It was a seemingly meaningless shot on goal, at least within the context of the St. Louis Blues‘ Western Conference finals Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks. It was Ryan O’Reilly, with a wrister 19 feet from where Martin Jones would turn it aside, for the Blues’ third shot of the game.
It didn’t produce a point for O’Reilly.
It produced 5,000 of them for fans who predicted it would happen.
During the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring, the Blues became the first NHL team to create a free predictive gaming platform for their fans called “Enter The Zone.” Before and during each game, there were seven to 10 questions to answer, ranging from how many saves Jordan Binnington would make to the faceoff success between specific players to the first team to reach three shots on goal in the game.
Winning predictions earned fans points. Those atop the leaderboard at the end of games won prizes ranging from gift cards to signed merchandise. Fans atop the leaderboard at the end of the series had a chance to win prizes that included season tickets.
It was fun. It was popular. It offered a glimpse of the future of wagering on professional hockey.
“The big thing for us was starting to see what appetite our fans had for a predictive environment, as a prelude to where we think things are heading with sports gambling,” said Matt Gardner, vice president for digital media and emerging technology for the Blues. “Knowing that it may very well one day be legalized in Missouri, we wanted to get a better understanding of what our fans thought about an experience like this and how it would serve a different type of second-screen experience during the game.”
The results exceeded expectations: 70% of all users played the game at least twice, and 30% played in 12 of the 13 games in which the app was offered.
The NHL was watching.
“Fans playing in the arena, or at home, with the opportunity to win unique prizes that the NHL could provide them is really attractive. All these gaming companies want to talk to us about it,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer.
Same with the Blues. Gardner said he received calls from teams in every other professional sport after his team’s successful test program. “Predictive gaming and sports betting are on everyone’s radar right now,” he said.
The Blues were contacted in the spring by a company called Tally, which was cofounded in 2017 by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Tally earlier partnered with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers on a predictive gaming pilot project and sought to test it in the hockey space.
The Blues told Tally that they were interested in implementing it if they got past the Dallas Stars in the second round of the playoffs. They ended up winning in seven games, which meant it was time for Gardner and his team to work quickly. “We had about three days to pull everything together — a very short time frame to get it launched,” he said.
One of the first questions that needed to be answered was when fans would play the game. A priority for the pilot program was not interrupting play, especially given the high stakes of the playoffs. The game would be launched several hours before puck drop and reactivated during intermission. Fans would have to lock in answers before puck drop.
“We tried to modify the questions so they made sense as the series went along,” Gardner said.
If Binnington made a certain number of saves in the previous game, that could be the benchmark for the new wager. There were questions such as which team would get to five shots on goal first and questions about whether the Blues would have a multigoal player.
During the Western Conference finals, the Blues had a cumulative points leader for the series who won a pair of season tickets. For each game, there were three winners who received prizes ranging from playoff tickets to autographed merchandise.
But in the Stanley Cup Final, the stakes were a little lower. “We didn’t have ticket inventory to offer up,” Gardner said, “but we also wanted to see what a difference it would be for the players in the game if the cumulative prize wasn’t as significant.”
The prizes were autographed items and gift cards to the Blues’ retail store. “It did not take away from the number of players who participated. It actually continued to grow,” he said.
There were a few surprises in the numbers for the Blues. First was where the fans were playing: 17% of users were in the arena, either at a live game or at a watch party. Second was who was playing: What Gardner discovered was that the game was growing organically because of how competitive the fans made it. Friends were challenging friends, and families sitting together at games were battling each other.
It’s that kind of experience that Gardner thinks could create new fans, especially if there were something more on the line than the chance to win a gift card.
“I think technology is going to play a pretty important role in that happening, providing real-time opportunities to bet on who scores the game-winning goal or in other pivotal moments when wagering can happen in a split second,” he said. “It’s going to be a unique and new way to engage with your audience.”
The Blues’ “Enter The Zone” was a prototype for what’s to come: real-time, in-game wagering by fans during play.
