Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 | 8:40 a.m.
NEWARK, N.J. — The chief executive of the NHL's New Jersey Devils and NBA's Philadelphia 76ers doesn't believe the teams will be cast in a bad light by agreeing to a multiyear sponsorship deal with one of the world's leading online poker companies.
Scott O'Neil, who runs the teams and the Prudential Center for groups led by leverage buyout specialist Josh Harris, and Norbert Teufelberger, the chief executive of bwin.party digital entertainment that operates partypoker, announced the historic deal Thursday.
It's the first between major U.S.-based professional teams and an online gambling company, but there were immediate questions about the relationship between sports and online gambling, which isn't seen positively in all circles.
O'Neil called it new territory, and hopes the reward outweighs the risk. The former NBA executive noted that his old employer held its All-Star game in Las Vegas in 2007 and its WNBA All-Star game at Mohgan Sun Casino in Connecticut in July.
"This doesn't seem like we're breaking any taboos," O'Neil said. 'I think for us the most important thing is being with a partner that can really engage our fans in a smart way and someone who understands for those of our fans who do play poker and those that are inclined for gaming whether they come to concerts here or a Sixers' game or a Devils' game they will be treated like a royal flush, if you will."
Partypoker ceased operations in the United States seven year ago after laws were changed, Teufelberger said, adding it has been looking to return for a while.
It has operated in Europe and has partnerships with some of the world's top soccer clubs — Manchester United in England, Real Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich Germany.
Teufelberger realizes coming back to the United States is a new game.
"We have learned over the many years, with Real Madrid and Manchester and Bayern, and especially here in this country where it's such a controversial topic, that we're not just selling toothpaste," Teufelberger said. "We're selling a product that can be viewed as very problematic. It has to be engaging, it has to be entertaining, but it shouldn't be addictive."
New Jersey authorized Internet gambling last year to give a boost to Atlantic City's struggling casino industry, which has been beset by increasing competition for the past seven years. It began with a five-day trial period on Nov. 21 and launched publicly on Nov. 25.
As of Monday, 148,487 accounts had been created, though the state's Gaming Enforcement Division notes that individuals often create separate accounts on more than one site.
O'Neil said some 60 million people play poker in the United States.
"I hope they get to New Jersey and come to the Prudential Center and I hope they all go on partypoker.com," he said.
Neither O'Neil not Teufulberger would disclose the length of the partnership nor the amount involved in the agreement.
Teufulberger could not estimate how many money partypoker hoped to earn through the agreement, but added the company hoped to secure 20 percent of the online business in New Jersey.
Included in the partnership is the integration of partypoker into the Devils and 76ers websites and social media channels, and mobile applications; tickets and hospitality; in-arena signage, including dasherboards, on-ice and on-court; and rights to broadcast television and radio advertisements during Devils and Sixers games.
There will be booths at the Prudential Center to explain how to play online.
New Jersey is the third state in the nation to offer Internet gambling, after Nevada and Delaware.
The partypoker partnership will be immediately visible Saturday at the Prudential Center, when the Devils play, and the Wells Fargo Center, the home of the Sixers. Fans at the Prudential Center could play online after downloading an app on their cell phone.
"All the other states are watching how we do this," Teufelberger said. 'We're really under the microscope here."
O'Neil and Teufelberger said the partners have not explored what would happen if sports gambling were legalized in New Jersey.
"It'd be very difficult with the leagues at this point in time," O'Neil said, noting the NBA had to make some adjustments to its laws to allow the deal.
And if it did happen?
"The leagues would have a tough time with it. That's a moment in time," O'Neil said. "I'm fascinated and curious how this plays out over time, because we all know what's coming. We just don't know when how what or why. I wouldn't want to speculate."