The National Hockey League (NHL) was one of the earliest of the major American professional leagues to embrace sports betting through partnerships with operators, and with Ontario’s new online gaming market set to launch in less than two weeks, the league is poised to capitalize.
The league was the second of the four American major leagues to begin forming partnerships with operators, announcing its first deal with MGM Resorts International in October 2018, which included marketing opportunities as well as use of the league’s and teams’ logos and the league’s official data.
Last month, the NHL renewed its deal with MGM and BetMGM, the joint venture the casino operator co-owns with Entain, and along the way, the league has reached similar deals with seven U.S. sports-betting operators, as well as Proline, the online sports-betting platform operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.
“We saw that the NHL is underserved in the betting market, because there are so few ways to bet on our sport, who’s going to win the game, and how many goals are going to be scored,” said Keith Wachtel, chief business officer and executive vice president of global partnerships for the league, in an interview with VIXIO GamblingCompliance.
“We were fourth of the four majors in handle, and we all know, not just from anecdotal and ourselves, but Nielsen and other studies, that consumers are ten times more likely to engage in an activity if they have some sort of outcome on the event.”
One of the NHL’s biggest selling points for partners was its implementation of new puck and player tracking technology, which was already part of the league’s plan prior to the league’s embrace of sports betting as a narrative tool for broadcasting partners, and fully went into effect at the beginning of this season.
“We now use and have this new technology that will provide significantly more bet types and other things over time that sports-betting operators who are our partners can use because the only way to get the data is through us, and it can be done in real time,” Wachtel said.
Wachtel pointed out that although sports betting is a significant revenue stream for the league, it pales in comparison to other major sponsorship agreements and the league’s media rights partnerships. However, it has provided opportunities throughout the league and its member teams.
“It's rare that you find a new category that can provide incremental revenue streams for, in our case, the league and many of our clubs, because we also took a different approach to the marketplace, where we allowed our clubs to generate a significant amount of opportunities, like putting a sportsbook in [CapitalOne Arena in] Washington D.C., and things like that,” he said.
“So the entire ecosystem financially also significantly benefited from sports betting,” Wachtel added.
To assess whether the partnerships are working as planned, Wachtel said the number one metric is partner satisfaction, but beyond that, betting handle is a key metric to determine increased engagement as a result of betting.
“We put a team in Las Vegas, the first [major league] team in Las Vegas, and our handle doubled in the first year in Las Vegas, so it demonstrated that if you can generate interest in a team, in a sport, you could certainly increase your handle and thus the engagement factor.
“We’re seeing more handle on hockey, but we haven’t truly introduced all of the in-game prop bets, which aren’t really about money for bookmakers, they just keep you engaged. The big bets are still always going to be on who’s going to win the game, and perhaps what’s the over/under,” Wachtel said.
Now, as the new competitive iGaming market is set to launch on April 4 in Ontario, where hockey is king among all major sports, the league is in a position of strength, even as marketing restrictions that prohibit “gambling inducements, bonuses or credits” in advertisements will prevent operators from the type of aggressive bonus promotions typically seen as part of a new state launch in the United States.
“In Canada, with all due respect to the other sports properties, there is the NHL, everything else is a distant second, and that's year-round,” Wachtel said.
“There's certainly a revenue generating opportunity for us of significance in Canada, because of our place in our country,” he continued.
“In building a brand, you don't build a brand in Canada off anything other than hockey, from a sports standpoint.
“There are unique marketing restrictions [in Ontario] and things like that that I think over time will also change,” Wachtel added. “I think they're being conservative at first and that's okay, so you're going to see more strategic relationships for integrations.”