The National Football League (NFL) has been the most popular professional sport in the United States for decades. Year-on-year growth has been routine, with the world-famous Superbowl championship regularly getting coverage in the UK and other markets that are normally dominated by soccer.
But is the bubble finally about to burst? Betting figures from Las Vegas indicate the NFL’s popularity if finally in decline.
Las Vegas NFL bets in decline
According to the Nevada Gaming Control, which regulates gambling activity in Las Vegas, US$308.5 million was wagered on American football, both professional and “college” (university level), in September at the state’s regulated betting agencies. This represents a year-on-year drop of nearly US$6 million.
This follows a small, but unexpected, fall in overall NFL betting figures in 2015, down to US$1.6 billion from US$1.7 billion in 2014.
Even worse for the league, the decline in NFL betting may be outpacing the decline in betting on college football. Recently speaking to ESPN, Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports at MGM Grand, said that NFL betting was down 8% compared to just 2% for the collegiate game.
“It has been a little bit of an off year,” he said. “Not bad, but not double-digit growth like we’ve been used to the last few years.”
Blip or trend?
The decline could be to the house having an unusually strong performance in the opening weeks of the season in terms of setting odds. Las Vegas bookmakers made US$36.9 million in profits in September, the fourth highest month ever on record. With their wallets depleted, punters may simply have less money to bet with.
That explanation would be good news for the NFL. More worrying is the idea that declining better is reflecting an overall drop in entertainment quality in the league.
Writing in The Big Lead, Jason McIntyre posted yesterday, “We’ve been talking for a solid month now about how poor the NFL product has gotten this season, and blame falls everywhere throughout the league – poor QB play, flag-happy officials, and so on.
“Nothing compelling is happening. Where are the villains? Where are the dramatic storylines?”
Complacency not an option
Unlike Europe, the competition for attention from fans is fierce across multiple sports and the NFL cannot afford to be complacent. Baseball is currently on an upswing thanks to a World Series appearance by the Chicago Cubs, who are more typically lovable losers than champions.
And, dare we say it, the version of football with a round ball continues to grow in importance in the world’s largest media market every year. Is the NFL’s position as America’s favourite sports league finally vulnerable?
Only time will tell.