The National Hockey League season has begun and with it, sportsbooks asking fans to bet on it.
And, uniquely to the NHL and Major League Baseball, active players promoting some of those sportsbooks.
But not as many as could be expected.
As pucks ceremoniously dropped around the league last week, fans were greeted with a new BetMGM ad and the reminder that Edmonton Oilers’ two-time league Most Valuable Player Connor McDavid does indeed shill for that gambling company. Maybe it’s not jarring anymore, but it’s not really commonplace either. Maybe for various reasons. In the NHL, just McDavid and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews have so far exploited their collectively-bargained right to become sportsbook ambassadors.
In MLB, just Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon has tweeted in earnest for a sportsbook, in his case MaximBet. That sportsbook announced in November that it was ceasing operations, though.
The explanation for why more players haven’t joined them is layered, but ultimately, could have more to do with bottom lines than any lingering stigmas of associating with gambling.
MLB, NHL Players Not Heavily Utilized as Endorsers
According to Kevin Mercuri, CEO of the Propheta Communications public relations firm that has managed clients in sports and gambling, “celebrity endorsement is a tried and true tactic that has yet to lose its effectiveness.”
But the fact that players haven’t rushed to capitalize on this new revenue stream, like the top four leagues in North America themselves have, is somewhat surprising.
The stigma argument seems less viable. All sports have had their gambling scandals. Wayne Gretzky, a ubiquitous BetMGM pitchman who stars with McDavid in the new spot, was adjacent one in 2006. Baseball has remained more institutionally traumatized than most sports after the 1919 Black Sox fiasco and Pete Rose’s banishment.
So maybe an aging outfielder, Blackmon, working for a brand that was active only in the state where he plays home games at the time he signed, was a sensible first sportsbook pitch for baseball. How quickly or if another active player signs that second deal with be an interesting read on MLB.
NFL vice president of public policy and government affairs Jonathan Nabavi said at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas this month that public backlash of that league’s incorporation of legal sports betting has led to few “rejectors.”
“It’s maybe not as problematic for (fans) as they once thought,” he said. NFL players are not allowed to endorse sportsbooks under the current CBA, but teams have taken on numerous sports betting and casino partners.
“The stigma has undoubtedly faded due to millions of dollars spent on marketing, public relations, and advertising,” Mercuri told Gaming Today. “Paying top dollar for celebrity endorsement has repositioned sports betting as an acceptable — and safe — pastime for sports fans. Star power can be effective in erasing the old stigma surrounding sports betting.”
But active athletes may not be completely comfortable yet, Mercuri said. He found retired ones reticent long before the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act brought legal sports betting to 37 states and jurisdictions. Legalization may not have completely changed the equation for players still building legacies.
“My guess is that it’s the Pete Rose stigma,” Mercuri explained in an email. “I was recruiting pro athletes for betting sites more than 15 years ago and the vast majority turned down big (and easy) paydays because they were afraid it would affect their chances of making the Hall of Fame. The only ones who said yes were those who were already in the HOF … or those who had serious financial difficulties.”
Also read: Team betting and DFS partnership tracker
McDavid, Matthews Right Mix of Skill, Personality, Location
McDavid, 25, is already a two-time Hart Trophy-winner and the sixth-fastest player to reach 700 career points. He figures to have many more ahead, but his Hall of Fame statistical credentials solidify shift by shift, and the Edmonton Journal once described his personality as that of a “good, polite and stoic young Canadian man.” The kind you can trust, BetMGM would hope. McDavid became the first active athlete in North American team sports to endorse a sportsbook in March.
Matthews, a Hart Trophy-winner and two-time top NHL goal-scorer also at age 25, has thrived in the blast furnace of public and media scrutiny that is the Maple Leafs locker room. He enlisted with Bet99 first to promote free-to-play games last February.
I’m proud to announce my partnership with https://t.co/Yxm2hzAd3b and am excited to explore and develop opportunities in this space alongside their team. Stay tuned for more! 👀 pic.twitter.com/IRQeWvx3GV
— Auston Matthews (@AM34) February 18, 2022
Integrity issues will always be of concern to leagues when granting such opportunities. Despite layers of digital and human firewalls to assure a fair game, there will always be a fan in the fifth row accusing a player of tanking their bet. As superstars in hockey-mad Canada, though, McDavid and Matthews are arguably under more pressure to maintain their excellence because of the scrutiny their side hustles can engender.
Blackmon, 36, resided on the other end of the spectrum. Twelve years into a career as a .297 hitter with a 19.3 WAR, the outfielder known as “Chuck Nazty” was the choice for MaximBet’s lifestyle brand in Colorado.
David Carter, adjunct Professor of Management and Organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, said concerns remain over utilizing active players as sportsbooks, although they are “diminishing for the time being.”
