Disruption Drives the NFL to Gamble — Or How to Kill a Sacred Cow in 3 Easy Steps

A couple weeks ago, the NFL discussed gambling and the game. … No, not the impact gambling could have on the game. Actual gambling as part of the NFL — from your seat, at the game or in your home, every Sunday. Why would they do that? Disruption. What will you do when the sacred cows in your industry are brought to the butcher’s block?

NFL considers killing a sacred cow and allowing gambling back ino the game.
Credit: Pixabay by Keith Johnston

A couple weeks ago, the NFL had a summit to discuss gambling and the game. … Not the impact gambling could have on the game; actual gambling as part of the NFL — from your seat, at the game or in your home, every Sunday.

If they do that, it will mark the death of one of America’s most sacred cows: the separation of the big four team sports — football, baseball, hockey and basketball — from dirty, dirty gamblers who could taint the games. It could also bring Brink’s trucks full of even more money into the league coffers.

Why would they do that? Disruption.

Like many industries, the NFL sees a game-changing event on the horizon. The owners need to decide whether they want to stay the course (and potentially see someone else benefit from that disruption), or move first to make the most of it (and potentially ruin everything they’ve built).

If your industry hasn’t faced this kind of decision, it will. What will you do when your sacred cows are brought to the butcher’s block? Here are three steps to think through whether to keep Bessy on her pedestal, or make the hard cut.

1. Recognize the New Situation

This sacred calf has been venerated for nearly 100 years — ever since the “Black Sox” scandal, when the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. That was when the big leagues realized gambling could undermine the legitimacy of sports in the eyes of the American public (and any sports fan will tell you the referees do a good enough job of that all on their own).

While U.S. attitudes toward gambling have changed in the past decade, for most of my life, the idea of league-sanctioned gambling was absolutely unthinkable. Now, NFL ownership is considering not just whether they could cozy up with casinos, but how they might do it, and how many zeros those checks might have.

It could be the boldest stroke of genius, or the dumbest butt-fumble, in NFL history.


Gambling exists in a grey area of American entertainment. By and large, sports gambling has been limited to just Las Vegas in the United States. Now the Supreme Court appears ready to allow New Jersey to add sports gambling to its casino and race track games, and that would open the floodgates for other states to do the same.

This is a remarkably new situation for the NFL. Gambling may be coming, and the owners would rather ride that wave than be drowned by it.

At the same time, some of the underlying realities of the Black Sox scandal have changed as well. Athletes of the time were not that wealthy, and very vulnerable to outside financial influence. Today, professional athletes are some of the wealthiest people in the world, and gambling payoffs large enough to motivate them seem unrealistic. What’s more, Europe’s soccer leagues have been in bed with gambling for years, and the nightmare scenarios just haven’t materialized (although it hasn’t been all clean, either).

All of those factors mean the context that made this cow sacred have changed. And the business people who’ve been holding it sacred need to recognize that, too.

2. Identify the Business Opportunities

It’s one thing to recognize the situation has changed. It’s another to identify the opportunities in it.

Customer Delight Is Better Than Marketing

We often think of disruption coming from a new product, the way computers seemed to. “Here’s this thing we never had before, and it changes everything.” But in reality, disruption comes from changes in service. It’s the new, easier ways to do things that create customer delight … and disruption.

We often think of disruption coming from new products, the way computers seemed to. “Here’s this thing we never had before, and it changes everything.” But in reality, disruption comes from changes in service. It’s the new, easier way to do things that creates customer delight … and disruption.

New Service Systems = Disruption

The computer didn’t create a new kind of ledger, writing or art (at least initially), but it made them easier to do. It improved the service to users.

In the keynote at Inbound17, Brian Halligan, CEO and founder of HubSpot, showed how, today, it’s not the new product that disrupts an industry, it’s the new service. Disruption comes not from a new thing, but a new way of delivering a thing people love and need that eliminates the hassles they hated in the old delivery system.

He specifically pointed to Uber, iTunes and NetFlix, three companies credited with single-handedly destroying industries.

But Uber didn’t create a new kind of car ride. It delivered the car ride in a way that eliminated the things  people hate about using taxis and other ride services: Unreliability, waits, the inability to get a taxi, and in some cases exorbitant prices.

And customers were delighted.

Disruption = Customer Delight

iTunes didn’t create a new kind of music and NetFlix didn’t create a new kind of TV show. Instead, they both changed the way these things were delivered.

iTunes meant music lovers no longer had to buy a whole album to get just the songs they wanted, or limit playing those songs to CDs or other physical media they were packaged in.

