Gambling and the NFL: Burned on Packers/Seahawks Monday Night Debacle
The shocking call made by replacement referees on Monday Night Football this week, which gave the Seattle Seahawks a 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers, has not only blackened the eye of the NFL brand, but it has also drawn attention to the underbelly of the sports industry -- gambling -- both legal and illicit. Las Vegas oddsmakers and industry observers have diverging estimates of just how much money swung on the extremely controversial call that gave the Seahawks a last minute victory, but all of the numbers being thrown around are large.
On the last play of the defense-oriented game, which was being played at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson lobbed a deep Hail Mary pass into the end-zone. Wide-receiver Golden Tate clearly shoved Packers corner-back Sam Shields to the ground as the pass arrived, at which time he and safety M.D. Jennings both leaped for the ball. By most accounts, Jennings came down with the ball in what appeared to be a fairly obvious interception, but Tate managed to put an arm around the pigskin as it was cradled to Jenning's chest. The replacement refs ruled that this was a touchdown.
In this improbable moment the Seahawks snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and anywhere from $150 million to $1 billion worldwide shifted hands. While the actual number will never be known, the professional estimates being thrown around underscore just how pervasive sports gambling is across the world -- with the NFL being ground-zero in the United States.
According to John Avello, the director of the race and sportsbook at the Wynn in Las Vegas, $150 million in total bets shifted on the call. Furthermore, because the line was 3 and a half points, the shift was "100 percent." The seven points that Seattle received from the controversial touchdown was more than enough to cover the spread, whereas if the call had gone the other way, the Packers would have easily covered. Avello said that, "The shift was 100 percent. After the (Seahawks) score, all bets were reversed." It would appear that Avello's estimate is on the low side as well.
Mike Perry, spokesman for betting site Sportsbook.ag, told ESPN.com that he though around $200 million to $250 million changed hands as a result of the call. The largest estimate was provided by USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan who said that he believes around $1 billion in total money shifted as a result of the touchdown.
Furthermore, those in the industry said that a heavy preponderance of bets had been placed on the Packers to cover the spread. RJ Bell of Pregame.com said that an estimated two-thirds of global bets on the Monday night game were on the Packers, with around $150 million more being wagered on a Packers win. Due to one call by the replacement refs, the bettors lost $150 million, and the bookie won $150 million for a total swing of $300 million on one debatably bad call," Bell said.
The difficult thing about attaining anything more than rough estimates about the size of the wagers put on this particular game, and NFL games in general, is that much of the action is placed illegally through unlicensed bookies. Furthermore, many bets are made with offshore websites and the industry as a whole is extremely disparate on a global basis.
The Sports Funding Sponsoring and Sports Betting Congress, organized by a subsidiary of FIFA (the international soccer body) estimated that the sports industry itself generates around $300 billion per year, but that the betting market is worth around $350 billion to $400 billion on an annual basis. They also said that around 50 percent of wagers take place on the grey and black markets.
Using numbers from the International Monetary Fund, this is similar to the GDP of countries like South Africa and Austria. Countries such as Norway, Belgium, Poland and Sweden have GDPs which are roughly $100 billion more than the estimated size of the sports betting market. Considering that professional football is far and away the most popular wagering game in the United States, the figures for how much are bet on an average NFL weekend are astronomical.
It is also important to consider just how important the betting economy is to the overall popularity of the NFL. The fact that many gamblers were burned by the MNF call, and that the very integrity of the league is now being called into question as a result of the presence of the replacement referees, suggests that the once-golden NFL brand is at risk.
Thankfully, a tentative deal has been reached between the referees and the league and the regular officals are set to return for Thursday night's Browns-Ravens game. Everyone, however, from diehard sports bettors to casual fans, can agree that the consequences of the lockout won't be easily forgotten this year.
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