Jamie McKittrick, a veteran sports betting executive, recently compared reading the odds in a Las Vegas sportsbook to browsing “an airport departure board.” A user needs to know what he or she is looking for to make sense of the text, numbers, and jargon.
But travelers are increasingly turning to their phones to check flight statuses, and, in New Jersey, to bet on sports. In April, online sports betting accounted for 81 percent of the Garden State’s nearly $314 million in handle. The reason why is simple. Online sports betting—like checking travel updates—is now predominantly done via mobile apps, which is not only more convenient but also offers a streamlined and personalized user experience.
“Less is more,” McKittrick, GVC Group’s head of commercial, said.
The challenge for sports books looking to enter the mobile world, though, lies in developing and maintaining technology that is user-friendly, legally compliant, and fast enough for in-play wagers.
As a car carrying attendees from New York City to the SBC Betting on Sports America conference in Secaucus emerged on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel last month, the passengers all reached for their smartphones and began placing wagers on that day’s games.
“Mobile is the market,” explained David Sargeant, the founder of iGaming Ideas.
Anything else feels restrictive. Phones are in everyone’s pockets, ready to be used on a whim. Casinos, “tend to be quite a drive away from a population center,” said Neale Deeley, Sportradar’s VP of sales for gaming. “That’s fine for when you’re taking a weekend away to see a show and play some tables and slots, but sports betting occurs with a game just as [likely] on a Wednesday night as a Saturday.”
The first requirement for any online sportsbook is to ensure a customer is physically in the correct location—a location where sports betting is legal. There are myriad ways of manipulating an IP address, via VPNs for example, but technology also exists to thwart such efforts. All of the mobile betting providers in New Jersey use GeoComply.
Robert Moncrief, the technical services bureau chief for New Jersey gaming enforcement, said the state deliberately chose not to be prescriptive with its regulations in order to allow for flexibility in combatting new geo-spoofing techniques.
“The smartest thing we did, honestly, is if you read our regs and look for geolocation, there’s one line in there,” he said. “We made it very results-based where it just said you have to affirmatively locate the person as being in New Jersey.”
Federal legislation authorizing sports betting would remove the need for such state-by-state provisions—though would still require a user to be in the United States—but that does not appear imminent. Many overseas providers now working in the U.S. already have experience working across the varying jurisdictions within the European Economic Area.
“Effectively Europe is a patchwork quilt and a carbon copy of the U.S.,” said Richard Carter, CEO of SBTech, which will soon be operating in a half-dozen states. “We’ve had to operate in the template in Europe where all the countries have different laws, different regulations.”
But while many of the early sports betting operators in the nascent U.S. market have roots in mature markets elsewhere, there’s universal appreciation for the unique demographics of American bettors. Most will need education about bet types and will seek personalization. Offerings will need to be adapted to the particulars of the most popular U.S. sports. And these new consumers will have fewer entrenched biases of what sports betting should look like.
“They want that very modern-era, Amazon kind of experience where they feel important,” said Paul Chopin, the sports betting and trading director at Golden Nugget.
Carter said the goal is to learn from the presentation of bets in Vegas, but to transform the experience into one that’s more casual, with more interactive information and bet types. DraftKings director of sportsbook product Dan Hannigan-Daley said the overlaying of stats, visualizations, and game streams can also help inspire user confidence.
He said his team’s vision is “making sure it’s very quick, it’s very in-the-moment, it’s personalized, it’s in your hand, it’s in your pocket.” That can be achieved based on a user’s previous bets, daily fantasy play, location, and other inputs. Features like using Apple’s Face ID for logins can also streamline access to apps.
DraftKings features a robust R&D team, including a division dedicated solely to emerging technologies. Owning the tech platform from end to end, Hannigan-Daley said, allows for easier innovation and iteration.
“Moreso than that is really making sure that you have the good technological backing behind it to make the experience better for the user so there’s not an 18-second delay when you go to place that wager and you’re not betting blindly and not knowing what’s actually happening in the game,” Hannigan-Daley said.
