The NHL was the first major pro sport to put a franchise in Las Vegas.
“I didn’t know it was a race,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking on Bloomberg’s Surveillance podcast.
If it was a race, the pro sports leagues would have been standing at the starting line after the gun fired, waiting to see which commissioner would sprint towards the desert first. The NHL committed to owner Bill Foley with an expansion team; now, the Oakland Raiders are flirting with relocation to Vegas, and the NBA is always going to be on the radar as well.
But for years, the hesitation to bring pro sports to Las Vegas centered around two factors: It’s economic viability as a sports market and, of course, the siren’s song of legalized sports betting and all of its baggage.
On the first concern, Bettman is still pre-selling Las Vegas as a solid NHL market.
“This was a team that was granted not for the tourist trade. Obviously, people are going to follow their favorite team to Las Vegas for a weekend and that will be fun. But Bill Foley did a season-ticket drive, with real prices. He did it a year ago, to see if there was interest in the community,” said Bettman.
He said business leaders in Las Vegas told him that the suburbs around the city would welcome the NHL. “There is a strong indigenous population in the suburbs looking for things that they have in other cities,” he said, citing the 15,000 season ticket commitments and sales that Foley has at this point.
“That would make them as strong as any franchise on a season-ticket basis,” said Bettman.
As for the gambling issue, Bettman has a nuanced answer to how a pro sports team navigates those murky waters. One that somewhat contradicts what he’s said in the past.
People don’t really bet on hockey.
“Gambling, for us, is probably an entirely different focus than, say, football or basketball, either at the pro or at the college level. We’re about one percent of the book. Our game doesn’t lend itself to gambling in the same way that football and basketball do,” Bettman said.
Anyone that’s bet on hockey knows this. There isn’t enough scoring for “point spreads,” nor is there the variety of parlay bets you have in the NFL and college football. You can bet on hockey; it’s just not the most appealing thing to bet on.
Nevada Gaming Commission data illustrates that over the 12-month period ending in April 2016, the last month of the NHL regular season, approximately $1.8 billion was bet on football, $1.4 billion bet on basketball, $931 million bet on baseball, $306 million bet on horse racing, and $336 million bet on “other” sports.
Thus, hockey’s annual handle would need to be around $48 million, or just 14 percent, of the $336 million handle on “other” wagers to constitute one percent of books’ total handle. This appears unlikely.
Several sportsbook directors that LSR spoke with said NHL games account for 3 to 4 percent of their annual handle. The ESPN report from June also cited several Las Vegas sportsbook directors who estimated NHL betting constituted up to 5 percent of their books’ handle. The NHL’s share of the four sports leagues’ betting handles is notably higher than 3 to 4 percent.
That’s still just four percent of all sports wagers, at most.
But daily fantasy sports … that’s a different animal.
That’s a huge entryway into placing money on hockey games in a fun and accessible way. Millions of hockey fans play fantasy already, and moving them to a monetized version of the game – a daily fix, at that – has proven to be easy. The NHL understands this, and has an equity stake in DraftKings.
Some see it as gambling. Others do not.
“You’re assuming that daily fantasy sports is the same as gambling,” Bettman told Bloomberg, when asked about “profiting from gambling” as a league.
He’s right, of course: The definition of daily fantasy as a gambling venture is very much up for debate (full disclosure: Yahoo Sports has a daily fantasy game) and, frequently, those who oppose its legality have protection of their own interests in mind, like Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas.
But if you consider daily fantasy gambling, and you combine it with the NHL wagering that’s already happening in Las Vegas, then you come back to something that Will Green notes in his reporting: Gary Bettman’s evolving stance on sports wagering.
In August 2012, Bettman contributed to a “declaration of support” for the continuation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, that bans sports wagering save for a few states. He joined the other four commissioners, and their statements all but sync up.
“Instead of enjoying the NHL for the skill of our athletes and to root for their team to win the game, many fans will feel cheated and disappointed when they do not win their bets, regardless of whether their team wins or loses. By making sports gambling a widespread institution tied to the outcomes of NHL games, the very nature of the sport is likely to change for the worse.”
(Weird how the fans’ feelings after losing a bet aren’t exactly paramount in comparison with a $500 million expansion fee…)
In 2014, Bettman had a longer conversation about gambling with Rachel Nichols of CNN:
Rachel Nichols – Now NBA commissioner Adam Silver did make a little bit of a splash this week, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times talking about legalizing sports gambling, he advocated for that pretty strongly, what do you think?
Gary Bettman – I think there needs some attention to be paid to what sport is going to represent to young people, should it 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.
Rachel Nichols – Do you think that it would change the nature of sports?
Gary Bettman – I think it could, do you want people at football and basketball games rooting for the spread or rooting for their favorite team?
Rachel Nichols – And there are some folks building an arena in Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, and they’ve talked about wanting an NHL team there…
Gary Bettman – So I’ve heard
Rachel Nichols – …yes, so what do you think about that?
Gary Bettman – The good news for us is the NHL has never been stronger, never been more popular, and that I guess has led to a lot of interest being expressed from a number of places, an interest in getting an expansion team, and Las Vegas happens to be one of those places.
And then in June 2015, with Sportsnet Radio:
“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.”
Bettman stressed that the relationship between the NHL and gambling might not be as compatible as in other sports because of scoring. “Our lines aren’t like they are in football and basketball and again, the amount that’s bet on our game isn’t the issue. It’s really a broader agenda for the sports that have much more involvement with gambling.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on gambling:
“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.”
Will the environment for Vegas games not resemble this? The proximity between the Las Vegas arena and the New York New York sportsbook begs to differ.
Forgetting the fans’ feelings for a moment, there are obviously going to be concerns from some corners about the NHL’s integrity with a team in Las Vegas. The League has stepped up on that, signing a deal with SportsRadar that specifically addresses detection of gambling trends and potential fraud.
According to Green, they could go even further:
The NHL has stopped short of endorsing a legalized sports betting framework as the NBA has recently done. It also was a named plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit the leagues filed against New Jersey’s attempts to legalize sports betting. Furthermore, the league has not said whether it will petition the NGC to disallow legal sports betting in Nevada on the Las Vegas franchise. (It has not yet done so, and has until just before the franchise’s first season to file a request). It is not uncommon for gambling legislation in a particular jurisdiction to prohibit wagering on that jurisdiction’s professional or amateur sports franchises.
But at the end of the day, Bettman believes in a few things: The viability of the Las Vegas market, separate from gambling; that daily fantasy shouldn’t necessarily be defined as gambling; that NHL games will remain about the action on the ice and not the action in the sportsbook; and that his players and teams are approve reproach, despite this move to Sin City.
“From our standpoint, as we focus on gambling, it’s about creating the right environment in the arena, making sure it continues to be family friendly, which it is for us. I believe in our players and their professionalism. So it’s not about the integrity of the game, it’s about the environment,” said Bettman.
Whatever happens with the NHL and gambling, one thing remains certain: Much of football’s market share can be directly owed to gambling. Much of March Madness’s popularity is directly owed to gambling. And the NHL’s lack of market share, across the entire U.S., can be directly linked to a lack of casual fan wagering on the game.
Which is why the playoffs are now bracketed. Which is why investments are being made in daily fantasy. And which is why, even if it’s a footnote in the overall motivation, the NHL was first into Las Vegas.
MORE NHL ANALYSIS FROM GREG WYSHYNSKI AND JEFF MAREK ON THEIR PODCAST!