Bettman Fends Off Idea That Daily Fantasy Sports Is Gambling
Legal Sports Report

NHL Commissioner Bettman: Hockey ‘Doesn’t Lend Itself To Gambling’ Like Other Sports Do

NHL sports betting

Professional hockey games don’t lend themselves to gambling like other sports’ games do. And the NHL’s new Las Vegas franchise will succeed because of strong support from the local community instead of relying on casino-going tourists.

That’s the opinion of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

The comments came during an interview on Bloomberg Radio‘s Bloomberg Surveillance show.

Last month, the league signed its second deal in less than a year with sports data company Sportradar, which detects fraud by monitoring patterns in sports betting activity. It exclusively provides data to sportsbooks around the world from leagues, including the NHL.

Bettman asked about league’s relationship with DFS

Unsurprisingly, the Bloomberg hosts used the league’s exclusive relationship with daily fantasy sports company DraftKings as a launchpad to discuss the broader issue of the league’s stance on gambling.

Bloomberg: “The elephant in the casino when you go to Las Vegas is gambling. You already partner with DraftKings, so in a way, you’re profiting from gambling—

Gary Bettman: “Well, you’re assuming that daily fantasy sports is the same as gambling, but that’s, we don’t have enough time—

BB: “Well, the New York Attorney General assumes that—

GB: “Well, you know, there are lots of opinions on that.”

BB: “Anyway, how do you walk the line on gambling, how do you tiptoe the line on gambling, when you’re in the gambling capital of the United States?”

The league’s relationship with DFS is not a passive one. At least nine states have either passed laws or consumer protection regulations governing daily fantasy sports and defining the contests as something other than gambling.

The league is also believed to have an affirmative policy governing its teams’ financial relationship with DFS operators.

An Oct. 12, 2015, document obtained by LSR (from the legal docket of a court case in which one smaller DFS operator is curiously arguing that DFS is illegal) appears to govern the characteristics of the operators clubs are allowed to contract with.

Among other provisions, the updated policies laid out in the document required that teams only contract with operators that are compliant with applicable state laws. At the time, DraftKings partnered with clubs in New York (the Rangers) and Illinois (the Chicago Blackhawks), two states in which DFS was declared illegal by attorneys general.

When asked to verify the authenticity of both the document and the policy update, an NHL spokeswoman told Legal Sports Report earlier this summer that she would have to “look into it.”

The NHL did not respond to any further requests for comment.

NHL ‘walks the line’ on gambling

Bettman’s response to exactly how his league “walked the line” appeared to draw a distinction between the NHL and the other sports leagues when it comes to developing both a Las Vegas franchise and a formal position on legalized sports betting.

GB: “Well, first of all, 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.

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.”

Bettman’s comments do not appear to align with his previous remarks about game integrity.

In an August 2012 declaration of support for the four professional sports leagues’ litigation in the New Jersey sports betting case, Bettman posited that expanded, legalized sports gambling could lead to:

  • Allegations that its games were not legitimate, “including charges of point-shaving”
  • Fans feeling “disappointed when they do not win their bets,” regardless of whether or not their team wins a game
  • The nature of the sport of hockey “changing for the worse”
  • Fostering the idea among “young people” that gambling and sports are a “natural” and “acceptable” combination

In June, Bettman also emphasized ensuring the right in-arena environment for Las Vegas’ franchise.

ESPN reported that Bettman told reporters, “While we know gambling is part of the industry in Las Vegas, we’re not going to make it all that easy for you to pick up a ticket, a gambling ticket, on your way into the arena.”

This could prove challenging: The physical sportsbook at the New York-New York casino sits very close to T-Mobile Arena, where the franchise will play.

Nevada sports betting is also available on bettors’ smartphones anywhere in the state.

It remains unclear what conditions inside the arena, betting-related or otherwise, would constitute the specific environment the league is hoping to achieve.

A little more than just the ‘one percent’

Despite recently signing television contracts with networks like Rogers (Canada) and NBC (United States), the NHL does not enjoy the same level of exposure as leagues like the NFL or NBA. This, as well as other factors, contributes to the NHL being the least bet-on of the four major American sports.

Regardless, it would appear NHL betting constitutes around $100 million dollars more of Vegas sportsbooks’ handle than what Bettman alleged.

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. The $1.8 billion football and $1.4 billion basketball figures compose both professional and college betting handles for those sports. NGC data does not separate the two figures out.

No definitive position on legal sports betting

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.

New Jersey’s 2014 sports betting law, which stood at the center of the leagues’ lawsuit, prohibited wagering at New Jersey casinos on competitions involving professional and college teams in the Garden State, such as Seton Hall University and Rutgers University, as well as the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.

NHL acted independently of other leagues

Recent reports have indicated the awarding of a franchise to Las Vegas signifies the beginning of a shift among each of the four professional leagues away from longstanding resistance to teams in Sin City, and thus, resistance to sports betting.

Bettman’s comments, however, indicate the NHL has largely acted alone in expanding to Nevada, and that its decision to award a Las Vegas franchise isn’t necessarily indicative of other leagues’ future plans or gambling stances.

BB: “The NHL beat the other major sports leagues in putting a team in Vegas.”

GB: “I didn’t know it was a race.”

BB: “Well, nevertheless, did any other commissioners save [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell contact you or reach out to you since then?”

GB: “Not that I recall.”

BB: “Not that you recall?”

GB: “All the leagues— I know people tend to think we have this clubhouse and the four of us go off on a regular basis and, you know, take secret oaths. That’s not the way it works.

We’re all socially friendly. We’re all professionally friendly, but we all do our own thing. And we made the decision for us as a league that Las Vegas made a lot of sense and would enhance the league, and it’s a team that we think will have tremendous success in the Las Vegas market.

The fact that after we pursued this the NFL, or at least the Raiders in the NFL, seem to be looking at it, that’s fine, they can do what they want. From our standpoint, we had been working on this for the better part of a year or two years, and we believe this made sense for us.”

BB: “So Las Vegas is a city that can handle two professional sports teams?”

GB: “Since we’re gonna be there, whether or not it can handle two isn’t my issue.”

Season ticket figures could indicate community support for franchise

A lucrative $500 million expansion fee and a new arena perhaps incentivized the NHL’s awarding of a team to Las Vegas. But FiveThirtyEight notes that since the city has struggled to support previous professional franchises across a variety of smaller sports leagues, it could also struggle to support one in a larger league.

There is some evidence that the team will be well-supported by the Las Vegas community, though, and not be reliant on itinerant tourists for attendance and revenue generation. Owner Bill Foley‘s season-ticket drive has attracted some 15,000 depositors, Bettman said, which would put it on-par with some of the NHL’s most established franchises.

“What the business leaders in Las Vegas are telling me, there’s a strong indigenous population of people in a city that’s, with the suburbs, in excess of 2 million people looking for things like they have in other cities,” Bettman told Surveillance‘s hosts. 

The yet-unnamed franchise will begin play in Las Vegas in the fall of 2017.

Will Green
- Will formerly worked as a writer and producer at Sports Illustrated, where he covered the sports gambling and daily fantasy sports industries, and moderated several panels with industry experts on the future of gaming in America. He is now a contributor at SI, as well as Fortune.com, Legal Sports Report, and many other destinations. His weaknesses are wine, coffee and college football.