Gary Bettman: NHL in Vegas not 'bellwether day' for gambling

The NHL is coming to Las Vegas, and odds on the Sin City franchise are on the board.

But even in the epicenter of sports betting in the United States, commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't appear ready to fully embrace legal gambling.

"We don't worry about the integrity of our game," Bettman told reporters at a Wednesday news conference to announce the Las Vegas franchise. "I'm more focused on the atmosphere in the arena, and that's something we're comfortable with going forward. While we know gambling is part of the industry in Las Vegas, we're not going to make it all that easy for you to pick up a ticket, a gambling ticket, on your way into the arena. We like the atmosphere in our 30 buildings, and we believe that T-Mobile Arena -- we can maintain that atmosphere consistent with what the realities are here."

Bettman noted that hockey accounts for only a small percentage of the overall betting handle in the U.S. Las Vegas sportsbook directors estimate the NHL generates 3 to 5 percent of the amount bet on sports overall.

The unnamed franchise will play at the T-Mobile Arena, which is located just outside of New York, New York casino, beginning in the 2017-18 season. Currently, betting kiosks will not be located in T-Mobile Arena, officials said, but it is surrounded by casinos with sportsbooks, most of which offer mobile wagering.

"You've got a sportsbook in your pocket," said Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports for MGM.

The Westgate SuperBook opened the Vegas franchise as a 100-1 long shot to capture the 2017-18 Stanley Cup, and Station Casinos' sportsbook has the expansion team listed as a +150 underdog in its first game.

Bettman said he didn't see the move to Las Vegas as a "bellwether day" for sports betting in the U.S.

"I don't view it in that respect," Bettman said.

While the NHL is the first major professional sports league to put a franchise in Las Vegas, Bettman's comments don't indicate a significant shift in the league's opposition to legal sports betting.

The NHL has not withdrawn its opposition to efforts to legalize sports betting in Canada and remains a plaintiff, along with the NCAA, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, in a nearly four-year courtroom battle to prevent New Jersey from legalizing sports betting.

The biggest indicator of the NHL's current position on sports betting could be whether it chooses to ask gaming officials to prohibit betting on the Las Vegas franchise at the state's regulated sportsbooks. The NHL has 30 days before an event to produce a written request asking the Nevada Gaming Commission to halt betting on the Vegas franchise. As of late Wednesday afternoon, NGC Chairman A.G. Burnett said he had not been contacted by the NHL. Rood believes the new franchise will increase betting on hockey, but not significantly. MGM Resorts, which built the stadium as part of a joint venture with AEG, is planning to offer in-game wagering on home games.

Bettman, a veteran commissioner, has a long history of expertise on sports gambling matters.

"We're not prudes on the subject," said Bettman in 2012 deposition testimony during the New Jersey sports gambling litigation. "We're concerned how gambling and betting affects the NHL game and changes the perception of and challenges the integrity of the NHL game."

Bettman even foreshadowed steps the league would take if one of its teams resided in a state with legalized sports betting, saying: "We will need to take a look at our [gambling] policies as it relates to a state that houses one of our franchises."

The atmosphere in the arenas, with hockey fans betting on league games, also has been a frequent concern for Bettman.

"I think that when somebody loses a bet, they tend to sometimes confuse their motives in rooting and enjoying the game because if you lose your bet, even though the team you're rooting for wins, you have a potentially conflicted outcome," explained Bettman. "And so I do believe that there is a negative element or atmosphere from any betting."

In 2006, Bettman dealt with former Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tochett, who faced sports gambling charges in New Jersey.

"To the best of my recollection, Rick was placing bets through somebody who was taking bets in New Jersey on football games," said Bettman. "And the State's attorney, I think it was, had an investigation called Operation Slapshot, which made it seem like somehow this had anything to do with hockey, which ultimately it didn't."

More recently, a hint of the NHL's openness to sports gambling occurred last fall, when the league signed an exclusive data distribution deal with Switzerland-based Sportradar, a firm with numerous sports gambling industry clients overseas. The NHL also is an equity owner in daily fantasy operator DraftKings.

Beyond the NHL's announcement and long-simmering talk of the NFL's Oakland Raiders' possible move to Las Vegas, Major League Baseball also signaled an openness in comments made by commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday.

"I see Las Vegas as a viable alternative," said Manfred during a Tuesday radio interview with Michael Kay on the YES Network. "I would not disqualify it just because of the gambling issue."

Manfred's policy stance represents a far departure from his predecessor, Bud Selig.

In 2012 deposition testimony in the New Jersey sports gambling case, Selig emphatically rejected the possibility of a team in Las Vegas.

"[W]hile I'm the commissioner we would never put a team in Las Vegas," said Selig during questioning by one of then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's attorneys. "Don't even want to be close to that.

"I wouldn't put a team in Las Vegas just because I don't want our people around that kind of atmosphere."

How comfortable the NHL is in an atmosphere with legal sports betting remains unclear, but the Las Vegas franchise does demonstrate the league's allergy to Nevada is gone.

The NFL, through relocation, and MLB, via imminent expansion to 32 teams, may be following suit soon.