Charlie Ebersol is likely lethal at the tables.
Give legendary TV executive Dick Ebersol’s son and Alliance of American Football (AAF) co-founder credit – the guy can keep a mean poker face when necessary. He set that tone right from Day 1 where his fledgling spring football league is concerned, blindsiding the sports world — including the returning XFL, which the younger Ebersol had ironically just directed an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about — when he suddenly announced the AAF’s existence in March.
AAF, MGM announce unprecedented working relationship
The ensuing months brought an impressive slew of coaching hires that included several prominent names. Just as important, the league came out of the gates already in possession of a television deal with CBS Sports Network, including an agreement for CBS to show both its inaugural and championship games on its main channel. And, Ebersol also hinted at the league’s desire to have an “integrated fantasy experience” that users could engage in while watching AAF games.
At the time, we openly speculated the AAF was developing an in-game fantasy platform, a version of the popular pastime that is a relatively close cousin to prop betting. And since we were already reading the tea leaves, we also threw out the possibility/theory that the AAF eventually cozying up to the new legalized sports betting landscape certainly wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
Lo and behold, Monday brought the news that the AAF is doing just that. And like many other aspects of its ongoing development, the league’s latest announcement came about rather unexpectedly:
ESPN’s Darren Rovell provided a number of interesting nuggets about the league’s plans with respect to sports betting, including:
- MGM has signed on to serve as the league’s exclusive in-game gambling partner for the first three seasons.
- The AAF will provide free live streaming of its games on its proprietary app, and fans in states with legalized online wagering will be able to place a wide array of in-game bets as those contests unfold.
- How the odds for those wagers are calculated will be unique — the league will outfit all players with wearable technology that will generate data vital to MGM’s oddsmakers as the game progresses.
- Not only will the data drive in-game lines, it will reportedly be bettable as well. In other words, expect to be able to plunk down some cash on how fast (or plodding) Birmingham’s Trent Richardson is on his next carry, for example.
- And in what likely qualifies as the most eyebrow-raising news in a collection of intriguing details — the more a player’s props are bet on, the more cash he’ll earn above that which is stipulated in his contract.
League not shying away from potential blowback, controversy
There’s plenty to unpack in what qualifies as the first-of-its-kind exclusive in-game betting rights deal between a sports league and a gaming entity.
For example, the use of data stemming from the wearable technology could be a point of contention from other leagues’ players’ unions, considering they’ve already preemptively expressed opposition in general about its use in such a context. Although, with no such entity currently existing in the AAF, that would only amount to pointed criticism for the time being.
This much is clear — the AAF is not pussyfooting around the “gambling” conversation.
Instead, it’s unapologetically integrating it into its very fabric, literally and figuratively. And while skepticism may abound — especially with respect to the player salary tie-in — certain aspects of this deal could serve as an important precedent for how pro sports leagues and sports betting come to coexist.
AAF’s approach markedly, refreshingly different
The AAF’s full embrace of gambling is notable from one other standpoint — the contrast it represents from the problematic, complicated relationship other professional leagues have historically had (and continue to have, for that matter) with sports betting.
The NBA has been markedly more progressive than its counterparts in certain aspects of its approach. The latest evidence of such is its own newly-minted three-year deal with MGM, one which calls for the latter to serve as the league’s “exclusive gaming partner” and use official NBA and WNBA data in its “land-based and digital sports betting offerings.”
However, the likes of the NFL, NHL and MLB mostly remain testy and apprehensive about the subject for a number of reasons, including:
- Public image, to an extent.
- Game-integrity concerns.
- A lack of integrity fees they insist are necessary to manage those concerns (the NBA remains in line with the other leagues on this front).
Meanwhile, the AAF looks set for a full-blown whirlwind romance with sports betting. We’re talking wine-and-dine, rose-petals-on-the-floor, Netflix-and-chill level. And it’s a bold but prudent move at that. After all, if you’re going to try and succeed where so many others have failed, you’ve probably got to roll the proverbial dice in certain spots.
In that sense, attaching yourself to a product with encouraging early returns, plenty of growth potential and a well-earned reputation as a proven fan engagement magnet isn’t a bad bet at all.