NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman Changes Position on Sports Betting
In the past 7 years, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has done a 180-turn on the subject of sports betting. That fact became apparent this week when Bettman attended the American Gaming Association’s sports betting conference at the MGM National Harbor.
When asked about his former anti-sports gambling position, Gary Bettman drews laughs when he replied, “Oh, that.”
Then Bettman made the kind of admission you rarely see executives make: he admitted his words at the time were “atmospherics and the like“. It was an admission that his deposition was nothing more than theatrics. Perhaps those theatrics had a good purpose in mind — to stave off a system that would be difficult to implement — but theatrics all the same.
The NHL commissioner said at the sports betting conference, “Times have changed. The concerns we had at 10,000 feet had nothing to do with the integrity of the game. It had to do with atmospherics and the like, and the practical element as to how this was all going to work.”
Of course, it’s been my observation that NHL hockey players and their coaches tend to engage in less coachspeak than their counterparts in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In short, NHL personalities are more truthful and give fewer canned answers than pros in other major sports. NHL fans expect it and welcome it. In short, the NHL community takes their game, or at least the ancillary parts of the game, less seriously.
Gary Bettman at 2019 Gaming Conference
Gary Bettman said the May 14, 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything. Once U.S. laws changed overnight, the sports leagues had to change to reflect the new nature of the game. Legal US sports betting was a huge opportunity for the leagues, but also a huge danger if they did not act.
The commissioner said, “Once the Supreme Court ruled, we got to get with the program. And frankly, as a practical matter, I owed it to our fans, I owed it to our clubs, to embrace the evolving world, whether it’s sports betting or changes in technology. In this day and age, you either evolve or become extinct.”
“The ‘aha moment’ was the Supreme Court ruling. It wasn’t like we said, ‘There’s no chance that the Supreme Court is going to rule against us,’ despite the fact that we and the other leagues and the NCAA had won up and down in the courts repeatedly. Once the Supreme Court took cert, it was, ‘Hmm, I wonder why they did that.’ And so we started to think about how we were going to move forward.”
Gary Bettman in 2012 Deposition
That wasn’t the story in 2012. Seven years ago, Gary Bettman was required to give a deposition in the NHL’s lawsuit (alongside other sports associations) of the State of New Jersey. The leagues were suing to stop New Jersey from developing licensed sportsbooks at Atlantic City casinos.
When asked about whether sports gambling was good for fans, Commissioner Bettman said that being a sports fan was “inconsistent with sports betting“. He said the NHL wanted to create an atmosphere where fans watched the game because of their rooting interest in one of the teams, or at the very least their rooting interest in certain star players.
Does Sports Betting Hurt Enjoyment of the Game?
Sports wagers introduced another element into a fan’s expectations, and thus into their enjoyment of the game. Their team could win, but the fan might go home unsatisfied if their team did not cover a bet on the game. Bettman added in his deposition, “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.”
It is a common theme heard by sports purists when talking about gambling or fantasy sports. In either case, the person with money (or reputation) on the line often gets mired in individual performances, point spreads, over/under betting, or prop bets. A score that might normally elicit positive fan reaction instead causes angst.
Why People Enjoy Sports Betting
There is another side to the story. Not every person is a team supporter. Many like the games, but in a casual fashion. Or they enjoy the game as a whole and think they have expert knowledge. Or they have a favorite team, but that team either plays on another day or has been eliminated from contention.
In those cases, a viewer might not have a rooting interest in a game, but want the entertainment that normally comes with a rooting interest. I’ve often said that watching a sporting event without a rooting interest is like watching a movie where you don’t care what happens to the characters (boring). If a viewer does not have a rooting interest, then placing a bet makes them much more interested in the game.
It’s proven that sports betting increases television viewership. It increases visits to a casino that has a sportsbook. These things happen because more people are interested in the outcome of a game.
Yes, it is annoying to hear a sports bettor complain against the last-minute touchdown that affects the point spread, just as it’s annoying to hear a fantasy sports owner complain the fullback scored the 1-yard touchdown. Those are rare moments, and well worth the many times a new fan is made because the experience the excitement of a bet well-made.
Gary Bettman’s Sports Betting Conference Remarks
Gary Bettman said as much at this week’s sports betting conference, when he stated, “What we’ve learned is that [sports gambling] is another point of engagement for the fans. Ultimately, I think if you’re interested in sports betting, you’re going to have an increased opportunity to engage with the game. If you’re not interested, it shouldn’t impact the way you consume the game. And if you’re a sports fan who may not necessarily be a hockey fan, it will give you an opportunity, potentially, to sample something new.”
“Our hope is it causes more people to watch more games….We think it will cause ratings on NBC to go up because more people will be watching.”