Published: 18 January, 2022

A new age

Affiliate The Game Day believes a new dawn of sports betting influencers means easy money for leagues and teams.

Before its recent boom, sports betting had traditionally been treated like a vice, often looked down upon and associated with immorality or criminal activity.

For years, the four major US sports leagues and their teams shared a similar outlook. Marred by the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, the Tim Donaghy saga of the early 2000s and numerous malfeasant activities in between, sports betting was treated as a threat to the sanctity of sport.

That all started to change in 2018 when the NBA – the same league that had a referee influence results for the monetary benefit of himself and others just a decade earlier – became the first US sports league to partner with a sportsbook operator.

The NBA’s agreement with MGM Resorts was the first domino to fall in what has since been a complete transformation of the relationship between sportsbooks and the greater sporting industry. Leagues and teams more strongly than ever have embraced sports betting culture – thanks to a new age of gambling influencers who have helped market this union into the mainstream.

Parlaying sports bets with sports

As operators opened their wallets to increase their foothold in the growing US market, partnerships with teams and leagues quickly became a trendy way to increase brand exposure.

These deals originally looked like many traditional sports sponsorships, with benefits like in-stadium signage and exposure through digital mediums; but over the last year, these agreements have evolved even further.

In May 2021, William Hill signed a 10-year lease with Monumental Sports to open a sportsbook inside Capital One Arena, home to the NBA’s Washington Wizards, WNBA’s Washington Mystics and NHL’s Washington Capitals.

While sportsbooks and betting kiosks are a staple inside soccer stadiums across Europe to promote pre-match and live in-game wagering, this was the first time an American arena had truly opened its doors to sports betting.

“The reality is you’ve got to adapt to the way your customer wants to consume your product, and sports betting really fits where the world is today,” said Tom Reeg, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, in a May interview with CNBC. “We want constant activity, constant action and sports betting feeds right into that.”

In addition to partnering with teams to place their product physically closer to the action, sportsbooks are also trying to gain awareness, consideration and eventually conversion, by pulling at the heartstrings of sports fans across the country.

Their method: recruit former athletes and other high-profile personalities to become gambling influencers, and strengthen the bond between fan and brand.

Introducing gambling influencers

These new-age gambling influencers come in all shapes and sizes, and work to promote their partner brand in a variety of ways.

Some are former professional athletes. Some are podcast hosts. Some, like former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, are both.

The Pat McAfee Show, which streams daily on YouTube to over 1.5 million subscribers, recently signed a four-year contract extension with FanDuel Sportsbook worth $30m per year, ensuring FanDuel’s future as the show’s exclusive sports betting partner.

The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz Podcast, formerly an ESPN Radio staple, has a similar deal with FanDuel’s chief rival, DraftKings. In both cases, the operators are investing heavily in the hope that the audience’s already-established brand loyalty will expand into the sports betting realm.

While funding popular programming is one way to assimilate into the mind of the sports-inclined public, most sports betting influencers are working directly with brands to promote them through TV advertising, social media campaigns and in-person events.

One example of such a partnership emerged when PointsBet brought on former Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester in September 2020, to help the company assimilate into Illinois after the state had legalised sports betting that March.

Getting a brand ambassador that Bears fans adored during his playing days, and later that month partnering with the team itself, helped PointsBet stake a claim in the Illinois market at the start of the 2020 football season. According to, PointsBet’s handle for its first full month of operation (October 2020) was just over $60m, which was 10 times more than fellow new entrant William Hill, and only ranked behind BetRivers, DraftKings and FanDuel, all of which had already been operational in Illinois for at least two months.

Of course, Hester isn’t the only former athlete getting into the game. PointsBet’s ensemble also includes former Saints quarterback and NBC broadcaster Drew Brees, who signed a multi-year deal that includes an equity stake in the company.

Fox Bet has also enlisted many of the TV personalities from its parent company to promote its sportsbook app, including NFL Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Charles Woodson, and Shannon Sharpe.

The first family of football

However, of all the former athletes to become sports betting influencers in the last few years, the most notable of all is the Manning family.

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Eli and Peyton, who together host a Monday Night Football simulcast on ESPN 2 and their own digital shows on ESPN+, partnered with Caesars in November alongside their brother Cooper and father Archie.

“This isn’t the typical partnership between a sports betting company and major talent,” said Chris Holdren, Co-President of Caesars Digital, in the deal’s press release. “We’re welcoming the most acclaimed family in football history to be integrated holistically into the Caesars family. Archie, Peyton, Eli and Cooper are extraordinary people who are champions of their communities; and we’re honoured to partner with such a prestigious group of individuals.”

While the Manning family will certainly be a boost to Caesars’ growing empire, especially when it comes to attracting football fans from across America, the atypicality of this partnership starts and ends with the fact that these high-class personalities have agreed to work with a sports betting company.

Caesars likely had a leg up on its competition in recruiting the Manning family since it already worked with Archie to operate Manning’s Sports Bar & Grill at Harrah’s New Orleans. However, there is a massive step from owning a restaurant at a casino to promoting sports betting in TV advertisements as football’s most-recognisable family.

Balancing integrity with profitability

Although sports betting operators have made significant strides to shed their taboo image by partnering with leagues, teams and high-profile personalities, there are still plenty of restrictions in place to protect the integrity of the game.

For instance, WynnBet spokesperson Shaquille O’Neal had to sell his minority ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings because NBA owners are not allowed to have a personal connection with gambling-related enterprises. Each major US sports league also has its own sports betting rules for current players, coaches and staff members. Generally, each is similar in banning any involved parties from betting on their own sport in an attempt to prevent match-fixing.

While these leagues have set up rules and regulations for their own players and staff, some are starting to balance their business interests with those of their consumers.

In December, the NFL aired a sports betting PSA during Thursday Night Football for the first time, which featured former coach Steve Mariucci urging the audience to set limits, stick to them and only bet what you can afford. This 30-second TV advertisement is a result of the NFL’s recent partnership with the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), which is working to reduce the risk of gambling problems associated with sports betting. Over 5.1 million people nationwide experience some sort of gambling problem each year, according to NCPG data, and that number could well rise as sports betting is legalised in more states across the country.

To prevent that issue from becoming a reality as it has in countries like Australia – which has seen 41% of regular sports bettors have gambling-related problems, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies – it’s important for leagues, partners and influencers to educate new American bettors about how to gamble responsibly.

“We feel it is critical that the NFL uses the power of our voice to educate and encourage fans who choose to bet to do so in a safe and responsible way,” said Christopher Halpin, NFL Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Growth Officer, in the press release announcing the deal with the NCPG. “Collectively, all of us in the sports and betting industries need to learn from international examples; and make sure the development of education and support programs matches the state-by-state growth in legalised sports betting.