Fastest skater. Hardest shot. The NHL expects in-game betting to prop up its bottom line


Imagine being able to bet a toonie or two on Connor McDavid, the NHL’s fastest man, going quicker than 45 kilometres an hour or finding an attractive longshot bet on an opponent hitting a higher speed than the Oilers captain.

Or finding the best odds for Auston Matthews to score on a power play in the second period.

Or even going into your group chat and challenging your buddies to lay down money on whether Matthews, Mitch Marner or John Tavares will log the most ice time against the Canadiens on a Saturday night in December.

It’s coming, although not as quickly as McDavid blazing a trail from blue-line to goal-line.

The legalization of single-event sports betting across Canada this summer means hockey fans will be able to legally bet on individual games this fall after being limited to parlay wagers for decades. It also opens the door to in-game betting that leagues such as the NHL and its broadcasters are banking on to attract more interest, viewers and money.

“We’ve been trying to use (puck and player tracking) for years to tell the stories and showcase what an amazing game we have,” Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice-president of global partnerships, told the Star in a recent interview. “The handle (amount of money wagered) has been on the lower end of major pro sports because there were only two ways to bet: who will win and what the score will be.

“Now with the future of technology, puck and player tracking in our game … prop bets will offer the opportunity to get (money) on who’s going to skate the fastest, who has the hardest shot (or) will Auston Matthews score on the next power play. It makes it more fun for avids, and we can pull in casual fans.”

The league’s vision for technology playing a key role in growing fan engagement and revenue was clearly reflected in a 10-year agreement with Sportradar, announced at the end of June. The deal made the global sports betting and technology giant the NHL’s official partner in betting and media data rights, streaming rights, and also the league’s integrity services provider. Last season, Sportradar inserted microchips into NHL pucks (although technical difficulties of a different variety forced the league to temporarily put them on the shelf) and on the shoulder pads of players to create real-time data that will allow sportsbooks to offer more in-game betting options.

A study by the American Gaming Association and Nielsen in 2018 estimated legal sports gambling in U.S. states would bring in an additional $216 million (U.S.) annually for the NHL. The league is highly optimistic about potential revenue from a legal Canadian sports betting industry that could grow to $28 billion annually in the next five years, according to Deloitte Canada.

“In the U.S., from a marketing perspective, the NFL is so big and we see that opportunity for us in Canada,” Wachtel said. “We’re excited about how people will engage more through things like fantasy (sports), social gaming or some action on a bet.”

The smart money on prop bets such as who will skate the fastest in an NHL game would lean toward Connor McDavid whenever the Oilers are on the ice.

The NHL met over the summer with new U.S. national rightsholders ESPN and TNT and with Canadian rightsholders Rogers Sports and Media on how they will integrate betting into their coverage. During a Nets-76ers game broadcast in April on its main network, ESPN carried a sports betting telecast on ESPN+ and ESPN2 that provided gambling information and analysis around the NBA contest.

“What we hear from TNT and ESPN is that they’re looking for opportunities through other channels to get more in-depth (on betting),” Wachtel said. “I love what some of the other broadcasters have done with second channels specific to sports betting. You’re not forcing the general fan or viewer to have to sit through that, and there’s only so much room in a live broadcast.”

Rogers Media president Bart Yabsley, in a statement released last week, said the network is “working closely with all of our league and team partners to ensure the integration of sports betting content in our broadcasts and across our platforms is fun, engaging, innovative and, importantly, done responsibly.”

The league faced concerns this summer in relation to betting, including allegations by the estranged wife of Evander Kane that the San Jose Sharks forward had bet on hockey including his own team. Kane denied the allegations and Wachtel said he couldn’t comment on the league’s ongoing investigation. But what viewers won’t hear is Wayne Gretzky offering his insights about it. In June, the Great One was introduced as a brand ambassador for BetMGM — one of the league’s multiple sports betting partners — shortly after being hired by TNT as an analyst. He’ll talk about the game and the players involved, but not how to wager.

“Wayne won’t be able to talk (during broadcasts) about his relationship with BetMGM and he’s not going to be talking about betting,” said Wachtel.


Steve McAllister is the editor-in-chief of The Parleh sports betting newsletter. A freelance contributor to the Star’s Sports section, he is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @StevieMacSports


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