How the NFL and the Lions Learned To Love the Sportsbook

BetMGM is the official betting partner of the team
BetMGM
BetMGM — the sportsbook arm of MGM Grand Detroit that offers a sports lounge in the casino — is the official betting partner of the Detroit Lions. // Photograph courtesy of MGM Grand Detroit

Here’s a fun fact: The mega-famous, now-clichéd “What Happens Here Stays Here” campaign for Las Vegas was launched with a stunt in which the destination’s tourism board tried to buy time to air one of its ads during the 2003 Super Bowl knowing the NFL would probably reject it.

When that inevitability became reality, the Vegas bosses turned to the media to publicize the obvious hypocrisy of America’s most violent pro sport — the one fueled by nonstop beer ads — claiming to be too “family-friendly” to handle cheeky vignettes about visits to casino-resorts. Cable and sports news gifted Vegas with millions of dollars in free air time running the WHHSH ads as they reported on and discussed the delicious controversy.

That’s the background for just how wild, for those who have kept tabs on such things, it is that the BetMGM, the sportsbook arm of MGM Grand Detroit, is now the “official betting partner” of the Detroit Lions. To many, such a marketing alliance seems obvious and logical, especially given that Ford Field five years ago branded its luxury club where fans can watch through a glass wall as the players enter and exit the locker room in MGM Grand’s honor.

Yet it feels worthwhile to take stock of how radically the NFL-casino relationship changed in a stunningly short time. Just six years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told NBC Sports, “As you know, we fought legalized gambling, sports gambling, for a long time, most recently here in New Jersey, and I would see our position in the same vein going forward.” And he was correct — about the history. In 1991, Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, led the charge to get Congress to ban sports betting in any state that didn’t already allow it. At the time, Nevada was one of only three states that did. “It is a matter of integrity,” Tagliabue testified at a House hearing on the measure. “It is a matter of the character of our games, of the character of our fans, and a matter of values — especially the values that we in professional sports and our athletes represent and transmit to the youth of this country.”

The irony of such remarks was that as much as the NFL wanted to distance itself from gambling, fans refused to play ball. Betting on football (both illicit and legal) has often been the only thing making crappy teams interesting to watch, and more people historically flocked to Vegas on Super Bowl Sunday than to whatever city hosted the game.

The first big crack came in 2015 when the NFL allowed fantasy football betting sites to advertise. Then, in 2017, the league OK’d the Raiders’ move from Oakland to Vegas.  And the coup de grace was a May 2018 Supreme Court decision — which the NFL opposed in legal briefs — that struck down the 1992 ban on sports betting in states other than Nevada. That fall, the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, and Baltimore Ravens all had casino partnership deals.

And now, so do the Lions.

For more information on BetMGM, visit mgmgranddetroit.com.

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.