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Betting and the NHL: Rolling the Dice

It’s a bit late to the party, but the NHL is going all-in on betting. With Canada finally laxing its gaming laws, fans will be able to wager on just about anything, from standard single-game plays to obscure prop bets. Just don’t expect regular injury reports.
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Skate. SKATE! COME ON!

You need Mathew Barzal to win this foot race. Not against another player, however. That’s the easy part. He’s blazingly fast, some say enough to challenge Connor McDavid. No one’s catching Barzal on this breakaway. Still, you’re screaming at your TV because you want Barzal to beat…himself.

You’ve placed a prop bet on his max miles per hour for this seemingly meaningless Tuesday game during the dog days of February. And if he blows past a certain number on the virtual speedometer? A nice payday looms for you. The NHL’s new puck-and-player-tracking technology has made it possible to measure such things as skating speed. Its interactive fan options have helped you customize your feed of this particular Islanders-Coyotes contest so you can track all the wagers you’ve made within the game – onscreen as you watch. And as a Canadian, you’re finally allowed to bet on the winner of this game thanks to new laws allowing single-game wagers.

Only a few years ago, the above scenario would’ve felt like a fantasy. Now, it’s oh-so close to reality. We’re talking months, not years. The NHL committed to sports-betting partnerships a few years ago, and now, thanks to its technology and the passing of some new laws up north, single-game betting and obscure prop betting will continue evolving into mainstream revenue sources for the NHL. It represents the NHL’s commitment to growing the sport by making it far more interactive. “Studies have shown you’re 10 times more likely to engage in an activity if you have some sort of outcome invested in it, whether that’s financial or otherwise,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice-president of global partnerships. “You see that with fantasy football. People watch NFL RedZone religiously now. A lot of people don’t even watch games anymore. I’m still up at midnight on Monday night watching a kicker hoping he’s going to get a field goal without any regard of whether I have an interest in those teams. And that’s what I think the opportunity is. For our sport, which has been underserved in the betting market, the social aspect of it is going to be really important and grow the fan interest.”

The NHL’s path to becoming a major player in the sports-betting world traces back to 2018. That’s when it announced a partnership with BetMGM, one of the world’s highest-profile sports-betting and gaming companies (full disclosure: BetMGM is a sponsor of The Hockey News). American hockey fans have dipped their toes in the NHL betting waters in the years since and already have access to single-game betting. 

According to BetMGM sports trader Christian Cipollini, the most popular hockey wagers are single-game moneylines (winner of a game) and pucklines (hockey’s version of a point spread). Picking the correct score of a game is the most popular prop bet (a propositional bet, meaning a wager on a specific occurrence within a game), while predicting a game’s first goal-scorer is the most common player-prop bet. 

As of September 2021, 27 U.S. states have allowed betting on NHL games or have applied for legal status, and 18 of them have allowed some forms of online NHL betting. “BetMGM has seen strong growth in interest from bettors following our NHL partnership,” Cipollini said. “As we enter new states, the number of bets on the NHL has increased as well.”

The NHL has also increased its number of partnerships. As of October 2021, it had teamed with six major U.S. sportsbooks: BetMGM, William Hill, Bally’s, Betway, PointsBet and FanDuel, with a seventh soon to be announced. The NHL also has multiple international partnerships overseas. Philosophically, there’s no plan to limit the number of partners as long as each one makes sense for the league in terms of reach and reputation, Wachtel explained.

The NHL also has a crucial partnership with a data management company called Sportradar, which tracks and provides instant statistical “fast data” for major sports leagues around the world.

Sportradar helps the NHL process information rapidly enough to make betting possible. It provides the data feed for live-score applications, broadcasts and, of course, sportsbooks, making all the moneylines and props possible.

