The bright lights of the Super Bowl cannot be outshone. There’s no more important event in American football, likely in American culture, made all the bigger this year by the presence of America’s queen Taylor Swift. Nothing, not even Swift’s carbon-dioxide-gushing private jet as it descends from its getaway route from Tokyo, should block out the blearing stadium lights at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada.
But this year, the lights are just as bright outside of the stadium. The Vegas Strip is illuminated by the Luxor pyramid’s ascendant skybeam, the Mandalay Bay’s expansive gold-plated facade, the Bellgaio’s luminescent fountain—all powered by the tears and sweat beads dripping from bettors’ faces, even those who live far away from the Strip.
In other words, this Super Bowl is meant for Las Vegas and Las Vegas is meant for this Super Bowl.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a national ban on sports gambling in 2018, the floodgates opened. Where Vegas alone once allowed legal sports gambling—an oasis for American degenerates—sportsbooks quickly set up shop in various casinos in a smattering of states. And casinos, fantasy-sports operators, and media conglomerates rushed to bring Las Vegas to everyday people’s smartphones.
They’ve succeeded, and then some. In December 2023 alone, U.S. bettors placed $310 billion in legal bets, according to LocalSportsReport. The American Gaming Association says a record 68 million Americans will place $23 billion in bets on Super Bowl Sunday. Surely, most of them will be doing that from the safety of their own phones.
It’s hard to avoid the suggestion. Fans face constant bombardment from advertising for sports-betting: sports websites, highway billboards, and of course Super Bowl ads. It’s lucrative stuff: This year, FanDuel and BetMGM are among the advertisers shelling out about $7 million per 30-second spot. It’s even infiltrated the main events: on sports broadcasts these days, you’ll notice talk about odds, favorites, prop bets, and more. The league even has official partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars, BetMGM, WynnBet, Fox Bet, and PointsBet, each worth millions.
The NFL once scorned the gambling world, famously rejecting a 2003 Super Bowl ad from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “The NFL has a long-standing policy that prohibits the acceptance of any message that makes reference to or mention of sports betting,” an NFL spokesperson said at the time.
Now, not only has the NFL awarded Sin City its own franchise, letting the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020, it also plopped its biggest game just off the Vegas Strip.
Still, there’s one group expressing frustration about Vegas’ slow crawl into the sport: the players. As is the norm in most sports, players are not allowed to bet on games. But recently, the NFL Players Association, the union representing player interests, has taken issue of late with stringent rules against gambling for players. Detroit Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams was suspended for six games (eventually cut to four games) for placing bets at an NFL facility, and (more seriously) then-Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for betting on games, including on his own team. The union scored a small win earlier this season, when it petitioned the league to go easier on first-time offenders.
There’s an understandable feeling that the league is hypocritical when it welcomes Las Vegas in its warm and tender embrace while punishing players for engaging in the very behavior it encourages. This week, Chiefs and 49ers players aren’t even allowed inside any of the numerous Vegas casinos. And all NFL players are barred from even entering the sportsbook section of a casino, unless they’re merely passing through. Good grief.
Nonetheless, even if the players are going to remain on the sidelines for this one, the fusion between sports and casinos, between the NFL and Las Vegas, is here to stay. Sports-wagering offers a second-screen experience for viewers, letting them playfully challenge the oddsmakers in Vegas about who will win, who will lose, and how superstar Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or 49ers up-and-comer Brock Purdy will perform. Super Bowl excluded, it gives people without a rooting interest a reason to tune into a game. At its best, it lets us bet on things like what color Gatorade will be dumped on a winning coach’s head, whether the final score will be a scorigami, or whether the game will end in a walk-off field goal. And at its worst—well, I don’t need to explain all of the problems with gambling.
Those downsides notwithstanding, I’m glad the Super Bowl is in Las Vegas this year. There’s no subtext, no nuance, no subtlety. The NFL—a league with more problems than it can count—isn’t pretending to be too pure for gambling anymore. Viva football. Viva Las Vegas.