NetFlix originally eliminated late fees, allowing customers to keep the DVDs they took out as long as they wanted. Later, it introduced streaming, so you could watch whatever you wanted (in its library) at any time from anywhere. No longer were you limited to a couple DVDs (again, the limits of physical media), or TV channel schedules. Whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it — that was the promise of NetFlix.

And people love it. NetFlix is now a synonym for watching long periods of TV at home, and “NetFlix and chill” has come to mean a date night you definitely are not going out for.

Customer Delight > Marketing

These services all delighted customers. That’s how they won.

Delighting customers — making sure they get what they want the way they want it — creates a kind of goodwill marketing money can’t buy.

“In 2018, delighted customers are better at marketing for you than your own marketing department,” said Halligan. And he’s right.

Perhaps the best example is Amazon. Jeff Bezos believes in the flywheel strategy: Offer what customers want at the lowest prices possible and optimize for the customer experience — which for Amazon means making sure the the site interface, delivery and customer service aspects are all top-notch.

Do those things, and your customers will be delighted. then they’ll talk about how delighted they are, and that attracts other customers — and the flywheel just keeps expanding and expanding.

They say one of Bezos’s favorite expressions is, “Your margin in my opportunity.” But make no mistake, the opportunity he sees is a chance to delight your customers in a way you aren’t.

If that feels personal … well, a little bit, it is. Marketing in 2018 is not monolithic. It’s not broadcast. It’s not talking at customers who will have to work with you in the end. Every aspects of the customer experience is personal to the customer, and they will judge you based on that experience and very publicly discuss how it made them feel.

If you can make them feel delighted, that market is yours.

Disruption: A Concept to Embrace Out of Love or Fear

“Change” is ever-constant in life and marketing — like births, deaths and taxes. But what about “disruption?” I hear a lot of references to it these days. This higher usage of “disruption” in our vocabulary is not a re-statement about change, it’s about the magnitude of that change.

Online Marketing Strategies That Work“Change” is ever-constant in life and marketing — like births, deaths and taxes. But what about “disruption?” I hear a lot of references to it these days.

This higher usage of “disruption” in our vocabulary is not a re-statement about change, it’s about the magnitude of that change. Change is incremental. Disruption is game changing. Disruption today is seemingly everywhere — in politics, in social and economic ebb and flows, in business — and certainly in marketing.

Are we ready for disruption? Do we not only accept disruption’s emergence, but also expect it, learn from it and truly embrace its challenges (and opportunities)?

That’s not always easy to do. However, disruption is the new normal. Did those of us in the world of direct marketing — who perhaps knew from the start that digital marketing was “direct marketing on steroids” — truly foresee the disruption that digital business models would wreak? Venture capital and Silicon Valley certainly placed bets on monetizing data and they have prospered. Still, traditional direct marketing has had to adapt to digital, social, local and mobile — our marketing discipline’s “own” digital disruption. We’ve had to anticipate disruption or pay the price, much like everybody else.

Most CMOs have to manage disruption, digital and otherwise, but today’s CMOs are rarely recruited from the data-rich realm of direct marketing. Branding still dominates CMO ranks. Branding budgets still drive the bulk of ad spending — even as data collection and analysis now influence more and more of that spend. The labels of “direct marketing,” “digital marketing” and even “integrated marketing” are now simply “marketing.” CMOs, with their dashboards, need to account for all they spend and the value that spending creates. Labels tend to reflect silos that stubbornly hang on but can mire the overall customer experience. Managing customer experience is managing disruption.

Millennials in the workplace are another disruptor. I thank them for the insights they bring to our business, and for the focused coverage and research their presence creates. They should dominate our imaginations as Baby Boomers and Generation X before – but we should resist classifying them with our prejudices, and rely on the data that the marketplace provides (as a target market) and their insights (as members of our marketing team).

Next week, Marketing EDGE will bestow its inaugural EDGE Awards in New York CityLester Wunderman, MediaMath, Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative and six “Rising Stars” will all be in the spotlight. The first three honorees are disruptors in their own right, while the six “Rising Stars” actually have “disruption” as a criterion for their recognition. Marketing in the age of disruption may scare, carry risks, spur failure – but survival is the payoff if you’re lucky, and true innovation if you’re really lucky. What choice do we have but to embrace disruption?