Hockey Antes Up
When the NBA and MLB were lobbying state legislators earlier this year to require sportsbooks to cut them in on betting revenue and pay them to use “official” stats, the NHL remained conspicuously absent from the debate.
Though it too supported federal regulation of sportsbooks, the league calculated early on that it stood a better chance of negotiating those concessions from the casinos than getting them included in state law. Now, with all of the major pro leagues in session and sportsbooks open and taking bets in five states, the NHL has emerged as the league most willing to work within the parameters that casino operators have long suggested.
Even the progressive NBA has not taken steps the NHL has. The NBA will require sportsbooks that sponsor the league or its teams to buy official league data. The NHL will not. The NBA will prohibit teams from doing deals with sportsbooks until sports betting is legalized in their state. The NHL will not. The NBA will bar sportsbooks that are not league or team sponsors from advertising during games. The NHL welcomes all comers.
“They have an evolved position and understand the economics and the partnership that they can drive with the casino industry,” said Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Gaming Association. “They see the bigger picture in the opportunity that can be realized versus focusing on statutory data requirements or an integrity fee. I think you end up tripping over dollars to pick up pennies. The NHL has done a good job of focusing on the dollars and not the pennies.”
Perhaps the roots of that philosophy can be found in the events of last spring, when the expansion Vegas Golden Knights made an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final that coincided with a Supreme Court ruling to allow betting.
As luck would have it, senior executives at the first of the pro leagues to place so large a bet on the world’s gaming capital had ample chance to become familiar with the sportsbooks. It quickly became clear that shared commercial interests could trump the discord that was apparent at statehouse hearings.
“The sportsbooks want to pay,” said Keith Wachtel, who as chief revenue officer for the NHL has championed the league’s strategy. “Everyone is telling us they all want to pay. It’s just a matter of what the value proposition is. No one is saying, ‘I don’t need your data.’ In fact, they’re all saying the opposite.”
While the NHL has not yet announced a league sponsorship in the category, industry sources say the first of those likely will come in the next few weeks. The league has made it clear that it intends to sign up multiple sportsbook sponsors, tiering them based on the assets they receive.
Earlier this month, the Golden Knights became the first major pro team to land a sportsbook sponsor, locking down a deal with William Hill. Last week, the New Jersey Devils signed William Hill to the first sportsbook sponsorship in New Jersey.
Gaming executives say they have found the NHL to be receptive to their needs. “Our conversation was with the [Golden Knights] and then they had the discussions with the league,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill U.S. “But I can’t think of anything that we wanted to do that they said no to.”
Neither MLB nor the NFL has cleared teams to sign sportsbook sponsors, so the only noteworthy comparison to the NHL is the NBA.
The NHL and NBA differ distinctly on their approach to league data. While the NHL will pitch the use of league data as a valuable asset to sportsbook sponsor prospects, it will not require them to purchase it, Wachtel said.
The league reached that decision after determining that the baseline data sportsbooks need to run much of the business they do around hockey today is readily available through other providers, or through unscrupulous means that are difficult to police or stop.
Rather than requiring use of official data as part of every deal, the NHL is working to develop marketable data that only it can provide, using in-arena tracking of players and puck. While that project has been driven by the desire of front offices to develop advanced player analytics for coaches and GMs, the league hopes it also can be used for gaming products that build fan engagement, like the ability to bet on the fastest skater or hardest shot of a period.
“We have no idea what this is really going to yield, but operators have a lot of interest in it,” said David Lehanski, NHL senior vice president of business development and global partnerships. “That’s what drives the valuation that we’re putting on our data.”
Data policies at the league level also will have an impact on team sponsorships, according to sources. Along with mandating that league sponsors purchase official data, the NBA will require team sponsors to do so, which could dramatically increase the price of any deal.
The NHL also charted a distinct path by allowing networks that broadcast its games to sell commercial spots to sportsbooks that are not sponsors of the league or teams — even in states that have not authorized sports betting. That stands in contrast to MLB and the NFL, which don’t allow sportsbook advertising during any of their game broadcasts, and the NBA, which will allow sportsbooks advertising, but only in states in which sports betting is legal, and only by sponsors. As in other competitive categories, the NHL and its teams will restrict in-game and intermission features to sponsors.
“Everyone should be open for business,” said Wachtel. “I just see that continuing to be where we differentiate ourselves.”