The revolution began so quietly, most people probably didn’t even notice.
Last month, Sportsnet introduced audiences of its NHL broadcasts to a new on-screen graphic displaying a new statistic it called faceoff probability: a percentage predictor of which player about to take a faceoff might win possession of the puck.
Over the past few years, hockey broadcasters have begun peppering their air with seemingly random stats: shift time, puck speed, player skating speed, high-danger-area save percentage for goalies. But in rolling out the new stat, the NHL acknowledged something that has lurked over hockey – and, by extension, all pro leagues – since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on sports wagering in 2018, and Canada legalized single-event sports wagering last year. Someday soon, fans might spend games with one eye on the TV and another on a betting app, hoping to make real money on such previously picayune elements as the outcome of a single faceoff.
And as single-event sports betting gets under way in Ontario on Monday, an entire media ecosystem is ready and eager to help make bettors out of fans.
Viewers who are already tired of wall-to-wall ads for betting apps (if you watched the Olympics, BetRivers spokesman Dan O’Toole is likely haunting your dreams) might want to brace themselves. The new reality is likely to feature an influx of on-screen data feeds, hyped-up hosts, “betcasts,” betting-oriented content in your daily newspaper, and a raft of sports pundits stumping for sportsbooks.
“Over time, sports betting content is going to be sports content,” said Mitesh Mehta, the senior vice-president of betting, gaming, and strategic partnerships for NBC Sports Next, the network’s technology innovation division. “It’s going to be one and the same.”
U.S. networks such as NBC and MSG have been first out of the gate, offering a glimpse of what might be on the way to Canadian screens.
Some broadcasts are taking it slow, partly because they don’t want to upset long-time fans. A pregame panel show might now include references to how a roster change or injury could affect affect the odds, say, of a team scoring a certain number of points during the second quarter, or a specific player hitting a minimum number of three-pointers.
“Our strategy is to target the casual fan,” Mehta said. “We’re not looking for the big-time bettors that are spending 10-grand, 20-grand.”
Still, the network is experimenting with programming for more serious bettors. During last year’s Phoenix Open, NBC Sports aired a daily two-and-a-half-hour betting-oriented show on its Peacock streaming service that incorporated the network’s broadcast of the golf tournament. Known as a betcast, the show featured a panel of three commentators chatting about the possible outcomes of certain bets The broadcast was sponsored by NBC’s sportsbook partner, PointsBet, which offered more than 500 types of bets during the tournament, including which player would get closest to the pin on the 16th hole, certain players’ longest drive, and who might lead after the first, second, or third round.
NBC extended the concept into basketball, this month airing betcasts on its regional sports networks in Chicago and Philadelphia that incorporated betting-oriented commentary alongside live on-screen odds on such possible wagers as point spread, over/under, and money lines.
Part of the rationale driving the push into betting is demographic. “We see that the audience for sports betting is a young, millennial, Gen-Z audience,” Mehta said. Broadcasters and leagues have been grappling with how to engage younger viewers, who don’t tend to sit and watch entire games in the same way previous generations had. “It’s every media company’s goal to get younger, and the way we do that is by getting into the normal utility and consumption of a younger audience. And we believe sports betting is a great tool to do that.”
MSG Networks has also dabbled in betcasts. But it has also made betting-focused programming a regular part of its weekday schedule, including the 5 p.m. (ET) show The Bettor Half Hour, which features a host, Alex Monaco, whose frenetic enthusiasm may remind viewers of the CNBC Mad Money stock pundit Jim Cramer: He’s an acquired taste.
Like NBC, MSG Networks is targeting casual bettors. “Experienced bettors feel like they have the information, and they don’t want anyone else to have it, and they’re not going to necessarily look to other experts for an angle on a game they think they already have,” said Kevin Marotta, the senior vice-president of marketing and content strategy for MSG Networks.
Casual – or ‘interested’ – bettors “want to learn from everybody, they want to hear from experts, they want to hear from former athletes, they want to hear from sports personalities, and they want to be entertained and to learn,” Marotta explained. “So, we said, ‘Okay, that’s an opportunity for us to serve that audience in a different way, with content that we didn’t necessarily see was out there.’ ”
Some who have been offering betting-oriented programming for years are skeptical of that approach. Ian Cameron is a Dundas, Ont.-based professional handicapper who hosts The Ice Guys, a hockey betting podcast and YouTube show that runs every day of the NHL season. Every Tuesday night the show streams live, as viewers watch Cameron and his co-hosts take in as many hockey games as possible and talk about the bets they’re making on the fly.
Cameron is pleased that sports betting is becoming more mainstream. But he’s dismissive of some of the betting-oriented segments he’s seen so far from Canadian outlets featuring former athletes. Speaking of one ex-NHLer who offers his betting predictions, Cameron mused rhetorically: “Sure, he knows hockey. But does he know the ins and outs and nuances of betting? Does he know angles? Does he know trends to look for? Can he give you statistics? Does he look at different analytics that are out there in the sports betting market?
“There’s a huge difference between knowing the sport, knowing how to bet the sport, and being able to give information from a betting standpoint.”
A wave of outlets have joined the crush to educate fans – and attract big dollars from the marketing budgets of sportsbooks – with some of them attracting talent from legacy operations.
Last week NorthStar Bets, the gaming arm of a new division within the company that owns the Toronto Star, announced it had signed broadcaster Rod Black to be a brand ambassador and face of some of its reports that will appear on social media. Earlier this year, NorthStar Bets hired former Sportsnet reporter Chris Johnston to lead its hockey coverage.
And this week Covers.com, which has been covering sports betting since the company was founded in Halifax in 1995, signed a deal for its content to run on platforms owned by the Canadian news organization Postmedia. Covers currently claims about 10 million users a year, including about one million from within Canada who were likely placing bets with unregulated sportsbooks based outside of the country.
Still, Covers, which earns revenue whenever one of its readers signs up for a sportsbook, believes there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who will jump into the fray. And it expects to expend a lot of effort educating newbies.
“We’re probably going to see a 20, 30, 40 percentage-point swing for the Canadian market, especially as sports betting becomes more ingrained,” said Mark Harper, the general manager of Covers. “We’re seeing lots of sleepless nights in preparation for this, so it’s very exciting.”