Would it shock you to learn that the NHL has said something that was later proven to be just a little dishonest?
I know, I know: it would not. This is the league that rags the puck on concussion lawsuits and still insists that Phoenix — suburban Phoenix! — is a better hockey market than Quebec City.
But, still. Here are some comments from senior NHL types at their announcement of the league’s new partnership with casino giant MGM Resorts, one which makes the NHL the official sports betting partner of MGM: “We have no concerns about the integrity of our game, of our players, our officials,” said executive vice-president Keith Wachtel, via the Associated Press. “We’ve never had an issue.
“We monitor all of the games,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “We watch what goes on, whether or not betting lines shift and the like … It hasn’t been an issue and we don’t anticipate it being an issue.”
So, not an integrity issue, then.
Here was the NHL just a few years back, when the Canadian government was considering passage of a bill that would have legalized single-sports wagering in this country:
“We firmly believe that legalized sports betting threatens to compromise (our) integrity, and that the single-game betting scheme that the bill seeks to decriminalize poses a particularized and unique threat in that regard,” the league wrote in a submission to the Senate. It also said that single-game betting “poses perhaps the greatest threat to the integrity of our games.” (Side note: who says “particularized”?)
That was in 2012. The bill, which would have removed the line in the Criminal Code that forbids betting on specific contest or event, had already passed the House of Commons but was stuck in the Senate for the usual vague and opaque Senate reasons. The NHL kept on opposing it for years, saying it was “steadfastly opposed” to any gambling-related activities tied to NHL games. Eventually, the bill died, as all ongoing legislation was wiped out by the 2015 federal election.
The NHL’s position has evidently evolved, to put it charitably. Integrity concerns? Why, that’s so much piffle and poppycock. I am paraphrasing here.
“That was an interesting one, to say the least,” says Paul Burns of the Canadian Gaming Association, with a chuckle that sounds at least a touch rueful. He remembers when NHL executives swore up and down that any association with gambling would tear the very fabric of the league asunder, and now there they were in New York waving away any such concerns.
Not that he is surprised it has come to that. With the U.S. Supreme Court having effectively struck down the federal law against sports-wagering in that country and states free to legalize it if they choose, sports leagues are coming around fast to finally admitting that gambling is good for their business. NBA commissioner Adam Silver led the way on legalized gambling, calling for it first in 2015, and his league was also the first to sign a partnership with MGM. The NHL is merely following suit.
“The leagues are realizing that it’s a new revenue source,” said Burns. A potentially huge revenue source, at that. Advocates for increased legalized sports gambling insists that the illegal market in North America is measured in billions of dollars, and they say that even if pro leagues never take a dollar of actual wagers, they stand to make millions more just from the increased interest in their games that legal betting would generate. (Sports wagering is, of course, already legal in Canada, but only through provincial lotteries that offer multi-event parlay events at terrible odds.)
Whatever one thinks of the NHL’s motivations, the end result is a changed landscape should Parliament consider the question of gambling laws again. Burns notes that previous attempts to legalize single-sport betting had provinces, business groups, labour groups and municipalities on side, all of them keen to tap a new source of revenue.
Leagues like the NHL “were the last stakeholder of any significance that was saying no,” Burns said. “And they are not anymore.”
With a federal election less than a year away, could Canada do with legislation what the United States did in the courts and essentially free Canada’s gamblers? There should be no lack of support for such a move. Previous attempts at gambling legalization came via NDP members of parliament trying to boost casino operations in Windsor and Niagara Falls. The Conservatives would theoretically support sports wagering for pro-business reasons. And the Liberals under Justin Trudeau just legalized cannabis for a lot of the same reasons advanced in favour of legal wagering: safer regulation, more tax revenue, and the end of a burgeoning black market.
The NHL’s pearl-clutching on gambling has always been a bit rich. It has long had owners with gaming investments, it embraced the daily-fantasy explosion even as it pretended that such things were not, technically, gambling, and then it gave a franchise to Las Vegas that would play in an arena attached to a casino. At that point, the jig was pretty much up. This week’s news of a formal gambling partnership is just the final step.
And so, the NHL is officially cool with sports gambling now. Let us see how long it takes the Canadian government to follow suit.