Who would have thought a decade ago that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman not only would be a panelist on a sports betting forum at the world’s largest casino industry convention but also an advocate for the gaming industry?
But there he was Wednesday on the third day of G2E at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, fielding questions and offering quips with the CEOs of three of the largest sports wagering companies worldwide.
Bettman, who has been NHL commissioner since 1993, had the same concerns as other major sports executives about how betting on games could corrupt the sport and lead to untold integrity issues.
“Whether or not I thought sports betting 27 years ago was a good idea and intellectually and emotionally, I always had the concern about what we would do to sports,” Bettman said during the panel discussion with CEOs Joe Asher of William Hill US, Matt King of FanDuel and Greg Carlin of Rush Street Gaming. “There’s nothing wrong with jai alai or horse racing, but we’re something different.”
But Bettman said once it became evident that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, opening the door to nationwide sports wagering, he knew he had to change his tune.
“None of that really mattered once the Supreme Court ruled,” Bettman said. “And at that point in time, I felt it was our league’s obligation to use the opportunity for sports betting to engage as many sports fans as possible and make sure our existing fans had a compelling experience if that’s what they wanted to do and maybe this was an opportunity to engage new fans who never focused on hockey. Once the Supreme Court ruled, it was no longer subject to debate, so we had to get with the program.”
Part of the transition centered on efforts to bring the NHL to Las Vegas in 2015. Bettman and the league worked with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and MGM Resorts International, operators of T-Mobile Arena. Bettman credited MGM CEO Jim Murren with helping him get past some concerns about gambling.
“We were the first (major league) sports league to put a team in Las Vegas,” Bettman said. “We began having a relationship for other reasons with MGM, and Jim Murren at that time gets a lot of credit for smartening us up.”
Now, Bettman is all in and comfortable weighing in on other gaming industry issues.
MGM became the NHL’s official wagering partner in 2018, and Bettman welcomed William Hill’s recent agreement with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to open the first sportsbook at a U.S. professional sports venue at Capital One Arena — also owned by Leonsis — in Washington, D.C.
“As early as opening night for the Vegas Golden Knights, you could sit in your seat and place a bet on your phone,” Bettman said. “It’s really like having a sportsbook inside the arena. It hasn’t been an issue.”
Bettman said the league expects to have its player and puck tracking technology in place by the 2019-20 playoffs, which books could use for live, in-game wagering.
“My people are telling me that we should be scaled in all 31 buildings certainly by the playoffs, if not before,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. We were going to use it at the All-Star Game, principally as a broadcast enhancement, but I’m told we’ll be up and running at least by the playoffs.”
Bettman said the NHL eventually plans to ask sportsbooks to pay for their proprietary data.
“We haven’t asked them yet, although MGM is entitled to that data when we do it,” Bettman said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to install it, and we’re going to spend millions of dollars to operate it each year.
“The player tracking will create something like 200 data points a second, and the puck will create something like 2,000 data points a second. And if you’re going to do prop betting, you have to have it in real time. This is something we’re going to create, and the only way you’re going to be able to access it is through us.”
Asher said he’s not sure how much of a market there will be for betting on the fastest skater in a game and other analytics.
“It’ll be very useful from a scouting perspective. You obviously don’t want to be the slowest skater on the team,” he said. “We’ll have to see it, but I really do have to commend the NHL for being at the forefront of ways to continue to engage fans.”
Sports betting certainly keeps more viewers engaged in games, and Bettman expects it to help the league’s bargaining position when it negotiates its next TV rights deal. The NHL’s current 10-year contract with NBC and NBC Sports Network expires after the 2021-22 season.
“From a league standpoint, we think sports betting will increase viewership, which will be good for rights fees and advertising revenue,” Bettman said.
The commissioner also is banking on the league’s tracking technology to appeal to millennials.
“That’s our sweet spot because, most people don’t know this, but we skew younger, we skew more affluent, we skew better educated and we skew more tech savvy than the other major sports,” he said. “So all of this fits nicely into that package.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.