Gary Bettman and I go a way back, even though he doesn’t know it…probably because we’ve never met. The NHL President, you see, was vocal about the NHL’s having any kind of association with gambling, legal or otherwise, at a time when I was regularly writing stories on that subject.
My assignments were designed to inform and assist lottery players who were interest in playing ports lotteries that were perfectly legal. Players (bettors) could wager on three or more games, and hockey was on the menus. Except that they couldn’t be called NHL games. Nor could teams be called Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens or Calgary Flames…
Only Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, etc. The most bizarre one was New York, with two teams, the Rangers and the Islanders. In the lottery world, they were called New York and Long Island. Team names were taboo, despite lottery officials’ attempts to make it un-taboo, and Bettman in particular made it clear the NHL had zero interest in any association with anything that could be construed as gambling.
Sports bettors, it seemed, were like the image-tarnishing, sleazy relatives nobody wants in the family.
“Why,” I recall asking Guy Simonis who had been president of two Canadian lottery organizations and the first president of the world body, “don’t they see that all this does is promote their game?”
“They will,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”
As I watch Stanley Cup playoff games this month, even I am amazed at what I see, and I don’t mean on the ice. Gambling has, indeed, gotten in bed with Bettman (or vice-versa), to the point where gambling dominates hockey advertising, in perception if not dollars. Curious about the depth of the relationship, I took a random game (Toronto vs Tampa) and did a rough breakdown of advertising. From pre-game to post-game, there were 87 TV commercials, and 18 of them were gambling related, or 20.6 per cent. The only two categories even close were restaurants (13.7 per cent) and cars (11.5 per cent). That doesn’t include the advertising on the boards, in the stands, or even on the ice.
Bettman tipped his hand (pun intended) when he endorsed a team in Las Vegas. Two years later, he explained his strategic about-face in an interview: “What we’ve learned is that [sports gambling] is another point of engagement for the fans. Ultimately, I think if you’re interested in sports betting, you’re going to have an increased opportunity to engage with the game.”
Unlike “distant replays”when legal sports bettors had to predict all three or all four predictions to win, today they can wager on single games in most of Canada and — from what we’re seeing on TV — make in-game bets online. Even icons past (Wayne Gretzky) and present (Auston Matthews) are free to be gambling pitchmen with the president’s blessings.
The point is that, almost without exception, everything in life has a price. Bettman just couldn’t admit it until the NHL’s price was right.