting on local college teams.
And up through early 2020, the NCAA’s official Division I manual explicitly separated its championship events—of which the men’s basketball tournament is the billion-dollar cash cow—from any gambling advertising. Section 31.1.14 in the 2019 version details restrictions on betting, tobacco and most alcoholic beverages. The entire section was removed for the 2020 Division I manual.
The official document detailing the change says the restrictions were moved from the official regulations into the individual championship handbooks, with the rationale being that the change gives the NCAA more flexibility to align its rules with “those of other athletics organizations,” presumably leagues like the NFL and NBA. The document also says there’s “potential for increase in revenue from NCAA championships” depending on the changes.
Sportico couldn’t acquire a copy of the official Division I men’s basketball host operations manual, but it did see how the language appears to have migrated to the manuals for a handful of other recent championships. All of them feature a less strict approach to gambling companies than the language removed from the Division I handbook.
The manual for the 2022 DII women’s basketball tournament says gambling advertising that is viewable by attendees inside the venue must be covered. The manuals for the 2020 DI women’s and DI men’s soccer championships have nearly identical language, while the 2021 DI field hockey manual has a slightly stricter version, also requiring the ads to be covered at practice facilities and ancillary event venues.
Each of those manuals also says the NCAA will not issue media credentials to any organization that regularly promotes advertising “designed to encourage gambling on college sports events.” It’s unclear how strictly that rule is enforced, but as sports betting and sports media continue the blend, the distinction will likely become harder and harder to define.