Sports Bettors Preferring NBA to NHL at Ontario Sites Amid All-U.S. Stanley Cup

Like other leagues, the NHL has viewed wagering as a way to suck more people into their product, as there are not many things that will keep someone watching a sporting event to the end like having money riding on the outcome.

Last Updated: Jun 8, 2023 2:03 PM ET Read Time: 4 min
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Ontarians are preferring hardwood over hockey at sports betting sites during a Stanley Cup Finals that is lacking in Canadian content.

When legal sports betting began to bloom in Canada following the decriminalization of single-game wagering in the summer of 2021, it was assumed the National Hockey League would be a leading destination for the wagering dollars of domestic punters. 

While the NHL does seem to be drawing more Ontario sports betting action than the league may see in, say, Louisiana, it has been surpassed in popularity in the province by the National Basketball Association. 

The government agency legally responsible for the competitive market for online sports betting and casino gambling in Ontario said basketball accounted for 29% of total wagering in the first year of the new regulatory framework. 

Second was soccer, according to iGaming Ontario, with 15% of handle, followed by football, with 13%. Finishing off the podium, in fourth, was hockey, with 9% of the handle from April 4, 2022, through March 31, 2023.

Although official data has yet to be released, the trend seems set to continue, especially as this year’s Stanley Cup Finals features the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights. 

Total wagering on the NHL championship series is about 20% behind that of the NBA Finals at Sports Interaction, “which is indicative of the regular season as well,” according to the Canadian bookmaker’s head of trading operations, Phill Gray. 

The handle is “surprisingly high” in some ways given that it’s a Florida-Vegas final, Gray said. Several subplots are running through the Stanley Cup series, such as who will claim the Conn Smythe Trophy, the award for the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs. 

There’s also the “[Matthew] Tkachuk factor,” Gray noted. The Florida Panthers winger has had some electric performances thus far and already had name recognition amongst fans thanks to his dad, former NHLer Keith Tkachuk. 

Still, Canadian bettors are wagering more on professional basketball than they are on hockey. The Stanley Cup action reinforces that trend. 

“Real story, and outsiders find it surprising, we always take more total on NBA than NHL on a nightly basis, regardless what the matchups are in the NHL, regular season or playoffs,” Gray said in an email.

Getting engaged

That may come as a bit of a downer to NHL execs counting on legal sports betting to give their business a lift. Like other leagues, the NHL has viewed wagering as a way to suck more people into their product, as there are not many things that will keep someone watching a sporting event to the end like having money riding on the outcome. 

“We think all of this will provide an opportunity to generate new fans for the game,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer, during a March 2021 meeting of a Canadian parliamentary committee. “We all know that whether it's gambling, but also social gaming or fantasy gaming, the likelihood for people to engage and participate in that sport is much greater.” 

Yet the interest in NHL among bettors is probably still higher in Ontario than it is in most states. BetMGM told Covers the province is the “#1 most bet market for NHL,” ahead of Michigan and Massachusetts, and that wagering on the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Ontario has risen year-over-year.

 “The most common betting markets in Canada are the same as national data with Money Line, Spread, and Totals leading the way, in that order,” BetMGM data specialist Drew O’Dell said in an email. “Behind those are Correct Score and First Goal Scorer.”

Live, laugh, Leafs

Nonetheless, for at least one sportsbook, it has taken some doing for wagering on NHL events to outpace those of the NBA. FanDuel noted in May that the Toronto Maple Leafs Game 6 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was its top event based on active users for the night and that this trend continued through the third game of Toronto’s series with Florida, which the Leafs lost in five. 

The Leafs bowing out in the second round in relatively short order probably hasn’t helped maintain that interest, although Ontario overall remains a big, if not the biggest, hockey market for sportsbook operators. 

“As one of Canada’s national sports, hockey is an important part of Canadian culture, though it has not always been the most popular to Ontario sports fans, and bettors specifically,” FanDuel noted at the time.

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