Colleges and universities in 18 exclusive states that are struggling to balance athletics budgets might have an option for turning those books around.
But – take a deep breath – it may involve entering into a deal with a sports betting agency.
On Tuesday, the University of Colorado at Boulder swung that Pandora’s box wide open by committing to a five-year sponsorship contract with Australian bookmaker PointsBet in an agreement that was not only approved by its conference, the Pac-12, but also by the NCAA.
Too good be true? Until now, it would have been.
The NCAA has long frowned on its member schools and conferences from being associated with gambling in any form – and has meted out the sanctions and death penalty punishments to prove it. In fact, competing student-athletes, coaches and staff are still prohibited from betting on NCAA-sanctioned contests.
But given the financial fallout impacting colleges and universities and their athletics programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems to be relaxing restrictions when it comes to sponsorships. Among them might be the allowance of creative deals by more higher education institutions in states where sports betting is legal, such as Colorado.
“The five-year deal provides a financial boost for CU Athletics during a time when athletic department budgets nationwide are stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the University of Colorado said in a press release.
In a conference call with reporters and in a recently penned column on Colorado’s website, athletic director Rick George stressed the importance of maintaining a strong athletic program, where others have struggled with budget cuts, lost seasons and disappearing or furloughed faculty and staff.
“We’re not going to do anything to downgrade the things that we’re doing in the support areas for our student-athletes,” he said.
The question is not when other universities will follow, but how many others will look to strike similar deals.
Of the 18 states that allow sports betting, four others are located in Western states – Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada, which George pointed out conveniently has casinos attached to arenas there.
“Sports gaming in college athletics is becoming more and more prevalent in states, and I think it’s going to expand moving forward,” George said.
He’s right. Outside Nevada, sports betting in states just became legal less than two years ago and it has already found a home in Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Four other states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington) have passed bills allowing it, and nine others – Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont – have bills pending.
If the Colorado deal is a sign of things to come, expect athletics departments, which are often represented by entities in corporate sponsorship deals – in this case Buffalo Sports Properties – to be able to package deals that go beyond gaming and betting to provide access for students and fans to engage in free-to-play games and daily fantasy sports. In return, expect those partners to have their brands emblazoned on signage throughout campus and offsite venues.
One more key selling point to universities in forging a sponsorship deal with a sports betting agency is that it could, believe it or not, have an education component tied to it.
The sports betting/education connection
The stigma of sports betting aside, Colorado believes it has a partner in PointsBet committed to helping develop content and programming that fit with the university’s mission.
“I think PointsBet can help us educating our student-athletes,” George said. “I think the educational piece is going to be a critical part of that.”
One of the key factors for universities looking to carve a similar path will be to have their conferences on board with any sponsorship. The Pac-12 has been more than open to the notion of wooing potential partners that will help … especially if they bring more to the table than gaming.
Last year, the Pac-12 launched a partnership deal with Game Plan, a platform that helps to deliver online education to support athletes. It also provides professional development for administrators and staff on issues of compliance, specifically looking at NCAA regulations. All of it is framed around sports wagering. And almost all of it can be done online, with resources available on Game Plan’s site as well as its app.
How much of a leap will it be for other athletic departments to make those connections and have them approved by their conferences and the NCAA?
Some higher ed institutions already have sports wagering in their educational offerings, taking advantage of their individual state’s relaxed rules to provide content related to the field.
- At the University of New Hampshire, students can take a law school certificate program dedicated to the law and business of sports wagering.
- Ohio University also offers a Sports Gambling Education certificate program in which it has partnered with sports betting monitoring service U.S. Integrity and online education platform Cyanna on three courses – preventing, identifying and reacting to sports betting fraud.
- And the University of Nevada-Las Vegas has long had its International Gaming Institute that deals with sports betting among other wagering topics.
Aside from helping defray costs through sponsorship deals, being aligned with a sports betting agency could allow students at Colorado and other schools the opportunities to pursue careers in a field that continues to grow exponentially, especially as more states embrace it. An ESPN report in May noted that more than $20 billion has been wagered on sporting events since 2018.
It might not be for every higher education institution, but it might be worth exploring. Many sports betting agencies like PointsBet have been looking for partners at the college level.
“Since announcing our plans for a new headquarters in Denver, we’ve consistently stated our desire to work closely with the state’s first-class university system and rich pool of tech talent,” said Johnny Aitken, CEO of PointsBet. “We look forward to bolstering general sports betting knowledge and responsible gaming awareness while recruiting some of the best and brightest minds to help install a foundation for prolonged success.”
Chris Burt is a reporter and editor with University Business. He can be reached at [email protected]