NHL’s Bettman: Sports betting can help grow league’s audience

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gestures during a news conference before Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals at T-Mobile Arena Monday, May 28, 2018.

Don’t be surprised if National Hockey League broadcasts eventually include heavy dosages of sports gambling references and information.

That was part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s message today at a sports betting symposium at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

“In a fragmented media marketplace, you’re going to see more and more shoulder programming, and sports betting gives you an opportunity to tell more stories,” Bettman said. “From a league standpoint, we think sports betting will increase viewership, which should be good for rights fees and advertising revenue.”

The NHL’s 10-year television broadcast rights agreement with Comcast — owners of NBC and NBC SportsNet — expires after the 2021-22 season. In negotiations for the next broadcast agreement, how to integrate sports betting content will be part of the conversation.

“I have more than a sense that some of the discussions are going to be on how our broadcasts can be integrated with a sports betting app or experience,” Bettman said.

The NHL, Bettman said, has evolved in recent years with its thinking on sports betting and the ways that wagering can help grow its audience. Of course, in 2017 the league brought the first major professional sports franchise to Las Vegas.

Other leagues hesitated over the years because Nevada at the time was the only state with legal sports betting, and league governing bodies worried that games could be compromised. But, as Bettman and others quickly learned, the sports betting industry in Nevada is heavily regulated and secure.

And, as the commissioner pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year on the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which served as a prohibition for state-sponsored sports betting outside of Nevada, changed the landscape drastically.

“Whether or not I thought sports betting was a good idea 27 years ago, none of that really mattered once the Supreme Court ruled,” Bettman said. “Intellectually and emotionally, I always had the concern about what it would do to sports. There’s nothing wrong with horse racing, but we’re something different.”

With the door open for widespread sports betting, Bettman said it became the NHL’s “obligation” to use it to help engage as many fans as possible.

“It was no longer subject to debate, so we had to just get with the program,” Bettman said. “Before the Supreme Court ruled, we had put a team in Las Vegas. We were the first sports league to do that. We began to have a relationship, for other reasons, with MGM, and (CEO) Jim Murren gets a lot of credit for, at that time, smartening us up.”

Now, not only does Las Vegas have an NHL team, it is home to one of the most popular franchises in the NHL. That, arguably, paved the way for other leagues, as the WNBA and NFL have followed, and the NBA and MLB could also eventually end up here.

“Now all the other leagues are saying, ‘Let’s go to Las Vegas, what a great idea,’ ” Bettman said.