For decades, the NFL prohibited teams from accepting advertisements from casinos — and casinos couldn't woo the sport's rabid fan base as potential customers.
But last week, the league relaxed its policy, allowing franchises such as the Baltimore Ravens to accept casino ads in game programs, on limited signs at stadiums and on local radio stations. The new policy will be enforced with strict guidelines for the next two seasons.
The change in the NFL's policy is the latest sign that the league is modifying its hard-line stance against nonsports gambling. The league, however, remains opposed to betting on football games.
Other professional sports, such as baseball and hockey, have accepted casino ads or have had marketing partnerships with gambling facilities for years.
The rule change also comes as Maryland's nascent casino industry begins to promote slots play to more gamblers. The state's largest casino, in Anne Arundel County, is expected to open in June, joining two other parlors, in Cecil County and on the Eastern Shore.
State officials also are considering bids for slots parlors in Baltimore and Western Maryland, which would round out the state's five-site gaming program.
"The announcement that the NFL made is very exciting for us," said Mario Maesano, vice president of marketing for Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills. "For those in the industry, we have been looking forward to something like this for years."
Given the proliferation of gambling ads, sports marketing executives say they don't expect a backlash from NFL fans.
"People are inundated with casino advertisements in other media. They're inundated with lottery advertisements," said Howe Burch, an executive vice president with TBC Advertising in Baltimore and a former marketing executive with Reebok and Fila. "Most people wouldn't know that the NFL has prohibited casino advertisements.
"My guess is after two years you'll probably see a broader sponsorship platform for the casinos," he added.
Burch describes the rule change as a "win-win" for the teams, which can tap additional revenue from the $35 billion commercial casino industry, and for gambling facilities, which gain access to football fans.
"I think it's particularly important for the Ravens because of the emergence of the casino industry in Maryland," he said. "For the casinos, it's very good because you have an audience that's predisposed to their product, and you're delivering that audience in very large numbers through the Ravens."
Baltimore Ravens' representatives handling regional partnerships and sales plan to reach out to area casinos, spokesman Patrick Gleason said. Besides Maryland's Hollywood Casino Perryville, the Casino at Ocean Downs near Ocean City and the new Arundel Mills casino, some gambling facilities in West Virginia and Delaware are within an hour and a half from Baltimore.
"It's important to note, however, that we are currently reviewing the NFL's memo and considering our next steps," Gleason said. "As with any sponsorship opportunity, we will, of course, be cautious and comply with NFL guidelines."
The new policy places restrictions on what types of advertisements teams can sell. No television ads, digital media marketing or sales of naming rights or programming sponsorships are permitted under the policy that covers the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Team logos and players, coaches or other employees cannot appear in casino ads, which all must include a "responsible gambling" message. Casino advertisers cannot accept bets or promote gambling on sporting events except horse or dog races.
Signs at stadiums are limited to upper bowl or interior concourses. Advertisers must contribute money to the league's gambling education and other related programs.
"We remain steadfast in our opposition to the proliferation of gambling on NFL games," league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email. "There is a distinction between accepting advertising in this limited fashion and gambling on the outcome of our games."
The NFL has long prevented clubs from accepting ads for casinos or other gambling-related parties, except for horse- and dog-racing tracks.
In recent years, the league has slowly become receptive to other gambling advertising. Since 2003, NFL teams have been allowed to accept ads for municipal lotteries and off-track betting groups, so long as those groups do not accept bets for sporting events.
In 2009, teams began entering into sponsorship agreements with state lottery agencies, allowing them to use team logos. The Maryland Lottery began the Ravens Cash Fantasy scratch-off game three years ago. The game has become the best-selling $5 scratch-off in Maryland Lottery history and has generated net revenue of $2 million to $3 million annually, state officials said.
In 2010, the NFL began allowing teams to accept advertising for Las Vegas, provided the material contains no references or depictions of gambling or casinos.
As Maryland Live at Arundel Mills gears up for its opening in June, Maesano said, promoting the state's newest casino with the Ravens made sense. Maesano said he planned to reach out to the team over the next several months.
The casino, which will open with 3,100 of the 4,750 slot machines it will eventually have, has established marketing partnerships with DC United, the Nationals, the Orioles and the Capitals.
"It's about brand alignment and reaching a large group of people. Professional sports teams in Baltimore, especially a team like the Ravens, reach a lot of people," Maesano said. "Their brand is solid and it's the entertainment business. Sports is to have fun. That's what the gaming industry is all about."
Burch, the marketing executive, put the cost of advertising with the Ravens in the low six figures, depending on the scope of the contract.
For smaller facilities like Hollywood Casino Perryville, advertising with the Ravens would be economically unfeasible given the state's 67 percent tax rate on gambling revenue, said Marc DeLeo, the casino's marketing director.
"Partnering with a brand like the NFL could be very expensive," DeLeo said.