The NHL’s Gary Bettman was a sports gambling skeptic. Now he’s a convert.

"In this day and age, you either evolve or become extinct."

Gary Bettman NHL Commissioner
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the leagues "a-ha moment" on sports gambling came when the Supreme Court nullified a law prohibiting it in most areas of the United States. –The Associated Press

The “atmosphere” that the league wanted to create at hockey games was “inconsistent with sports betting,” he said in a 2012 deposition filed by the NHL, the three other major U.S. pro sports leagues and the NCAA in their attempt to halt New Jersey’s desire for legalized sports gambling. “And I don’t think you need a study to tell you that. I think if you’re in touch with your games and your fans, you understand it.

“I think that when somebody loses a bet, they tend to sometimes confuse their motives in rooting and enjoying the game because if you lose your bet, even though the team you’re rooting for wins, you have a potentially conflicted outcome,” he added.

Fast forward seven years to Thursday, when Bettman was asked about his past opposition to sports gambling at a conference held by the American Gaming Association at the MGM National Harbor casino in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

“Oh, that,” he said, drawing a laugh.

If there is one thing that best exemplifies the sweeping changes afoot in pro sports after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last May to nullify PASPA, the federal law that prohibited sports gambling in all but a handful of areas, it might be the commissioner of a major U.S. league appearing before a group of casino executives and industry insiders in a ballroom dressed with all the large-screen accoutrements of a sportsbook. Once considered untouchable, the domain of shady characters in Las Vegas, legalized sports gambling is now being embraced by professional leagues even as it continues to spread. (Sports wagering is already legal in eight states and counting, plus the District of Columbia in coming months).

“Times have changed,” Bettman continued after his laugh line. “The concerns we had at 10,000 feet had nothing to do with the integrity of the game. It had to do with atmospherics and the like, and the practical element as to how this was all going to work. Once the Supreme Court ruled, we got to get with the program. And frankly, as a practical matter, I owed it to our fans, I owed it to our clubs, to embrace the evolving world, whether it’s sports betting or changes in technology. In this day and age, you either evolve or become extinct.

At a news conference after his panel discussion, Bettman said there wasn’t any specific moment when he changed his views on sports gambling, other than when the Supreme Court decided to allow it.

“The ‘aha moment’ was the Supreme Court ruling,” he said. “It wasn’t like we said, ‘There’s no chance that the Supreme Court is going to rule against us,’ despite the fact that we and the other leagues and the NCAA had won up and down in the courts repeatedly. Once the Supreme Court took cert, it was, ‘Hmm, I wonder why they did that.’ And so we started to think about how we were going to move forward.”

Bettman and other sports officials who appeared at the conference Thursday all spoke glowingly of “engagement,” of giving fans another reason to pay attention to their leagues besides wins and losses. Sports gambling, it goes without saying, also offers another opportunity to separate fans from their money, whether it’s through ticket sales, cable TV or streaming subscriptions, or a $20 bet at the sportsbook window via a league-branded gambling partner.

“What we’ve learned is that [sports gambling] is another point of engagement for the fans,” Bettman said. “Ultimately, I think if you’re interested in sports betting, you’re going to have an increased opportunity to engage with the game. If you’re not interested, it shouldn’t impact the way you consume the game. And if you’re a sports fan who may not necessarily be a hockey fan, it will give you an opportunity, potentially, to sample something new.

“Our hope is it causes more people to watch more games. . . . We think it will cause ratings on NBC to go up because more people will be watching.”

Bettman also shook off worries about how legalized sports betting would affect the integrity of the sport, reminding audience members that “trillions of dollars” were and still are bet on sports illegally in the United States “and we haven’t had an integrity problem. The fact that it’s now legal shouldn’t mean we have an integrity problem.”

Hours before Bettman spoke Thursday morning, the NHL announced an agreement with the William Hill sportsbook company, naming it as an “official sports betting partner of the NHL.” The deal is largely a branding opportunity for the sportsbook operator and does not include the sharing of real-time game data, an aspect of the league’s earlier deal with MGM. But no matter the parameters, it’s still a deal that would have been more or less unthinkable 12 months ago, when there was no room for sports betting in the “atmosphere” of the NHL.

“We have the common view that sports – and sports betting magnification – is about bringing people together,” Bettman said.

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