“Athletes can be deployed in a variety of ways beyond those directly linked to customer acquisition,” Carter told Gaming Today in an email, “such as serving in a public service capacity of sorts. However, once the inevitable hiccup (or worse) occurs, and a player is determined to have been inappropriately involved in gambling, it may not matter what role they played within the gambling ecosystem as teams, leagues, players unions, brands, fans, and customers will all be wary – at least initially. But this risk is baked into the deals and all involved have measured the risk and determined that the merits of moving forward outweigh the potential detriments.”
Hockey Insiders: Players Aren’t Yet Worth Time/Cost
But the lack of active NHL endorsers may not be the players’ choice. They simply may not be a good investment.
The evidence is right there in the revenue reports of the states and jurisdictions that reveal how much is wagered on each sport. According to an analysis by Gaming Today, hockey generates around 3% of the national handle, ranking it a tenuous fifth, barely holding off tennis and well behind the NBA and college basketball (35%); the NFL, college football, and the CFL (32%); MLB and college and foreign baseball (14%); and soccer (4%).
Granted, the figures for basketball and football are each bolstered by at least two wildly popular versions of those sports. Soccer has a world’s worth of leagues and competitions. But the baseball figure is close enough of an analog to show how far behind each the MLB and the NHL remains in betting interest. So do TV ratings.
So does a Sportico report detailing how the top five earners in basketball, soccer, football, baseball, golf, tennis, and hockey make their money.
At the top: basketball players with $628 million in salary and $341 million in endorsements. At the bottom: hockey players with $151 million in earnings and $18 million in endorsements. Money is a fabulous metric of interest, after all.
That, said an NHL player representative, illustrates a “macro issue of hockey players and their ability to break through in meaningful ways.”
Currently, 24 of 32 NHL teams are located in jurisdictions where sports betting is legal and in some stage of implementation.
The McDavid, Matthews, and Blackmon signings could also be seen as strategic moves by unique companies and not part of a movement. While BetMGM is a global giant, Bet99 is a former grey-market operator in the process of being licensed in Ontario and benefits from the association with a massively popular player and team.
MaximBet was available only in Colorado when it signed Blackmon, expanded to Indiana. It announced it was ceasing operations on Nov. 16.
Some believe that Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman might have been a great fit if sports betting was legal when the Red Wings ruled Detroit and the NHL. But now, for the NHL in particular, Canada seems like a much more fertile market for NHL players to transcend.
NHL Stars Struggle to Break Through for Broad US Appeal
There are NHL players who initially seem like a fit in various US markets. Among them is Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, a 27-year-old superstar who just won a Stanley Cup and plays in a state with legal online sports betting. PointsBet, which has a Denver hub, is the team’s official gaming partner. But some feel his straight-laced personality — like that of friend and mentor Sidney Crosby of the Penguins — may not translate as authentic for a sports betting brand.
The New York market is booming, but none of the sportsbooks operating there have gone after a star from the Rangers, Islanders, or Sabres. Those inside the game have theories as to why.
Customer-acquisition costs and a high tax rate have undoubtedly affected where sportsbooks allocate spending, concepts now a part of agents’ calculus as they explore these new opportunities for their clients.
Caesars enlisted retired Rangers goaltending legend Henrik Lundqvist instead of a current player when it launched in New York this year.
He doesn’t come for free. So why?
The third factor curtailing NHL players’ prospects: Endorsing sportsbooks comes with a neutral-zone trap of limitations, and retirees are easier to utilize, an agent told Gaming Today. They can do more, and are therefore worth more.
After McDavid’s signing, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Gaming Today: “We have negotiated extensively with the NHLPA over how, and on what terms, we can and will permit these types of relationships. We are very comfortable that we ultimately were able to strike the right balance, and that we incorporated appropriate and sufficient safeguards to ensure the integrity of our competition.”
- Active players can appear in advertising for sportsbooks only as long as those ads appear in jurisdictions where betting is legal and the company is licensed.
- The ad can’t conflict with any official sponsorships the player’s team has with another sportsbook.
- And the players can’t be shown betting on sports or encouraging viewers to wager on NHL games. In the new BetMGM ad, Gretzky scrolls through his app merrily as his McDavid finishes shooting practice.
CBA language allowing these endorsement deals also complicates contract verbiage in case the league and NHLPA decide to discontinue such endorsements by actives in the future.
At the Global Gaming Expo last week, industry experts declared the current player-acquisition model unsustainable.
New bettors, the target, seem more influenced by sign-up offers and bonuses than where the Mannings tell them to play.
Maybe that changes if vastly more influential active NFL and NBA players gain the right to endorse sportsbooks.
For now, McDavid and Matthews have a lot of open ice. And unless they convince a lot more people to bet on hockey, they’ll keep it.