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Professional sports leagues are beginning to position themselves for the advent of legalized sports betting.
A similar deal with the NFL could be coming soon, but for now Roger Goodell & Co. are fine pretending that none of this is happening while laughing its head off as millions of dollars are wagered on football every Sunday.
That’s why “The Match” between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was an important moment. Whether you loved it, hated it or just watched it because you bet on it, it gave us the first legitimate look at what sports broadcasts will look like when gambling goes the full monty.
What we saw — and heard — were references to sports betting without any backlash or Twitter going all, “Did you hear Al Michaels say the over just cashed because of that meaningless touchdown? He’s gone and done it now.”
I am probably wrong — I am biased given how much I love the NHL and the mighty New York Islanders, after all — but I think that the NHL has the most to gain of any league in the U.S. market when this all goes above board.
The NFL is already a bazillion-dollar behemoth that we all hate (or maybe that’s just me) but still watch and bet on, the NBA is having a global moment, the NCAA — let’s not even go there, actually — and the MLB has the advantage of being the only sport on in the summer.
The NHL, despite making some serious headway since being the anchor tenant on the Outdoor Life Network in the mid-aughts, still doesn’t move the needle.
There’s a whole world out there ignoring the NHL, and gambling will give hockey the opportunity to introduce itself.
This is the part where I’m supposed to reference ratings as a measuring stick. Instead, I’ll point you to our live odds page where we track the total number of bets on each game across major sports.
While betting markets are fluid and can be tough to predict, what I can tell you based on my 15 months with The Action Network is that NHL betting numbers pale in comparison to NFL, NBA, MLB, college football and college basketball handles.
We keep hearing that sports betting will lead to higher ratings — if you have $30 on a Dallas Stars-St. Louis Blues game, you’re a lot more likely to turn it on — but if nobody is betting the game, will that come to fruition?
The deal with MGM will provide financial gains — which will hopefully pay off in investments in grassroots hockey rather than pad salaries that are already well-padded — but they aren’t going to widen the funnel for the NHL.
So how can the NHL get fans, and more specifically casual bettors, to invest their time and money into a game they would normally ignore? Two words: Day games.
The NHL should schedule weekday matinees. I know players hate them and the union will be salty, but with full-scale legalized betting on the horizon, a once-a-week workday matinee would be an easy way to grab a hold of the ever-growing invested audience without alienating your natural fanbase.
Think about how much better a day at the office seems when you can have a little action on a random MLB matinee.
Would you watch a Tigers-Rangers game on a Wednesday night? Most likely not.
But if you put that sucker on during the middle of a workday? The next thing you know you’re hunched over your coworker’s laptop looking at Matt Boyd’s wOBA against and getting ready for a nice in-office sweat.
That exact scenario can be replicated with the NHL.
Over the course of the marathon regular season we do see a handful of workday matinees. This season we were treated to a pair of games between the Panthers and Jets at 2 p.m. ET as part of the NHL’s global series. And guess what? Those two games were the most-bet hockey games each day according to our data.
And if you’re thinking, “Nobody will watch a Blue Jackets-Canucks game on a Wednesday afternoon,” you’re probably right. But I implore you to flip on the NHL Network at 2 p.m. ET this Thursday. Odds are that they are showing “Youngblood” or a paid infomercial.
I think what’s held the NHL back from going baseball on us with games during the 9-5 grind is that the league suffers from little brother syndrome.
Gary Bettman and the boys in the backroom won’t like the idea of scheduling games in the middle of a workday because it will all seem a bit Minor League. To that I’d say: You’re the bloody NHL, most people — including most NHL fans — already think you’re Minor League.
Now go and do the right thing by scheduling a Hurricanes-Wild game at 2 p.m. ET on a random Thursday afternoon and watch people get hooked on the coolest game on earth.