College sports warm toward regulated sports betting

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College sports stakeholders are increasingly comfortable with legal sports betting, reflecting similar trends with their professional counterparts, gaming and NCAA officials reaffirmed at a conference Thursday.

Once among the most vociferous opponents to widespread legalized sports betting, college athletic departments are slowly embracing legal wagering. Though the integration between regulated sportsbooks and college sports has neither been as rapid nor as immersive as many professional entities, gaming industry figures believe NCAA programs will see more partnerships that resemble deals struck with pro organizations.

“We’ve now seen a couple of partnerships, we’ve obviously seen a couple of data licensing deals,” said US Integrity COO Scott Sadin during a panel at Thursday’s SBC North America conference. “I think we’re about to see, frankly, a waterfall of partnerships coming to the forefront.”

NCAA sports are still ostensibly amateur, even though they generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually for member schools as well as their media and corporate sponsors. The line between professional and amateur competition has further blurred with the proliferation of Name, Image and Likeness deals in recent years that allow individual athletes to sign sponsorships of their own, some reportedly worth more than several million dollars.

This new era of college athletics, combined with the legalization of sports betting in more than 30 states, has led college sports entities to reconsider the relationship between organized gambling that less than five years ago it had fought to stop.

Caesars last year signed a wide-ranging partnership with LSU that includes extensive advertising throughout the school’s athletic stadiums as well as media broadcasts. PointsBet has similar deals with the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland, also Power Five conference programs.

US Integrity COO Scott Sadin: “I think we’re about to see, frankly, a waterfall of partnerships coming to the forefront.”

The MAC made headlines earlier this year by signing a data rights partnership with Genius Sports, the first such deal between a college athletic conference and sports betting data services provider. Maura Smith, Sunbelt Conference Associate Commissioner for Governance and Compliance, said during a panel Thursday that her league was considering a similar partnership.

“Let’s get sports betting in the collegiate space out of the dark corners,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Thursday. “We know what’s going on on our campuses, we know what’s going on in our communities, so let’s get it out, let’s regulate it and bring sunshine and transparency to it.”

These moves are not as dramatic as steps taken by a growing number of pro sports teams and leagues, which include a rising number of in-stadium sportsbooks. Several dozen sports teams in America’s major professional leagues have direct sports betting partnerships, compared to just a handful of such deals at the college level.

This disparity could soon lessen, industry figures say.

“I think we’re about to see in the next probably even three or four months a bunch of partnerships between sportsbooks and college conferences that are coming very, very soon,” Sadin said.

That does mean such deals will come easily.

The NCAA has for decades promoted and protected an image of amateurism for its “student-athletes,” even as it racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in profits annually. This has helped shape state-level sports betting legislative policy that has in turn limited participation in college sports betting.

Most states prohibit prop bets such as passing yards or points scored by individual college athletes. A number of states including New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Virginia prohibit wagers on any in-state program. Lawmakers in states still considering sports betting legislation including Massachusetts and North Carolina have also considered college betting bans.

Even with sports betting increasingly available through legal channels, many NCAA stakeholders have still resisted changes. Numerous sports betting scandals at high-profile men’s basketball programs over the past several decades, including at the University of Kentucky, Arizona State and Boston College, have scared many college sports figures away from legal wagering.

Though there are more revenue opportunities than ever before for college athletes to earn revenue for their sports participation, they are still not paid directly and, at least in perception, are more open to nefarious influences. Others inside and outside college sports also worry about promoting sports betting around college campuses where the majority of students are under age 21 and therefore unable to legally bet.

MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher: “Let’s get sports betting in the collegiate space out of the dark corners.”

Even major sportsbooks such as FanDuel, DraftKings and BetMGM that have spent millions on professional sports betting deals have resisted similar moves at the college level. FanDuel CEO Amy Howe said earlier in the week she didn’t want to see her company’s name on a college sports jersey or “plastered all over a college sports stadium.”

“When it comes to sponsorship deals along the lines of what we would do with an NFL or an NBA, we’re going to be much more cautious about that,” Howe said.

That could change as the fear about legal gambling subsides and both sportsbooks and schools see the benefit of such partnerships, Sadin said Thursday.

“I think that is a smart approach to see how the partnerships and how the industry rolls out, not just from an integrity impact, but also from an economic perspective,” Sadin said. “I think it makes sense to wait, but there are really powerful school assets out there.”

In the meantime, college sports betting proponents say regulated betting helps protect both bettors and student-athletes. There are hundreds of unregulated offshore sites taking bets now, legalization advocates note, none of which offer the same protections or integrity monitoring as legal books.

Americans’ appetite for college sports and betting on those events is not in doubt. For stakeholders, this creates a myriad of once taboo revenue opportunities a growing number are increasingly willing to embrace.

“Anybody out there is kidding themselves if they don’t think that the sports wagering industry isn’t bringing eyeballs,” Steinbrecher, the MAC commissioner, said Thursday. “We can either ignore it, or we can figure out a way to be part of it, harness the energy and the eyeballs and the value that it can bring, as well as think through and come up with responsible ways that we can leverage the value from it.”

About the author

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Ryan Butler

Ryan is a veteran sports betting and iGaming regulation and breaking news journalist based in the US. A two-time Associated Press Sports Editors award winner, he has reported on sports and politics since 2012. He has covered the gaming industry since 2018. Ryan graduated from the University of Florida with a major in Journalism and a minor in Sport Management.

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