The Golden Knights, live gambling and the future of live sports attendance

Jesse Lawrence
One of the biggest early season NHL stories has been the success of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights.

One of the biggest early season NHL stories has been the success of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. Not only are the Golden Knights off to an 8-2 start, but they also rank in the top 10 of the most expensive average prices on the secondary market according to TicketIQ, the company I founded.

Through two games, they also rank third in percentage of arena filled at 102.3 percent, which includes standing room. At that rate, they’re .2 percent ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most historic NHL franchises with the hungriest fan bases and current favorite to win the Stanley Cup. If the Golden Knights can maintain anything close to current attendance and demand levels, their sports gambling-friendly approach may do more than just help the NHL solve the "warm-weather problem." In the face of larger screens and threats like virtual reality, it could be the biggest boon to event attendance since the advent of the dome.

If dome’s made the weather irrelevant, sports gambling could make the teams irrelevant, at least in the traditional sense. Behind Auston Matthews, one of the NHL’s biggest young stars, Maple Leafs Nation is as excited as ever and hoping to break their 50-year drought. Despite the fast start, Golden Knights Nation has virtually no expectations and odds-makers give the team a 50-1 shot.

As a point of comparison, the NHL’s other desert team, the Phoenix Coyotes, has long been the poster child for struggling, warm-weather NHL franchises. Since moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996, the Coyotes have had as many division championships as bankruptcies, and have only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once. Even with a Stanley Cup and two conference championships, though, the Carolina Hurricanes also struggle to fill seats.

When it comes to warm-weather attendance for hockey, while winning doesn’t guarantee a packed house every night, it’s the most sure-fire formula to fill seats. Last year, the Hurricanes filled 63 percent of their seats compared to 95 percent in 2006-07, which was the year after they won their only Stanley Cup. For the majority of professional teams, though, the odds of winning in any given year are not in their favor. The NBA has become an oligopoly and, despite an occasional breakthrough by teams like the Royals, baseball remains an arms race, where the majority of teams can’t consistently compete. Off the field, it’s also becoming increasingly hard for teams to keep up in the fast-paced race for consumers' attention and dollars. Amidst those inexorable forces, gambling may be their great equalizer.

Despite the current limitations on sports betting, gambling and sports are cozier than ever.

 

In an interview on Bloomberg, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said the next big growth area for team owners will be gambling. Through his company, Monumental Sports, Leonsis has invested in a European company called Sportradar, which he describes in the same interview as "having deep ties to integrity assurance in the gambling world." With the endless possibilities that could come from the opportunity for in-venue betting, "integrity insurance" sounds like a good bet for the future.

For the present, thanks to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), sports-book betting is limited to four states: Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Delaware. With the launch of their season, the Golden Knights are now the only professional team that plays in one of those states.

Almost $500 billion is bet each year globally, which makes it about as big as the advertising market. According to global gaming research firm Global Compliance, close to $100 billion is bet on pro and college football alone in the United States. While owners are excited about the prospects, politicians should be, as well. As our country struggles to imagine what the future of jobs will look like, it’s an opportunity that can’t be ignored by politicians and team owners alike.

Despite the current limitations on sports betting, gambling and sports are cozier than ever. Six NFL venues have a casino within one mile and more than half are less than 10 miles from the tables and slots. While none of those have a sports book, there is an active effort to overturn the PASPA.

Since 2015, six states have considered sports-betting bills, including Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina and Texas. No state has been more active, though, than New Jersey. Led by Chris Christie, the state is currently appealing to overturn PASPA in the Supreme Court. If New Jersey wins the case in December, it could usher in the biggest structural shift in event attendance since the Astrodome opened in 1965.

If domes made weather a non-factor, gambling has the potential to make the teams a non-factor. As a fan, no longer will you need to actually have a life-long rooting interest to invest hundreds of dollars to see sports live. With a relatively small (or very large) financial commitment, you can be invested in the outcome just as passionately as the most die-hard fan. Whether your investment objectives are simply making your money back on the tickets, or something more aggressive, there’s no question gambling will have an inexorable impact on how and why people attend live events in the future.

Historically, the appeal of of live events has been anchored around our need for community, and fans attending the event are generally interested in one outcome. In a world without PASPA, every fan could have myriad self-interested outcomes, based not just on the game, but also on every single play. While offshore companies like 5Dimes and local broker apps have dominated the Live In-Play Wagering lines, it’s also an option in Vegas, through William Hill Race and Sports book.

The looming threat of virtual reality has forced major league owners to consider more aggressive ways to differentiate the live experience.

 

In addition to playing at one of 100 full or self-service kiosks throughout Nevada, William Hill also allows fans to use their app to place bets anywhere, but only after they’ve deposited money at a physical location. This week's menu of InPlay options features college football, a full slate of NBA games, as well as NHL games, including the Colorado Avalanche's first-ever visit to T-Mobile Arena. It’s a good bet that some fans attending the game in Vegas, oblivious to those around them, will be rooting for their very own target outcomes using the William Hill app.

In addition to playing catch-up to the last 10 years of technological advancement, the looming threat of virtual reality has forced major league owners to consider more aggressive ways to differentiate the live experience. With the birth of the Golden Knights, gambling is now officially part of the consideration set. As its role increases in the years to come, first-mover leagues and teams will generate more revenue and fill more seats than laggards.

Given the size of the country’s betting habit, it’s only a matter of time before sports provides opportunistic fans a chance to win and lose, just like the players. As for real fans, they can only hope that the teams and leagues that get there first invest this new-found money into talent. Those that do will have the best odds of delivering the one thing that will always fill seats: winning.