Day three of G2E saw panellists talk up the potential of sports betting to boost fan engagement, though the industry was also warned that it risks missing out on the opportunity presented by esports betting.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman cemented the reputation of hockey as the most sports betting friendly of the major US leagues when he pronounced he “wouldn’t have a problem” with in-stadia wagering at Madison Square Garden or any other venue in a regulated state.
Discussing the subject of the relationship between the major leagues and sports betting operators, and the potential for partnerships, Bettman noted that the NHL has been “getting comfortable” with sports betting for a number of years having established the franchise expansion team the Golden Knights in Las Vegas in 2017.
“We had a year to see how it worked,” he said. “This is early days, but we are all comfortable that at this stage in the development of sports betting, we are all doing OK. There haven’t been any major problems.”
This comfort factor extends towards the NHL’s attitude towards integrity concerns. When asked whether he had any concerns about the potential for match-fixing or other integrity issues, Bettman professed having very few worries.
“When it comes to hockey and the NHL players and how they play the game, I don’t worry about that,” he said. “They play to win. They don’t pay any attention to the lines. Part of that might be historic. We didn’t have a big history of people betting on hockey. I can’t speak for the other sports.”
Bettman was also keen to suggest that NHL would be open to taking sports betting content into account when it comes to the next set of negotiations over broadcast rights which will take place at the end of the next regular season.
“The discussion will be how our broadcasts can be integrated with a betting app,” he said, predicting there would be “more and more shoulder advertising.”
“From a league standpoint, we think sports betting will increase viewership and in a streaming world you will see more multi-screen experiences,” he added.
On the issue of data, where the NHL has a deal for distribution with Sportradar that predates the fall of PASPA, Bettman said the league was investing “tens of millions” of dollars on new player and puck-tracking technology.
“It was originally planned as a broadcast product,” he said. “The player tracking will create 200 data points a second and the puck tracking will be 2000. And if you are doing prop betting, you will need it. The only way you will be able to access it will be through us.”
Playing the field
The potential for exclusive data or betting partnership deals was given short shrift by the sports-betting representatives on the panel.
Matthew King, the chief executive at FanDuel, said that his company’s view was that it was a non-issue. “Our view is leagues should partner with a variety of partners, without picking favourites,” he said. “We think if you get all the partners around the table, that is how you get the best answer for the brands.”
However, as Joe Asher, chief executive of William Hill in the US added, the debate was nuanced depending on the regulations governing sports-betting in each state.
“Here in Las Vegas, with the (Golden) Knights, they wanted the agreement to be non-exclusive and we were not worried about that,” he said. “It’s different in DC where under the law there is one sportsbook provider and hence one arena sponsor. We want a vibrant market, but there is nuance depending on the regulation.”
Asher pointed to Mark Cuban’s comments in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court ruling in May last year that the ruling would double the value of sports teams, saying that it was clear that sports betting would drive further fan engagement.
“More people will be watching the game,” he said. “The Golden Knights got off to a great start and people kept betting them, and they kept winning. So everyone was making money.”
On the issue of streaming and sports betting, King said that the type of watch-and-bet offerings available to the bookmakers in the UK and Europe were an “anachronism” in the US because of the access US consumers already had to all the games they wished to see.
“Access is not the problem,” he added. “Our role is much more about discovery. That is the model we are looking at. Otherwise you would pay money for something people already have access to.”
Mark Cuban got a further reference on another panel later in the day when his name was given mention as an investor in esports betting operator Unikrn. When Asher was questioned on the subject, he had said that esports betting in Nevada was very much in its infancy.
But Rahul Sood, the chief executive at Unikrn, was keen to impress upon the audience that their future customers would not be interested in the games menu currently being offered.
“Somebody who plays Fortnite today won’t play slot machines when they are 50,” he claimed. “They just won’t.”
Stuart Irvin, a lawyer in Washington DC with Covington, added that he was “amazed’ that the gaming sector and the video games industry was still so siloed. “I’m not seeing a lot of crossover efforts,” he said. “Esports is global and the opportunities are in China and Korea and everywhere else.”
One notable difference between traditional sports and esports was that in the case of the video games, the publishers are much more in control than even the powerful major leagues.
“The power and economics rests with the game publishers, they have control in a way football doesn’t really have,” he said.
He added that it was inevitable that there would be a lot of regulatory concerns over the connection between betting and esports. “Addiction and combining video games with gambling is a real risk to the business,” he said. “It’s an existential threat.”