Puck yeah: NHL teams up with MGM Resorts in new sports-gambling pact

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Credit: NHL

The NHL on Monday announced it has entered into its first sports-betting partnership, inking a multiyear agreement to provide MGM Resorts International with proprietary data for use in wagering on hockey games.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO James Murren made the announcement today at a press event in Manhattan. "This strategic alliance will enable MGM to have access to advanced game data, which is being developed as we speak," Bettman said.

The NHL's development of real-time game data has been accelerated by a new system designed to track the positioning of the players as well as the movements of the puck on the ice. Integrating the puck-produced data with a live-streaming platform will facilitate the sort of in-game prop bets that have become increasingly popular in overseas markets in which gambling is legal.

While the embedded puck-in-play tech isn't entirely operational—the NHL hopes to have the tracking system up and running by the start of the 2019-20 season—the finished product is expected to furnish the real-time data that MGM would use to generate odds and probabilities on the fly.

That the NHL is getting in bed with a sports-betting operation is a departure for Bettman, who has been outspoken in his opposition to gambling. In a 2012 deposition in the New Jersey sports-gambling case that ultimately proved to be the basis for the Supreme Court's May decision that gave individual states the go-ahead to legalize gambling, Bettman said that the NHL was "concerned with how gambling… changes the perception of and challenges the integrity of the game." He went on to say that the "atmosphere we want people to feel part of [at NHL games] is inconsistent with sports betting."

But the Supreme Court's May ruling effectively makes any anti-gambling stance a non-starter, as further resistance would not only fly in the face of the realities of the legal landscape, but would leave an awful lot of money on the table. Like it or not, legalized gambling is about to become an integral part of the fabric of American sports, and any league that tries to ignore the cultural shift likely does so at its own peril.

Of course, Bettman's anti-wagering stance may have softened quite a bit thanks to the NHL's newfound association with the city of Las Vegas. Last season, the Vegas Golden Knights became the first major pro franchise to be based in Sin City; so successful was the team's inaugural year on the Strip that it made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

As it happens, MGM Resorts is the co-owner of T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights' home venue. Or as Bettman noted this afternoon, MGM was "in many ways already part of the NHL family" before the gambling partnership was secured.

For all the interest in the untapped revenue that is expected to be unlocked once legalized sports-gambling becomes more of a commonplace, it remains to be seen if there's really much of a market for wagering on hockey. Bettman himself has wondered aloud about that. Speaking at a summit of pro sports league commisioners back in July 2017, the NHL boss said that hockey is "a small part of the betting that goes on. … Football, basketball, both at the pro and college levels, is where, I don't know, 98 percent of the betting goes on."

Even the most degenerate gamblers will tell you that betting on hockey is often a last resort, something that action junkies lean on when there's nothing else to wager on. (Case in point: In its monthly revenue reports, the Nevada Gaming Control Board itemizes hockey bets alongside golf and tennis as a category labeled "Other," while sports like basketball and football are afforded their own unique silos.) But data-enabled in-game bets could change all that. According to a Nielsen study commissioned by the American Gaming Association, legal sports wagering may generate as much as $216 million in annual revenue for the NHL.

The deal marks MGM's second alliance with a major U.S. sports league. On July 31, on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling that gave individual states the go-ahead to legalize gambling, the NBA became the first league to name MGM Resorts as its official betting partner. As is the case with the NBA, the NHL's deal with MGM Resorts is not exclusive, which means that rival gaming operations may look to work out similar arrangements with the league should they so desire.

Along with the aforementioned in-game data, the NHL-MGM deal also allows the gambling colossus to leverage the NHL's intellectual property, including the league and 31 team logos, for use in marketing and promotions.

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