Player data will be hot topic as NHL enters sports betting arena

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and MGM chairman Jim Murren announce a sports betting partnership, and discuss all the excitement and opportunity that will come out of this agreement.

I suppose it was inevitable.

Once the US Supreme Court overturned a law in May that said it had no right to ban sports bambling, it was inevitable that pro sports leagues would find a way to get their piece of the pie. Remember it was not that long ago that Gary Bettman wrote to a House of Commons committee saying single game betting is not a positive for sports leagues, particularly the NHL. Understandable, because at that point six years ago, pro sports league would not be able to share in the profits of gambling.

Actually, we still are at that point in Canada, but with the ruling in the U.S., you have to wonder when the rules will change in Canada. As the commissioner told us on Prime Time Sports, when that change comes, he would have to go along with the lawmakers in our country too.

Yes, the NHL would be forced to grow revenues, by partnering with multiple partners in the gaming industry.

But there is something else at play here, at least for hockey. There’s a willingness of both the league and the players to work together to build the business. You see the real future in this category is in advanced data, data that can only be mined by electronic tracking of the players in their sweaters, their helmets or somewhere on their bodies.

In my time at the NHL, any suggestion of this use of technology was quickly refuted by the union out of fear the information would be used against the players in contract negotiations and arbitration. It would appear those fears have dissipated. In talking to people on both sides, there is an appetite to work together to create a data gathering system for the betterment of the game and the business.

Quite frankly, and simply, this is all about money.

In growing the business and interest in hockey, sports gambling will help owners claim their franchises are worth more, grow Hockey Related Revenue which will put more money in the player’ pockets and, hopefully, build fan interest which will then manifest itself in better TV ratings, more tickets sold and sponsorships.

It should be noted however, the NHL is not getting a cut of the wagers. Bettman made that clear Monday. He also made clear that technology allowing for player tracking and advanced data (which has been tested at the World Cup of Hockey and all-star games) should be available next season as this gaming rolls out. This should be interpreted as a sign the league and the players’ association are working together. It’s certainly a positive development and one that might make CBA discussions in the next few years more palatable for both sides.

The hows and whys of the actual gaming system are still to be made public. But I know Bettman well enough to know that he doesn’t go down this path without understanding the ripple effect of such partnerships and he has already calculated how to use the advanced data in the best interests of attracting non-traditional fans to hockey. And if gaming produces the same results for hockey that fantasy sports have for other North American sports, and what gaming has done for European soccer, then years from now, Monday’s announcement might be viewed as a watershed moment for the NHL.

The reality of sports gambling revenue is simple: It’s found money. And for the league, its owners and players, it isn’t a gamble. Only the fans will volunteer and take that chance.


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