Sportradar’s Deeley described betting as “both a private and a public activity at the same time.” For all the barroom chatter about odds and opinions, bets are made privately, and a mobile device is a good way to do that. An ancillary benefit of going mobile for a sportsbook is that, in Deeley’s experience, consumers usually are often willing to receive notifications that can prompt future wagers.
“Now the bookmaker has two-way communication with the user,” he said. “They can see what pages they’re logging into and can see what bets they’re placing. And then they can communicate back to the individual things they might be interested in.”
That a smartphone is readily available also facilitates options like “cash out.” For instance, suppose a user placed a $10 bet on a 100-to-1 underdog to win, and that team is leading late in the game. If the bettor is losing confidence in the underdog’s chance to hold on and win, he or she can can cash out and accept winnings for less than the full $1,000 payout.
FanDuel recently became the first U.S. sportsbook to offer live streaming within its app. In partnership with Sportradar, FanDuel will provide some tennis and European soccer content. That will largely be limited to secondary sports, as major pro leagues might be more reluctant to sell the betting media rights. But, when available, streaming “ties the whole activity into one location,” Deeley said.
Many sports fans are currently conditioned to utilize a second screen during games, either to check social media, messages, or stats. Hannigan-Daley said that he expects to see “convergence of all that content—whether it’s your fantasy lineups or scores or Twitter feeds—and bringing it into one curated location for you to consume sports however you want.”
When league executives tout content and the efficacy of sports betting to drive fan engagement, they’re really speaking about in-game wagers, often on small increments of the action. How many three-pointers will Kawhi Leonard hit in the fourth quarter? How many strikeouts will Max Scherzer have in the fourth inning? Even betting as little as a dollar on an outcome can affect interest and viewership.
“In-play betting is where a lot of the fan engagement, from our perspective, will come from,” said Kenny Gersh, MLB’s EVP for gaming and new business ventures, noting how well baseball is set up for such bets. “We’re a series of discrete events.”
Jamie Shea, DraftKings’ head of sportsbook digital, said 40 percent of early U.S. sports betting has been in-play, citing fans’ enjoyment of the “instant gratification” that comes with short-term wagers. SBTech’s Carter said in-play accounts for 75-to-80 percent of the European market. Shea and Carter both estimated that the U.S. market will match its European counterparts within the next five or so years.
“It’s effectively just going to take a little bit of time for people to get used to slightly different bet types,” Carter said. “It’s probably going to take a few years, but it will. It will, definitely.”
At least one industry insider expects the U.S. to adopt in-play betting even more readily.
“It’s going to grow and exceed the U.K., because the U.K. loves soccer,” said Harley Redlick, who runs his own betting consultancy. “And soccer runs for 90 minutes straight without commercial breaks. North American sports all have commercials. That is amazing for in-play because every time they take a commercial timeout and there’s two minutes of McDonald’s and Pepsi ads, that gives you two minutes to make your next bet.”
The other helpful dynamic among North American sports is the bounty of statistics and the existing cultural appreciation for them. Golden Nugget’s Chopin said the U.S. consumer’s familiarity with fantasy sports, particularly among the younger generation, is conducive to prop bets.
“Obviously American sports are much more conducive to stats, and it’s the way they are referred to or broadcasted on,” Chopin said. “There’s numbers everywhere.
“If you’re into sports, you know your numbers in America. That’s not really true overseas, and I think that’s something the European operator invasion is appreciating.”
Operators are also keenly aware that a user’s churn rate—how often they bet and reload their account—is critical to the bottom line.
“While margin is important, what’s really important is velocity,” said Andrew Cochrane, SBTech’s chief development officer.
Cochrane added that, ultimately, sports betting is part of the entertainment business. And that needs to be the driving force behind all decisions. Louisa Woods, Delaware North’s VP of marketing for gaming and entertainment, described the sentiment well.
“What a long-time sports bettor explained to me is that the reason that true gamblers love sports betting is that they’re able to extend that experience of uncertainty, that engagement—having placed the wager and then [having] that energy of ‘Am I going to win?’” she said.