“In-play proposition betting is going to be the most impactful marketing tool that the sports industry has seen from a fan engagement perspective,” said Sara Slane, a consultant on sports wagering growth, “and that applies to hockey.”
It’s Slane’s job to figure out the best approach for teams that want to use sports wagering as a marketing tool.
Slane is the former senior vice president of public affairs of the American Gaming Association. She worked on the push to legalize sports wagering across the U.S. before going into business for herself. She partnered with the NHL in July to “consult the league on sports betting and help hockey maximize its revenues from the gambling activity” during its expansion in the U.S.
“For all the sports, including hockey, it was new territory,” Slane said. “There was a direct correlation between sports betting and fan engagement. We’ve looked at daily fantasy sports. We looked at March Madness brackets. People were consuming sports for a larger period of time.”
It’s no secret that hockey’s slice of the gambling pie has never been that large. But the NHL believes that growth has been restricted by three factors: access to legalized sports wagering, the ability to wager on things that go beyond the final score and the ease with which fans can wager on real-time events in a game.
On that first aspect, the NHL was encouraged by what it witnessed in Las Vegas, as betting on hockey has spiked during the brief reign of the Golden Knights. The league is encouraged enough to believe that with more options and more access, that could be repeated elsewhere.
“It’s not a sport that’s been typically bet on in the past. But as the NHL looks at new technology, I think that will change,” Slane said.
Part of that new tech is the advent of player and puck tracking, which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expects to be rolled out by this season’s playoffs. The data it generates, which was already at the heart of recent licensing deals between the NHL and sportsbooks, should create a plethora of new real-time wagers for fans.
But another part — and perhaps the key — is connectivity. The NHL views predictive gaming as a way to enhance the in-arena experience.
“We don’t have the issue yet, and I don’t think we ever will, of wanting to make sure we get fans to our arenas. The viewing experience has gotten so great at home that it’s always a concern. Look at fantasy football and the NFL. The game-day experience is great, but there’s always talk about watching multiple games at home and how amazing it is. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make the game-day experience even stronger,” Wachtel said.
But the in-arena experience is going to be only as good as the current connectivity will allow.
“I think what you’re seeing in most buildings is that connectivity is getting better,” Gardner said. “Obviously, when 5G rolls out, the experience that’s expected is going to be a game-changer, to provide real-time experiences like this with fan interaction. Teams have been wanting to do this.”
Of course, the ultimate connectivity issue is the legal one.
“It’s still so limited. We’re talking about a fraction of the country, and a fraction of the fans, that can engage in that activity,” Wachtel said.
Nineteen states have legalized sports wagering, plus Washington, D.C. Slane said that only eight states have yet to introduce some form of sports wagering legalization legislation. But things move quickly: Slane said she has never seen any kind of gambling legislation approved as quickly as sports wagering legislation has been. (Although she cautions that some important NHL states, such as New York, California and Florida, might take a while.)
“I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that by 2022, two-thirds of the country will have legalized sports betting,” she said.
As successful as the Blues’ foray into predictive gaming was, they hit an unexpected road block.
Tally was acquired by Nike a couple of months ago for another part of their business. Gardner said they’re seeking to spin off their predictive gaming piece. The Tally deal also impacted the Los Angeles Rams, who made a splash in the NFL preseason with their predictive gaming activation and had to quickly change partners. The Blues are currently looking at the company that is in business with the Rams.
“We’d love to have our predictive gaming element live now, but we’re actively looking at different partnerships that can build on the momentum we had during the playoffs,” Gardner said.
He predicts that the game will return soon. Wachtel predicts that this new form of fan engagement — either as trivial entertainment or as an entry point into wagering on hockey — is part of the future of NHL fandom.
“We’re going to try and figure out what the best model is for that. The teams in all sports are dabbling in it because sports betting is a great, new opportunity,” he said. “And we think it’s an opportunity to generate fans.”