According to Steve Byrd, head of U.S. sports content and partnerships at Sportradar, the fast data will work in conjunction with player tracking to create a level of in-game fan-engagement never seen before. While traditional bets are still more popular, prop bets like the Barzal skating-speed example are coming. “That is going to happen,” Byrd said. “It’s unlikely to be a huge amount of the turnover of the volume of betting, but it’s critical from a fan engagement and marketing perspective because it’s fun, it’s cool, to be able to think about those things, have an opinion about them, follow them.

“It does open up – which I know the NHL and other leagues have been excited about as they’ve invested in these tracking technologies – a wider palate of potential bets. So, yes, that’s coming. It’s not mainstream, but it will be of interest.”

The level of interest in prop bets and interactive single-game bets may soon explode. They’re about to go live in Canada, after all.

In late August 2021, Canada passed Bill C-218 allowing Canadians to bet on “single-game events.” The previous law forced people to wager on multiple games at once to prevent match fixing. That’s why parlay (multi-game bet) operations like Pro Line existed. The first major Canadian betting company to join the fray for single-game betting entering 2021-22 is the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, better known as OLG. Wachtel expects its NHL gaming to be fully operational with its single-game betting application, Pro Line+, by the end of 2021.

Partnered with the NHL, OLG will have access to all the league’s official intellectual property, which establishes the lottery company as a trustworthy place to make bets. Gaming company Penn National bought Score Media and Gaming, which owns the hugely popular sports app The Score and gaming app theScore Bet, this year with eyes on diving into the Canadian betting market, too, though Wachtel explains that theScore Bet “does not have a single-game sports wagering application that is live” in Canada yet. Spokespeople for The Score declined to comment for this story.

So how impactful will single-game betting be for the NHL’s revenue stream as it works to recover from all the gate revenues lost during the COVID-19 pandemic? Not as large as people might think. 

“Sports betting is not an opportunity for the league to make a lot of money,” Wachtel said. “It’s not an opportunity for any of the sports properties to make a lot of money. It’s a new category, so it’s incremental, which is always nice. But it’s not nearly as big as some of the traditional categories or what you’re seeing right now in areas like crypto and other categories. The opportunity is really to generate more fan engagement, which will yield more opportunity and revenue streams for the future in a lot of different areas.”

Say you’re buying into that fan engagement and you want to try single-game betting. What’s the best way to do so?

For Rocky Atkinson, rated in some metrics as the No. 1 hockey handicapper in the world, simple moneylines, a.k.a. picking winners and losers, are the best area of focus. One rule he follows: bet on underdogs or on favorites as strong as -150. Betting on heavy favorites at -200 or more can earn a bettor lots of easy wins but doesn’t bring in much money and can lose a bettor a lot of money.

Not familiar with the plus-and-minus figures attached to moneylines? Here’s a quick rundown: on a -200 favorite, you have to bet $200 just to win $100. On a +200 underdog, a $100 bet yields $200 plus the original stake when you win. If you prefer wagering on favorites, a smarter option is to bet on how many goals that team might win by, Atkinson says. He also sees some potential for profit in single-player props specifically for bettors who have strong knowledge of individual NHLers. An avid fantasy hockey player, for instance, might flourish making player-prop bets.

One reason why single-game betting is a boon for hockey, especially in Canada where it’s about to become legal for the first time: it will steer bettors away from those impossible-to-win parlays. “I do not recommend betting on parlays,” Atkinson said. “It’s hard enough to win a straight bet alone, so trying to hit a parlay makes it that much harder. The odds on hitting a multi-team parlay are always enticing, but it’s better to pass on these bets.”

Single-game betting in hockey is generally more difficult than for other major sports, like football, largely because bettors have far less access to accurate injury information about the athletes. The NFL is so forthcoming that it pretty much issues a press release with a detailed anatomical report if a player stubs his toe.

In the NHL? We get “upper-body,” “lower-body,” “undisclosed” or, in the COVID-19 era, “unfit to play.” As Cipollini explains from a sportsbook perspective, hockey players’ toughness throws a wrench into betting because so many NHLers play through injuries that hinder their performances. Think about the litany of surgeries announced every year after a team gets eliminated. It’s treated as a badge of honor for the athletes. In the NFL, we’d know about each of those maladies well in advance.

