Legalized sports wagering presents the greatest opportunity for the National Hockey League to grow its product since the expansion boom 25 years ago.
This might seem like hyperbole, given that more people likely wager on the coin toss at the Super Bowl than wager on professional hockey in a given season. “We’re about 1 percent of the book. Our game doesn’t lend itself to gambling in the same way that football and basketball do,” said commissioner Gary Bettman in 2016.
This has been true for decades. Simply put, hockey doesn’t traditionally have enough events to entice widespread interest from gamblers. Even in a season where scoring was at its highest levels league-wide since 2006, we’re still talking about more 2-1 games than 7-6 games. It’s not a sport that lends itself to straight up point spreads. And let’s face it: a novice bettor could develop a migraine if they’re staring at a wall of money lines.
The key, then, is to find ways in which hockey does lend itself to gambling, and that’s what makes legalized sports wagering in the U.S. so tantalizing: It brings us closer to mobile, in-game betting in real time that could revolutionize the way fans watch a hockey game.
Bets on which team or player scores the next goal. Bets on overtime. Bets on something as frequent as power play success. The mind races thinking about these opportunities, and how they could attract new demographics to watch a game.
“All the best data providers are ready. It’s a matter of integration time with the appropriate platform providers and how quickly the new operators want to bring in-play betting product to market,” Craig Mucklow, COO of Don Best Sports told SportsHandle.com last December. “Being first out to market with a flawed offering does more damage than good. Having the right product with stable technology and the best user experience is what will lead to customer retention.”
In other words, creating a product whose integrity wins the hearts, minds and bank accounts of fans.
Which is why Gary Bettman wants someone to buy his data.
Bettman made waves this week when an Associated Press podcast played an interview conducted in June with the commissioner in which he appeared to advocate for the NHL to get a cut of the money wagered on it.
“From our standpoint, we believe that whether it’s our intellectual property or data, whether it’s video of our game, we have important assets. And if somebody is going to avail themselves or want to avail themselves of those assets in order to conduct their business, then we’re going to need to have a negotiation,” he said.
This was interpreted by many as the NHL asking for some kind of “vig” from casinos based on the money wagered on hockey. But Bettman never said he wanted a cut of gambling profits, nor has he shown a desire for the NHL to be too actively involved in sports betting. He’s framed it as somewhere in between a necessary evil and a potential benefit for the league, provided it’s stringently regulated. Getting a direct cut of the profits would lead to issues of integrity, and potentially to ones of liability. That goes for the NHL, or any sports league.
Which is why after the Supreme Court ruled that sports gambling would be legal in the U.S., leagues like the NBA and the NHL disguised their desire share in the windfall with something called “integrity fees.” In essence, they wanted state legislatures to mandate that sportsbooks fund the mechanisms that these leagues use to maintain the “integrity” of their products in light of legal sports wagering.
They asked, and lawmakers laughed it out of the state house. Especially since these leagues are already funding mechanisms to maintain their own integrity. (The NHL has had a multiyear deal with Sportradar to monitor betting patterns on hockey.)
So the leagues changed tactics. Instead of having sportsbooks pay for “integrity” as a nebulous concept, they’re going to ask them to pay for the “integrity” of the leagues’ official data. Which, again, seems ridiculous on its face because game results and stats are public domain; but, perhaps, that’s not the end game here.
Perhaps mobile in-game wagering, using proprietary data, is the end game.
The AP publishing Bettman’s desire to negotiate with sportsbooks over intellectual property coincided with the NBA’s announcement that it had entered into a three-year, $25 million deal to make MGM Grand the “official gaming partner” of the NBA and WNBA. It can use NBA logos and trademarks to promote its product. But, more importantly, it has access to the official league data feed. As our own David Purdum wrote: “The NBA believes the reliability and speed of the feed will become increasingly valuable in the future, especially for in-game betting, which is expected to take off in the U.S.”
Which brings us back to the NHL. This is, essentially, what they’re after: They want partners to ante up for the “official data” from the league.
In one way, it’s not all that different than a pizza chain paying for the right to be “the official pie of the NHL” or some such. A sportsbook with an official endorsement likely means additional marketing from the NHL, and perhaps a preference from hockey fans.
In another way, it truly is about the data. We’re not talking about goals and assists here; we’re talking about the treasure trove of data that the eventual adoption of player tracking tech is going to create in real-time, and the wagering possibilities that arrive with it. And it’s not just about the bets themselves — it’s about the full picture of information that could aid in wagering on games.
Going back to the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver wasn’t sure if Second Spectrum, which provides optical-tracking data and analytics to teams in the NBA, would be included in the MGM Grand data stream. But he didn’t say it wouldn’t be, definitively. “What underlies the question is Second Spectrum data that tracks players throughout the arena; it’s unclear how that data might be used in some sort of proposition bet or some in-play bet. And I think that’s something we have to work out,” Silver said.
The NHL knows that a lack of interest from gamblers has stunted the league’s growth in the U.S., in comparison to the popularity of pro and college football and basketball. It’s made some nascent attempts at creating ways to wager more on hockey: Like, for example, restructuring the Stanley Cup Playoffs into an office pool-ready bracket without reseeding.
So hopefully it knows that leaning into the wave of sports betting that’s crashing over the nation is better for the league’s growth than swimming away from it. The fact is that the NHL might have to swallow some pride and concede on a few things — Bettman, for example, has been loathe to have in-arena betting like they have in European soccer leagues. Mobile wagering, one assumes, renders that concern moot.
The opportunity is there for legalized sports betting to expand the NHL’s consumer base, especially given where the tech is headed. Whether Bettman and the NHL are bold enough to foster and encourage that growth … well, all bets are off.