Disruption Drives the NFL to Gamble — Or How to Kill a Sacred Cow in 3 Easy Steps
A couple weeks ago, the NFL had a summit to discuss gambling and the game. ... Not the impact gambling could have on the game; actual gambling as part of the NFL — from your seat, at the game or in your home, every Sunday.
If they do that, it will mark the death of one of America's most sacred cows: the separation of the big four team sports — football, baseball, hockey and basketball — from dirty, dirty gamblers who could taint the games. It could also bring Brink's trucks full of even more money into the league coffers.
Why would they do that? Disruption.
Like many industries, the NFL sees a game-changing event on the horizon. The owners need to decide whether they want to stay the course (and potentially see someone else benefit from that disruption), or move first to make the most of it (and potentially ruin everything they've built).
If your industry hasn't faced this kind of decision, it will. What will you do when your sacred cows are brought to the butcher's block? Here are three steps to think through whether to keep Bessy on her pedestal, or make the hard cut.
1. Recognize the New Situation
This sacred calf has been venerated for nearly 100 years — ever since the "Black Sox" scandal, when the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. That was when the big leagues realized gambling could undermine the legitimacy of sports in the eyes of the American public (and any sports fan will tell you the referees do a good enough job of that all on their own).
While U.S. attitudes toward gambling have changed in the past decade, for most of my life, the idea of league-sanctioned gambling was absolutely unthinkable. Now, NFL ownership is considering not just whether they could cozy up with casinos, but how they might do it, and how many zeros those checks might have.
It could be the boldest stroke of genius, or the dumbest butt-fumble, in NFL history.
Gambling exists in a grey area of American entertainment. By and large, sports gambling has been limited to just Las Vegas in the United States. Now the Supreme Court appears ready to allow New Jersey to add sports gambling to its casino and race track games, and that would open the floodgates for other states to do the same.
This is a remarkably new situation for the NFL. Gambling may be coming, and the owners would rather ride that wave than be drowned by it.
At the same time, some of the underlying realities of the Black Sox scandal have changed as well. Athletes of the time were not that wealthy, and very vulnerable to outside financial influence. Today, professional athletes are some of the wealthiest people in the world, and gambling payoffs large enough to motivate them seem unrealistic. What's more, Europe's soccer leagues have been in bed with gambling for years, and the nightmare scenarios just haven't materialized (although it hasn't been all clean, either).
All of those factors mean the context that made this cow sacred have changed. And the business people who've been holding it sacred need to recognize that, too.
2. Identify the Business Opportunities
It's one thing to recognize the situation has changed. It's another to identify the opportunities in it.
At the owner meetings, the NFL is hearing all sides of the story, especially ways gambling has been incorporated into sports leagues throughout the world. One of the big takeaways is that traditional points-spread betting doesn't present much opportunity. But prop bets (betting on individual evens, like whether or not they'll kick a field goal on this drive) can be very lucrative, and in-game prop bets could help engage the active-viewing audience who watches with phones in hand whether they're at home or in the stadium. It's considered an open secret that most of those (us) fantasy football players would rather be placing money bets.
Once you realize disruption is coming, you need to figure out what you want the post-disruption future to look like and move to make that the reality. Taxi companies didn't see the business opportunity of mobile apps, so Uber ate their lunch.
The NFL doesn't intend to be Ubered, so he owners are looking very carefully at the ways this change could best benefit them. You shouldn't let yourself be Ubered, either, but recognize that this level of investigation is needed to figure out where your real opportunities lie.
3. Choose Your New Cows
You don't stumble into the promised land. Once you see disruption coming and identify the opportunities, you need to make change happen.
If the NFL decides to cozy up to gambling, it's going to mean new apps need to be built, new partnerships need to be made, new brand messaging needs to be developed ... Any response to disruption is going to be a big endeavor. It's going to be disrupting in its own right.
It will take clarity and vision to bring your response into reality, the same kind of clarity and vision that elevated the sacred calf in the first place.
When leagues distanced themselves from gambling, they did it for the integrity of the game. If they get back in bed with gambling, they'll need a new set of aligning principals. The new sacred cows will most likely be named something like "customer experience" or "giving millennials what they want," but they'll be identified and deified as necessary to make this happen.
Whatever your new aligning principal is, be sure its a vision and message you can align the company behind. Because when you slaughter a sacred cow, it takes more than hamburgers to get your congregation back on track.