Slowly American sports leagues are coming around to the fact that gambling on their product is inevitable. Nowhere has this realization come faster than with the National Hockey League. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has done a complete about-face on the subject. The League has embraced the gaming options completely. The NHL position on gambling is now full speed ahead.

Stanley Cup
The NHL’s position on gambling has rapidly evolved with the times, and now is held up by the gaming industry as an example of what’s possible with major sports leagues. (image: Getty)

Before there was the recognition of the synergy between hockey and sports betting, the NHL was firmly against any tie-in. Just two years ago the league had nothing positive to say about wagering and hockey. But a quick turn-around has taken place in the last two years.

NHL History with Gambling

For years, decades, forever the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. have been opposed to gambling on their events. Even with the reality of billions of dollars being wagered, the message was – “we oppose gambling.”

The dyke began to leak when the NFL silently endorsed fantasy leagues. But it took the  federal government acting in May of 2018 for the leagues to take a new look at their relationship to gambling.

Prior to the overturning of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the National Hockey League expressed dire views of legalized gaming. “I think there needs some attention to be paid to what sport is going to represent to young people.,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman in 2014 “Should (the game) be viewed in the competitive, team-oriented sense that it is now, or does it become a vehicle for betting, which may, in effect, change the atmosphere in the stadiums and the arenas?”

For some unknown reasons, the ability to put a dime down on the Predators, was going to threaten the youth of America. And apparently, chaos would reign in the NHL arenas if it were known that the Red Wings were +120.

The following year (2015) the Commissioner upped the ante on the NHL position. “I’m not a prude on the subject, but if people are running off thinking that they’re going to make lots and lots of money off of this then that may be another sports’ agenda but it’s not ours. You don’t want people rooting for anything other than the team that they love and the players that they think the world of to win. We don’t want there to be another agenda.You don’t want guys in the stands with bet tickets in their hands and the only reason they’re watching the game is so they can cash in on a bet afterwards. That’s not an environment you want to foster or create as a professional sports league.”

Whatever it was that the NHL ‘understood’ suddenly changed when the Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018.

NHL’s 2019 Position on Sports Gambling

“I think the impacts that we will see from sports betting are more indirect but all positive in that respect of fan connectivity and fanbase growth,” Commissioner Bettman said.
It would seem that all of the dire consequences of gambling on hockey matches disappeared with the Supreme Court ruling. A wave of the magic judicial wand brought the National Hockey League into the 21st century of sports gaming.
“Our hope is it (gaming) causes more people to watch more games.” Bettman said, “We think it will cause ratings on NBC to go up because more people will be watching.”
The bottom line was indeed the bottom line. Increased revenue from gaming partnerships got the NHL into the gambling world in a hurry.

Gaming Partnerships

In October of 2018, the NHL entered into and agreement with MGM Resorts as the NHL’s “first official sports betting partner.” Commissioner Bettman called the partnership “both exciting and groundbreaking for our League.” MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren called it “historic.”

MGM got access to NHL intellectual property, including all trademarks, for marketing and promotion. Also included is access to real-time advanced game data that currently is being developed by the League. All of these innovations are expected to be up and running for the 2019-2020 season.

MGM Resorts is already involved with the NHL as a part-owner of T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights. A fact that Commissioner Bettman found conducive to the new partnership.

“It was easiest, most sensible to us to start with somebody who is already a partner and somebody we already had a working relationship with, namely MGM,” Bettman said.

Then in March of this year, the NHL announced a second gaming partnership with the William Hill sportsbook. Through the agreement, William Hill U.S. will become an official betting partner of the NHL and receive promotional media and branding opportunities in connection with league events.

The question remains, does the NHL understand the ramifications of these gambling enterprises. Or were the concerns of prior years justified?

Understanding Sports and Gambling

It would appear that at least the NHL Commissioner has thought this through.

“What we’ve learned is that [sports gambling] is another point of engagement for the fans,” Bettman said. “Ultimately, I think if you’re interested in sports betting, you’re going to have an increased opportunity to engage with the game. If you’re not interested, it shouldn’t impact the way you consume the game. And if you’re a sports fan who may not necessarily be a hockey fan. This will give you an opportunity, potentially, to sample something new.

Bettman also dismissed worries about how legalized sports betting would affect the integrity of professional hockey, reminding everyone that “trillions of dollars” were and still are bet on sports illegally in the United States “and we haven’t had an integrity problem. The fact that it’s now legal shouldn’t mean we have an integrity problem.”

And how will teams in states with sports betting handle their new found revenue stream?

Where, How and When Will Changes Happen?

“The way we’ve structured the framework for the League and the teams, not unlike television arrangements, there is a national component and we provide for the clubs to have a local component,” Commissioner Bettman said. “If you happen to be in a jurisdiction that has sports betting your opportunities are going to be great for the club and the local market.”

The Washing Capitals are already adding a sportsbook to Capital One Arena. Teams in Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon could soon follow.

But does Commissioner Bettman and the NHL really get it? Does this final quote sound like someone who understands the sports betting situation?

“I know there have been a lot of discussions about going to single-game betting as opposed to parlay, which is what currently exists,” Commissioner Bettman said in 2018. “As the law evolves you’ll see our evolution in dealing with it, which is what we’ve done here in the United States. A year ago we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But the world changed and we’re adapting to it.”

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