The NBA and sports betting seem to be inexorably linked these days. The most prominent connection at present seems to be the league’s ask of an integrity fee in many states that are pursuing sports betting legislation.
Of course, the dalliance actually goes back further, considering NBA commissioner Adam Silver took the then-extraordinary step of publicly supporting sports betting legalization in a New York Times Op-Ed piece in November 2014.
However, what the league is willing to term as a gambling endeavor seems highly flexible these days. Take Exhibit A — its NBA Playoffs Bracket Challenge.
As described on its official website, the Bracket Challenge awards a Grand Prize of $1 million to anyone who can correctly identify the winning team of each upcoming playoff series AND the number of games they’ll clinch the series in. There will be up to 99 other participants rewarded for finishing in places 1st-6th with prizes that include a 4-day, 3-night trip to the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, two tickets to a 2018-19 regular-season game, and “electronic gift codes” of varying denominations for use on NBA.com.
The fine print of any advertisement typically makes for fertile ground to find some rather interesting statements, and the Bracket Challenge is no different. One line particularly stands out — “This is a non-gambling Promotion and is intended solely for entertainment purposes.”
There’s a certain degree of semantics at play there, but technically, a competition such as the Bracket Challenge isn’t gambling in the traditional sense – participants are not putting up anything of value, as the contest is free to enter. Therefore, the NBA is not acting as the “house”, as there’s no handle at play.
Then again, the NBA isn’t offering fans a chance at $1 million and multiple other prizes purely from the goodness of its heart. They may not be raking in any entry fees, but they’re looking to get their money back over the longer term through the promotion of their postseason product with the best incentive possible – the promise of a five-figure sum of cold, hard cash.
Despite no rake, plenty of residual benefits
As is the case with a more well-known bracket-centered basketball contest — the NCAA’s March Madness tournament — when money is up for grabs, more eyeballs naturally tend to gravitate to the product.
The domino effect is obvious – more vested interest in the product leads to higher viewership, which in turn leads to higher ratings. That, of course, eventually results in more leverage when negotiating broadcast rights fees.
And there are undoubtedly residual benefits of a more immediate nature – more fan engagement is likely to lead to a bump in visits to the NBA’s and individual teams’ digital platforms. That inevitably leads to revenue boosts stemming from additional sales of all types of team merchandise and paraphernalia.
In fact, the majority of the prizes being offered – the aforementioned gift codes for the NBA’s online store – places the winners in front of the full array of league merchandise when they go to redeem them, with a better-than-average chance that they end up investing at least a little (and quite possibly a lot) more than amount of the money they were awarded.
More similar than different?
Despite having joined the other pro sports leagues for decades in railing against sports betting, the NBA clearly recognizes that fans enjoy having a vested interest (beyond basic rooting interest) in the games they consume. The very existence of the Playoff Bracket Challenge is derived from this principle, as is the league’s insistence on an integrity fee that they’ve also begrudgingly acknowledged doubles as a royalty for their games serving as the basis of wagers.
Ultimately, the Playoff Bracket Challenge isn’t as radically different from conventional sports wagering as the NBA might want it to appear – the former just allows them to realize a return through more indirect methods, while the latter could give them a direct cut without the league putting up any additional investment.