NHL relies on players’ ‘good judgment’ on social media as it expands in China, embraces betting

Gary Bettman

Olivia Michael | CNBC

The National Hockey League is relying on the “good judgment” of its players as it expands overseas, particularly in China, and positions itself in the U.S. to profit from the newly legalized gambling here,  Commissioner Gary Bettman said on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” on Wednesday.

Last week, the NHL announced an expansion with its partner SportsMEDIA Technology, or SMT, a privately-held company that will install new puck and player technology to monitor their every move on the ice by the 2020 postseason. The league also established data deals with Fan Duel, MGM Grand, and William Hill.

The new technology will give fans live, in-depth stats for so-called proposition bets, or side bets on a game. Bettman said he hopes the service will allow NHL fans to feel “comfortable if they are placing bets.”

“There’s an opportunity to create revenue streams, but as importantly, there’s an opportunity for fan engagement, and that’s what we’re first and foremost focused on,” Bettman said.

Since the federal ban on sports betting was lifted in 2017, more than $11 billion have been legally wagered, and according to Morgan Stanley, that number could grow to $216 billion by 2025. The NHL is hoping the growth of sports betting will assist with the league’s next TV deal, which is currently set to expire after the 2021-22 season.

NBC and NBC Sports, which are owned by Comcast, currently pays the NHL roughly $200 million per year to air its games, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“When we start dealing with media companies in our next media negotiation, there will be opportunities to focus on what this will do to expand our viewership,” Bettman said.

The league is also expanding in China through the O.R.G. NHL China Games, sponsored by the Chinese company O.R.G. Packaging. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks became the first to NHL teams to play in China in 2017.

The feud between the NBA and China hasn’t had any blow back on the NHL so far. NBA players can’t seem to avoid offending fans or politicians, no matter what they say, with headlines erupting almost daily since Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James reignited the furor in Asia when he told reporters in the U.S. Tuesday that Morey was “misinformed,” adding the NBA exec was not “educated on the situation.”

James was criticized for his response to Morey, and fans in Hong Kong were seen burning the NBA star’s jerseys late Tuesday night.

Bettman was asked if it was a good idea to continue expanding in China, given the fragile relationship with the U.S. right now. Selecting his words carefully, the commissioner responded: “When you’re dealing in foreign countries, geopolitical issues can impact your business, and you have to be mindful of that.

“We probably have the most international player base of any of the sports,” Bettman added. “And to the extent we can do business internationally, we do it, and when there are impediments to it, we either pivot or choose another course. There are no hard and fast rules in terms of how you do it.”

He said the NHL hasn’t has adopted a social media policy for its executives and players in light of the NBA’s plight in China, saying the NHL hasn’t issued a “memoranda” on the matter.

“We rely on the good judgment of all of our on-ice and off-ice personnel to do what they think is sensible and responsible,” Bettman said, adding the league is “overwhelmingly proud” of the way players conduct themselves.

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