NHL Commissioner Bettman Completes 180-Degree Turn On Sports Betting

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Another day, another NHL partnership with a gambling company, another opportunity for league Commissioner Gary Bettman to explain his abrupt turnabout on his stance on sports betting.

That was the circumstance at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Monday as the NHL and the New Jersey Devils announced separate deals with FanDuel, the daily fantasy sports giant that already is the brand name for the sportsbook at that East Rutherford track and has the second-most popular online sports betting site in the Garden State.

As Bettman himself pointed out, he was at the forefront of successful lobbying to Congress to pass the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, or PASPA, that for more than two decades handed Nevada a near-monopoly on sports betting.

In a 2012 deposition by Bettman that came after the NHL and four other major sports organizations sued New Jersey to prevent implementation of sports betting at the state’s racetracks and Atlantic City casinos, he said that the “atmosphere” that the league wanted to create at hockey games was “inconsistent with sports betting. And I don’t think you need a study to tell you that. I think if you’re in touch with your games and your fans, you understand it.

“I think that when somebody loses a bet, they tend to sometimes confuse their motives in rooting and enjoying the game because if you lose your bet, even though the team you’re rooting for wins, you have a potentially conflicted outcome,” Bettman added in the deposition.

Quite the change of heart

So how did Bettman — whose league never withdrew from the lawsuit, not even after bringing an expansion team to Las Vegas last fall — wind up on a stage with FanDuel just one week after announcing the league’s partnership with MGM Resorts to provide official statistical data to MGM’s casinos?

Bettman tried to explain:

“A lot of people in the last few months have said they don’t understand my ‘conversion,'” Bettman told NJ Online Gambling following the press conference. “The perception was that we were the most anti-sports betting and anti-gambling [league]. But I have pointed out to a number of people that we were the first sports league to put a team in Las Vegas.”

Still,  Bettman suggested that “conversion” didn’t fully flower until May 14.

“The moment the Supreme Court ruled [to strike down PASPA], we decided we needed to evolve with the times, get ourselves out front of this, and be proactive,” Bettman said. “It was important that we develop partnerships like this one.”

Bettman added that “we were very comfortable with the state of the world” while PASPA prevented most states from offering any legal sports betting. “Once the Supreme Court ruled after a long and winding journey through the courts, there was no debate anymore. You can either put your head in the sand, or embrace [sports betting]. Those are your two choices.”

“Ancient history”

Bettman doubled down again on squaring his past opposition with his current embrace.

“If you check what I said [in his deposition], my concerns were that it would change the environment at games themselves, and what would it do to the position of athletes as role models as opposed to devices for betting,” Bettman said. “But those concerns, whether or not legitimate, are irrelevant once the Supreme Court ruled. I’m not going to get into a debate over the lawsuit. It’s ancient history.”

Bettman, going all-in as a pragmatist after once worrying about the influence of gambling on his ticket buyers, said he now hoped that it would help draw newcomers to the excitement of the NHL.

“Once we’ve got you slightly, we’ve got you hooked,” Bettman insisted.

Finally, Bettman said something Monday that those on the other side of the sports betting lawsuit had asserted for many years.

“Early data is telling us that people betting are engaging more with their favorite sports leagues,” Bettman said.

The Devils and the details

What can NHL fans at league arenas in the sports betting era expect? Since the Vegas Golden Knights play in an arena surrounded by casinos, it will be the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark who are expected to serve as the more common template for other teams.

Here’s what is coming (some of it immediately, other parts in the very near future):

As you walk into “The Rock” — as the Prudential Center is called — you’ll immediately notice the Caesars Entertainment casino brand on 80 digital boards scattered around the arena as well as on concourse pillars and signs. Your club level ticket also will have the logo, as will your premium wristband and the outfits of much of the wait staff.

On the main concourse, you’ll see the 5,000-square-foot Caesars Club restaurant and bar.

And what’s that over there? Why, it’s the William Hill Sports Lounge.

As you settle into your seat, you’ll notice that one of the brands being advertised on the ice is FanDuel. And after the initial shift of the game for the Devils, what you’ll see on the scoreboard is a notification that it was the “William Hill Line Change.”

Devils executive Hugh Weber said the deals with gaming companies are part of a framework of change that came about with the purchase of the franchise by an ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer five years ago.

“We are hyperfocused on fan experience, and we have made over $20 million in capital improvements to the Prudential Center, including the world’s largest scoreboard,” Weber said. “We see this as an extension of that fan experience. This is the future of the league.”

FanDuel’s deal with NHL

The FanDuel partnership with the NHL at first will be more daily fantasy sports-centric, since only the Devils and Golden Knights play in states where sports betting is legal while dozens of states allow DFS.

There will be regular DFS contests that give fans a chance to win a VIP trip to the 2019 Winter Classic game between the Bruins and Blackhawks on New Year’s Day at Notre Dame Stadium.

Matt King, CEO of the FanDuel Group, said that having the official NHL imprimatur on its site is a “huge differentiator” compared to the admittedly enormous illegal, offshore, online sports betting alternatives.

“It’s a new market, so it’s really important to build trust,” King said.

Kip Levin, FanDuel president and COO, said that offering bets on NHL games in New Jersey has not exactly been uncharted territory this season.

“Hockey is very popular in Europe, so we have been taking bets on the NHL in Europe for a long time,” Levin told NJ Online Gambling.

Familiar with Fantasy Guru, the NFL’s effort to make it easier for fans to fill out fantasy football lineups? An NHL version, coming soon, will be designed to allow a casual fan to choose a “credible” daily fantasy hockey lineup in less than five minutes.

Oh, Canada: Asked for his stance on talk of single-game sports betting in Canada being legalized rather than the current scenario of parlay betting only, Bettman said, “We won’t oppose it, because if it puts our Canadian clubs on an equal footing with the U.S. clubs that are in states that allow sports betting, it makes sense. I don’t know if we will lobby on behalf [of such legislation], but am certain we won’t oppose it.”

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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