It’s thus a popular assumption that the NHL’s venture into betting and, more specifically, single-game betting will lead to a re-evaluation of disseminating injury information. Sorry, bettors, but it’s simply not true. “We’re not being pushed by the sportsbooks,” Wachtel said. “More information perhaps is better, but they’re comfortable with the way we have our reporting right now. There’s no plans to change that today. Does that mean it could be changed in the future? Of course, but that’s not going to be based on what the sports-betting operators want. It’s going to be what’s in the best interest of our players. That will be determined by our ownership and our hockey-operations group.”

So hockey bettors will venture into the single-game world having to play guesswork with injuries. That’s not the only potential threat to swallow up their money, however. Match fixing, or game fixing as it’s more commonly known in North America, has become a hot topic after a series of wild allegations levelled against San Jose Sharks left winger Evander Kane this summer by his estranged wife, Anna Kane.

They included the claim Kane had been betting on his own games. The NHL’s investigation found no evidence he’d been doing so, but the scandal still awakened fans and potential bettors to the idea of dangers like game fixing.

Not that the NHL is worried. Wachtel expresses the utmost confidence in the integrity of the league’s data. That’s largely because the NHL’s partnership with Sportradar includes “integrity services,” which consist of four offerings: (a) bet monitoring, in which Sportradar uses its super-advanced technological network to track betting lines and data and look for anomalies, (b) educating sports leagues and their athletes and stakeholders, (c) assisting leagues in investigations of threats and (d) helping leagues set up rules related to betting.

In the case of catching game-fixers, that first offering, bet monitoring, comes in the most handy. What exactly does Sportradar look for? “Generally, when we’re monitoring for signs that somebody might be trying to fix the game, we’ll also look at whether someone has potentially misused inside information, like insider trading on the stock exchange,” said Andy Cunningham, head of integrity services in North America for Sportradar. “If a line moves before the game, and it’s because of an injury to a key player, we will look into that. If we think it may have moved before the information is in the public domain, we will flag it to our partners, and it’s up to them to look into that, and we can help them do that.”

Instances of match fixing grab major media headlines but are extremely rare, he added. “We monitor hundreds of thousands of events and games around the world every year, and it’s a tiny percentage, less than one percent, that ever cause any concerns,” Cunningham said. 

“In certain team sports you see more issues than others globally. The corruptors and fixers tend to target the bigger betting markets where they can make their money – the economics of the fix. Without picking on soccer, it’s well-documented that soccer, globally, has match-fixing incidents in various jurisdictions around the world. It can involve the team and players being corrupted as well as the match officials and referees. But our analysis and systems are attuned to spot different types of fixes.”

So the NHL can relax knowing its upcoming influx of single-game bettors will feel safe. It also knows it’s in good hands welcoming bettors with its new U.S. broadcast partners: The Walt Disney Company, ESPN and TNT.

The multi-platform streaming capabilities offered by those new partners as well as the Canadian broadcast rightsholders will only enrich the single-game betting experience.

That said, the NHL believes it’s crucial to offer fans customization without cramming the betting experience down their throats. Rather than pump non-stop betting information into broadcasts, the TV partners will likely offer separate channels or streams of games that are optional for bettors to access. “That, to us, is fun and exciting,” Wachtel said.

“What we don’t want to do is have the traditional telecast have 24/7 betting like you’re sitting in a sportsbook in Las Vegas, because not everybody wants that. That’s the same with the use of digital media: provide personalization and choice. If the fan wants to see odds throughout the game that change and the opportunity to actually bet on these things while a broadcast is happening? That’s great. But there are going to be others that don’t want to. We have to find the right balance.”

If you’re among the keeners who are looking for the immersive hockey-betting experience, it’s coming. Puck and player tracking and the changes to Canadian laws on single-event wagers will spike the public’s interest even more. Start squirrelling away your fun money. 

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