Why NHL Betting Hasn’t Surged Despite Legal Sports Wagering
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When Jay Kornegay is asked what it will take for hockey to meaningfully increase its meager handle of the overall book among major North American sports, his answer comes quick.
“More TV,” said Kornegay, executive vice president of operations at the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas, who has more 30 years experience running sportsbooks in Nevada. “Not just the games, but more talk about the games on TV, more SportsCenter highlights, more of the talking heads debating about the game. You just don’t see that as much as the other sports still. Hockey has such a dedicated bunch of fans, though.”
There still just aren’t enough of them to make bookmakers take much of an interest in hockey. Most estimates peg hockey’s overall handle of the book at 5 percent or less. Although the NHL has a fairly lucrative (compared to just a decade or so ago) U.S. national television contract with NBC, ratings for the sport usually still come in fourth among the Big Four sports.
The Root Cause
The NHL, which recently gained a third official betting partner in William Hill, barely gets mentioned on SportsCenter (partially because the league is the only one of the four that ESPN has no rights agreement with, though that may change in a couple of years) and PTI-style sports talk shows rarely talk hockey.
Unless you’re in Canada, you’ll almost never hear hockey discussed on sports talk radio. The spread on NHL games is almost always the same 1.5 goals it’s always been, which takes away a lot of the lucrative over-under action sports like football and basketball enjoy. Hockey’s fairly vague injury-disclosure policies can be a discouragement to fans of NHL betting who want to know everything they can before wagering on a team.
Kornegay, a graduate of Colorado State University, is a hockey fan. He loves going to games of the Vegas Golden Knights, and was in the crowd the night the Colorado Avalanche and Ray Bourque beat the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals.
Until the Joe Sixpack-style U.S. sports fan can recognize the major stars of the sport and want to talk about the games more, Kornegay seems to feel hockey will continue to lag behind betting on other sports.
Encouragement for the Future
Kornegay said, actually, that hockey and baseball have fairly close percentages of per-game action from bettors, but that baseball’s overall take of the book is still much larger because of the sheer number of games (162, plus playoffs).
That said, Kornegay did have some encouraging things to say about the future of betting on hockey.
“The numbers still aren’t huge, but they have grown,” he said. “We think, when legalization comes to more states with NHL teams in them, the numbers will grow more. Here in Las Vegas, we’ve seen a big increase in bets on Golden Knights games. I think it’s encouraging that commissioner (Gary) Bettman has given his blessing to legalized betting on the sport.”
“It’s been a huge success so far in Las Vegas,” he continued. “People here are truly passionate about the Golden Knights. They were the first of the four leagues to come here, and that will always mean a lot to the people here. If interest in the game can blossom in a place like Las Vegas, there’s hope for a lot of other places.”
Indeed, others are predicting some brighter days specifically for hockey. Rodney Paul, a sports economist at Syracuse University, told SportsHandle, when asked what sport might get the biggest boost from national legalization of sports betting, said:
“I think hockey because that used to be hard to find legal outlets to bet, because a lot of bookies used to not take any action on hockey.
"But anything that would not have had the chance to be bet on before, but now goes ahead and has an offering: a sport that starts to be able to take off and you are able to wager on these things as part of that wave would fit into being impacted the most by the legalization of sports betting.”