After several years of struggling, Arena Football League officials believe legal sports betting can be a big part of its future.
The league now has six teams, four of which returned from last season, mostly positioned in the northeast. That includes Baltimore, Philadelphia, Albany, Washington DC, plus the expansion Columbus Destroyers and Atlantic City Blackjacks.
This year, the league features 12 games with playoffs set for July 27 and the ArenaBowl the second week of August. Games are broadcast in regional markets as well as on the Monumental Sports Network.
The league also announced a new broadcast deal on Friday. All regular-season games will be available on ESPN3 and the ESPN app. The ArenaBowl XXXII will also be televised on ESPN2.
But as the league enters its second week of the 2019 season, Commissioner Randall Boe outlined his sports betting vision, which is unique and integral to the growth of the league.
Well-situated for sports betting in NJ and beyond
One thing is clear, five of the six AFL franchises are located where sports betting is legal or could be legal soon. Ohio legislators are also considering sports betting bills.
This means bettors in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Washington D.C. area (including Baltimore) all may have an interest in betting on AFL games. That’s a positive as Boe sees it.
“I think in trying to grow the Arena Football League is that we’re building it from the ground up,” he said.
“What I always say is that we’re building the next generation sports league. To me, one of the building blocks is sports betting.”
With a high-scoring product, Boe believes the AFL offers bettors a chance to become fans as well. By betting or playing fantasy games, interest in the league may grow.
Atlantic City offers a test case with NJ online sports betting and live wagering taking off in the state.
Having a team in Atlantic City offers a chance to build relationships with sportsbook operators in New Jersey. That market currently stands at 23 total sportsbooks (13 online, 10 retail).
Boe hopes that carries over to other markets such as Philadelphia.
A deal with DraftKings
With 36 percent of betting done on football, the AFL is hoping to carve out a place in the spotlight with bettors in New Jersey and beyond.
“I think we are a pretty unique league in our willingness to promote sports betting,” Boe said.
“We work with sports betting operators to make the game a little more understandable for them, and to frankly get our name up on the board in as many books as we can.”
Fantasy games also added for fan engagement
Beyond sports betting, fantasy games also offer a chance to market and promote the league. Fantasy games have been lacking for the league in the past.
More than 59 million play fantasy football each year. That seems like a missed opportunity, and the DraftKings deal solves that problem.
DraftKings games are featured on the AFL website with numerous contests. These range from free events to a few entries at the $50 level.
The DFS site was a league sponsor last season, and Boe is excited to see the relationship grow.
“We think it will get them more involved and more engaged,” he said. “Ultimately my goal is to get as big an audience as I can get for the AFL and have that audience as engaged as possible. Sports betting is a part of that.”
The league also announced a deal with Chalkline Sports for a free to play live odds game. Chalkline’s product allows fans to make weekly, daily, and in-game predictions for prizes.
The games feature betting lines, prop bets, and other options.
“It’s an important way to see if people actually like doing it,” Boe said. “I see it as a warmup for maybe a bigger relationship with a bigger operator eventually.”
A new business plan for the AFL
At this point, the AFL is a small league with big aspirations.
Along with sports betting, the league has undergone some changes in the last 32 seasons.
The league changed its structure, with all teams now owned by the league. That allows for economies of scale and less overhead.
Poor ownership groups also plagued the AFL occasionally in the past. The league filed for bankruptcy at one point and canceled the 2009 season.
But legal sports betting and its growth across the US is part of the plan going forward, and it will be taken into account for further expansion.
Boe expects the league to add two to four teams each season for the next few years.
“Our expansion process is different than most other leagues,” he said.
“We can pick the markets we want to go into. We’re literally evaluating hundreds of data points about a lot of cities, and trying to find the best markets. One of the factors we’re absolutely assessing is sports betting. It’s why we put a team in Atlantic City.”
The Atlantic City Blackjacks’ home opener is set for Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.