LAS VEGAS — It was just nine years ago that the NFL barred then Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo from hosting a fantasy sports convention in Las Vegas because it would have taken place at a space adjacent to a casino. The NFL treated Las Vegas, the most concentrated hub of legal gambling in the U.S., like a toxic waste dump and a threat to the integrity of the sport. “There was always a Berlin Wall separating the NFL from gambling,” says longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg.
That, of course, changed with a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that lifted bans on sports betting. The NFL gradually embraced gambling, adding sportsbook sponsors and data partners; it moved the Raiders to Vegas; it staged the draft there in 2022; and now the league is all in, with the city looking like a regular part of the Super Bowl host rotation.
As the NFL (including Romo himself, as part of CBS’s lead broadcasting team) descends on Sin City for Super Bowl LVIII, it’s worth noting there are a few remaining guardrails that restrict what players can do in Vegas. But the NFL rule that once completely barred players from even entering a casino has been discarded into the trash bin of history, alongside leather helmets and single-bar facemasks.
While restrictions are greatly relaxed, however, they are not completely eliminated. Don’t expect to see active players—those not on the 49ers or Chiefs—greeting gamblers at casino doors or staging autograph signings next to the slot machines, promoted on the marquee.
To back up a moment, it is important to point out that Super Bowl week is a real earning opportunity for anyone not in the game. A significant percentage of players on the other 30 teams descend on the Super Bowl city to make paid appearances and hawk products. “We’ve definitely had players make well into six figures during the Super Bowl [week],” says Russ Spielman, who runs GSE Worldwide’s football business. So it won’t be shocking to see players walking through casinos on their way to paid appearances. Wynn Las Vegas has already boasted about the sports podcasts that will record from its in-casino studios, including The Edge, with Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons. The NFL Experience, which typically hosts dozens of player appearances, is located in Mandalay Bay.
But while players may appear in casinos, they are not permitted under league policy to promote or endorse anything related to the gambling epicenter. Nor are they allowed to be featured next to slot machines and gaming tables. A tricky needle to thread for those looking to earn a few bucks.
Dexter Santos, a VP of the NFLPA who oversees the union’s effort to arrange commercial opportunities during Super Bowl week, says that as of last week he had 700 appearances in the works, and 576 players indicated they were coming to Las Vegas. (And that’s just what has been handled by the union.) But when it comes to active players, the NFLPA isn’t putting them in public-facing roles in casinos.
“You can’t stop a player from going to a casino,” Santos says, but “they can’t go out and promote that. … So, if they did an appearance, they could do a private meet and greet. But they can’t promote it. O.K., so a player can make an appearance, but [the casino] couldn’t promote that the player is making an appearance, and the player can’t promote it on his social [media].”
Reflective of this straddling: Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams, for example, endorses MGM but not its BetMGM unit. To some, that may be a distinction without a difference, and such gray areas appear to be leading to some misunderstanding in the market.
Front Office Sports interviewed several marketing agents who were confused by what the rules are now and who were each holding back on plugging their player clients into appearances in casinos, whether that be in private rooms, like at a restaurant, or at a VIP reception.
Asked whether they knew if players were allowed inside sportsbooks, one marketing agent replied, “I honestly don’t know. … [Hesitating.] I believe that they are allowed; they just can’t bet on football.”
Actually: Players are not allowed inside sportsbooks other than to walk through on their way to another part of the casino. The agent is correct; players can’t bet on football.
The agent also said it was his understanding that players can’t make casino appearances. But Santos says that’s wrong—they can, as long as the event is not promoted using their name.
Marketing agent Maxx Lepselter says that demand for player appearances has been strong … but not off the charts. That could be tied to the concern and confusion surrounding what players can and cannot do. “It’s been definitely busy, but not as insane as I would have anticipated, given Vegas entertainment.” (That was on Jan. 25; business could have surged since then, now that the two teams are known.)
So, what is the league doing about all this (beyond the memo Goodell issued last week, reminding clubs about the rules for players and non-player personnel)? Will the NFL monitor whether players promote casino events or appear in sportsbooks? On a conference call with reporters last week, David Highhill, the NFL’s general manager of sports betting, was commenting broadly about how the league knows whether its gambling rules are being followed when he said, “On the monitoring front, I think there’s an array of resources that we use. That includes working with our partners, state regulators—we have external agencies that we work with as well.”
With hundreds of NFL players streaming into Vegas this week, all looking to make money and relax, and with sportsbooks littered across the city, this Super Bowl should be a stern test of that monitoring system.