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NFL holds its ground in sports betting fight |
U.S./World Sports

NFL holds its ground in sports betting fight

John Harris
| Saturday, June 27, 2015 9:00 p.m
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FanDuel, a daily fantasy sports website, reached a four-year sponsorship agreement with the NBA in November. Commissioner Adam Silver said he would support legalized, strictly regulated sports gambling.
John Gurzinski | Las Vegas Review-Journal
Super Bowl betting lines between the Steelers and Packers are displayed at the race and sports book at the Palms on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, in Las Vegas.
Lions fans soon will have more to celebrate than the home team’s touchdowns. The Tunnel Club, an experience that will allow fans to watch the walk between the locker room and field and eat and drink from a cash bar, opens this season. It’s backed by the MGM Grand Detroit casino. NFL teams are allowed to accept advertising money from casinos under certain restrictions but cannot use club marks or logos.

The NFL’s past and present are connected to racetrack bettors, fantasy football and casino operators, but the league says it remains solidly opposed to betting on sports.

It’s not good for its image, after all.

The NFL has joined the NBA, NHL, MLB and NCAA in challenging a New Jersey law aimed at legalizing sports gambling. A federal court in New Jersey ruled 2-1 in favor of the leagues in the 2012 case. New Jersey has appealed.

The NFL in its 2012 complaint claimed sponsorship of gambling would foster “suspicion that individual plays and final scores of games may have been influenced by factors other than honest athletic competition.”

“There’s been no change in our longstanding position on gambling on NFL games,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email. “We remain opposed to the proliferation of legalized gambling on NFL games.”

Representatives from the Steelers, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys — three of the goliaths of the game — deferred to the league offices when contacted for comment.

In 1937, Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. helped keep his team solvent thanks to two successful days at New York racetracks.

Art Rooney Jr. wrote in his book “Ruanaidh” that his father won an estimated $380,000 in an 11-race winning streak.

“It really was one of the more remarkable betting sprees,” said Rob Ruck, co-author of “Rooney: A Sporting Life. “Money at the track and later boxing is what kept the team going in the 1930s.”

Ruck noted the elder Rooney donated part of his winnings to the Catholic Church.

The Rooney family’s ties to legal racetracks continued into the early 1970s when Rooney Sr. bought the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Empire City Gaming at Yonkers Raceway in New York.

Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle looked the other way, but in 2008 the league forced the Rooneys to choose between their interests in the Steelers and racetracks. Twins Timothy and Patrick Rooney each divested their 16 percent ownership in the team to keep the family’s control of the racetracks.

Rooney Jr. said his father was sensitive about keeping separate the family’s ventures.

“He wanted to keep up the integrity of (the NFL),” he said. “That was very important to him.”

Rooney Sr. wasn’t the only NFL owner with gambling ties.

Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona) founder Charles W. Bidwill Sr. owned a Chicago horse track, Sportsman’s Park, which was founded by Al Capone. In the 1930s, Giants founder Tim Mara was “an established legal bookmaker,” Ruck wrote in his book.

Mara, Bidwill, Rooney Sr. and son Dan, the Steelers chairman, are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The NFL’s opposition to gambling didn’t stop New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn from trying to build a $1 billion casino just beyond the end zone at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in 2011.

Kraft, who planned to lease the land to Wynn, bowed to public pressure and called off the project when voters sided with two anticasino candidates during a 2012 election.

A month earlier, the NFL rescinded a ban on casino advertising inside stadiums.

That has allowed the Detroit Lions to partner with MGM Grand Detroit to build a property called the Tunnel Club in Ford Field. Fans can’t bet there, but they can drink from a cash bar and eat — all for a premium price. It is set to open this season.

The experience allows fans, sitting behind a glass wall, to watch the walk between the locker room and field. The team plans to sell 120 season tickets in a package of 10 games for $9,500 per seat, including food. ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted a rendering of the Tunnel Club, adding, “If NFL wants to keep players out of casino owned properties, it also needs to tell teams it can’t do deals w/casinos.”

The NFL, however, has no problem taking advertising money from casinos.

“Teams are permitted to accept advertising from casinos under certain restrictions,” McCarthy said. “No advertising of sports book; no use of club marks or logos.”McCarthy added that players receive a share of casino advertising revenue under the collective bargaining agreement. McCarthy did not disclose how much the players get.

Meanwhile, 21 of the NFL’s 32 teams, including the Steelers, have entered into partnerships with fantasy companies DraftKings and FanDuel. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 regulates online gambling — it bans making payments online for sports betting — but exempted fantasy sports because lawmakers considered them games of “skill.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters a year ago of a father and daughter bonding while playing in the same fantasy football league.

“Fantasy has a way of people engaging more with football, and they do it in a fun, friendly, in this case, a family manner,” Goodell said at the news conference two days before the Super Bowl.

Added McCarthy: “Fantasy football is considered a game of skill and has never been considered gambling by legislators in Washington.”

Yet the NFL recently forced the cancellation of a fantasy football convention scheduled for July 10-12 at the Sands Expo, a Las Vegas casino property where no gambling is conducted. Several players, including Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, were expected to attend.

A few days later, the NFL told three Miami Dolphins players they were not permitted to participate in a poker tournament at a casino in Coconut Creek, Fla.

“It’s an absolute joke,” tournament host Andy Slater said. “The NFL is built on gambling.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Categories: US-World
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