The news that Las Vegas was a picked as the landing spot for an expansion franchise for the National Hockey League has been widely hailed as a win for sports betting proponents.
It’s certainly a non-negative event — one that would have been difficult to imagine not long ago — but just how positive it will be is up in the air.
The basics of the NHL in Vegas
A franchise in Vegas is not quite a done deal. From ESPN:
The NHL has settled on Las Vegas as its choice for expansion, provided organizers can come up with a $500 million fee, sources told ESPN’s Scott Burnside.
The league’s board of governors is scheduled to hold a formal vote during its meeting on June 22. Two-thirds of the board must approve the recommendation.
Of course, the caveat of putting a team in Vegas is that it puts the NHL in the capital of gambling in the US, and the only jurisdiction in the country where single-game wagering is allowed. It’s the first major professional franchise for Vegas, if it ends up happening.
The optimistic picture from the AGA
Whether the NHL ends up in Vegas, this much is true: The league weighed the pros and cons associated with Vegas, and the former outweighed the latter.
Some of those cons likely involve the proximity of a team to the home of US sports betting.
The American Gaming Association, which has made sports betting its signature issue in recent months, hailed the move by the NHL. From AGA CEO Geoff Freeman:
“The NHL’s decision is the latest signal that professional sports leagues are increasingly comfortable with legal, regulated sports betting. Nothing threatens the integrity of sports more than the illegal sports betting marketplace where Americans spent at least $150 billion over the last year through bookies and illegal, and often offshore, websites.
Does it really mean that the league is “comfortable” with sports betting, though, without more action from the NHL? Or does it just mean it’s willing to overlook the sports betting aspect because of the benefits of a Vegas team?
The pessimistic view on the NHL and sports betting
The other possibility? The NHL will put a team in Vegas and just put its head in the sand on sports betting.
There’s a chance that the league asks Nevada sportsbooks not to take action on the Vegas team. If that is the case, it would represent business as usual for the majority of North American pro leagues, who have largely treated legal, regulated sports betting as the bogeyman (outside of the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver).
However, the Las Vegas Sun reports that such a request of the Nevada Gaming Control Board has not yet been made. There is still plenty of time for that to happen, however; after all, the team isn’t even officially in Las Vegas until funding comes through.
Sportsbooks, for their part, are optimistic that they will be able to offer wagers on the NHL team. If true, that would arguably be a bigger development for sports betting’s acceptance than the placement of a team in Las Vegas.
The NHL, in some respects, has been the least progressive of the four major North American leagues on the issue of sports betting:
- Commissioner Gary Bettman hasn’t talked much about it, but two years ago he said the “issue of legalized sports betting needs a lot more discussion.” If he or the league has had those discussions, they have not been public.
- In an interview in 2015, Bettman downplayed the impact of legal sports betting on the NHL because of the nature of the sport and a belief in the integrity of the league’s players. It had little or nothing to do with the transparency offered by the regulation of sports betting.
- In that same interview he also said he wasn’t a huge fan of wagers being placed close to an arena.
- The NHL has opposed sports betting regulation in Canada.
- It continues to be a plaintiff in the New Jersey sports betting case:
From NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s 2012 testimony in the New Jersey sports betting case: pic.twitter.com/GQ2C5kmoTc
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) June 14, 2016
The bottom line is that the NHL can put a team in Las Vegas, and that does not automatically make it a proponent of legal, regulated sports betting.
Could the NHL turn into a proponent of regulated sports betting? That’s certainly possible. But without more evidence than simply putting a team in Vegas, the jury is out on that front.
‘Evolution’ of sports betting stances?
For all the talk of the “evolution” of sports leagues on sports betting, it’s not been on display very much:
- Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said that daily fantasy sports has “slowed” discussions on MLB liberalizing its position on sports betting.
- The NFL continues to demonstrate internal dissonance about how it treats Las Vegas, flirting with moving a team there while having bizarre stances relating to casinos and its players.
- Meanwhile, the NFL has held games for awhile in London, where sports betting is legal. And MLB has plans to do so. But that hasn’t really changed those leagues’ stances about sports betting.
Baby steps, better than no steps?
A professional sports franchise of any type in Las Vegas would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. That has obviously changed.
And even if the new franchise isn’t accompanied by a massive sea change in how the NHL in specific or the leagues in general treat sports betting, it’s still a step forward.
It just doesn’t mean that you should expect the NHL to bang on Congress’ door to ask for the federal prohibition on sports betting to be repealed.
Even Freeman admitted as much in a conference call this week:
“Frankly, I think it’s premature to really be on Capitol Hill in a traditional lobbying sense,” Freeman said. “We’re working to expose that problem, produce the research, help people understand the problem that’s out there, and much of that is going on through the media, it’s going on through our own grassroots efforts and other activities.”
The NHL team in Vegas is more like opening the door a crack, not releasing the floodgates for sports betting.