Where are partnerships between Ontario sportsbooks and sports teams heading?

August 3, 2023 8:37 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
August 3, 2023 8:37 PM
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports

Debate all you want about the actual size of the Ontario igaming market compared to the other North America jurisdictions, but Ontario has yet to hit its maturity.

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Last month, according to iGaming Ontario, in their FY 2023-24 Q1 Market Performance Report, 46 operators were licensed and active in the province, with 71 gaming websites. Several more applicants are queued up in the provincial regulator pipeline.

Sports teams were early to get on board and set up collaborations with operators. From the initial days of the regulated market in April 2022, partnerships were announced between igaming operators and all the major teams: Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays, and Toronto FC.

Are there sports leagues that remain untapped, however? Are other opportunities out there for operators and what are the regulatory roadblocks?

At the recent Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto, several experts got together to discuss that very topic. They included Aubrey Levy, SVP of content & marketing for theScore Bet; Andrew Stokes, senior director, global partnership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment; Owen Walsh, associate VP of sports betting, gaming, and innovation for the Canadian Football League; Kuljeet Sindhar, AVP, international gaming & data ventures for the NBA; and Ryan Knuppel, CEO of Knup Solutions LLC.

“Anything that can deepen the fans’ relationship with their teams is good for our business,” Stokes said. “We see sports betting as enhancing that. The way some of the sports betting operators in Ontario have leveraged partnerships has been good for fans. Our sports-betting partners have all rolled out meaningful activations that are more than just branding.”

Engaging sports league and teams in experiential marketing is the ticket to success, added Levy. His company, which has exclusive partnership deals the Toronto Blue Jays, the RBC Canadian Open, and the CPKC Women’s Open, did that successfully with a Blue Jays jersey giveaway event at the start of the baseball season. And recently, theScore Bet had an actual branded par-3 hole that was built adjacent to one of the fairways at Oakdale Golf and Country Club, as the RBC Canadian Open was being played.

“Engagement was through the roof,” Levy said. “Betting is a component of a fan experience, not a standalone fan experience. So they need to find other fan-experience touch points, whether it’s sports teams, leagues, or media consumption, or fantasy, or socializing, whatever. And as a result, because we’re a media brand first and foremost, we’ve got a consumption point with our media property that’s highly engaged with, so we’ve always kind of taken the perspective we’re not getting into the fray when those assets [sports-team sponsorships] are so expensive, right? They’re charging a lot for those assets and rightly so. They can get a lot for them, because they’re highly coveted premium properties.

“But we haven’t really pushed into it. Operators bid those up like crazy into Ontario. Launching theScore Bet, it was a bit of a different game for us. It’s our backyard as a media brand. We wanted to come with a much more robust holistic marketing program. And a couple key tenets for those were important for us. One was exclusivity. Most operators, at least throughout the U.S. and even Canada, are totally fine having slice-and-dice assets. They get an asset package. They make the most of it, but it’s largely sharing inventory.”

In the case of theScore Bet, exclusivity with the Jays, for example, was key, because of the energy and thought that go into bringing partnerships to life.

“You can always just stick your banner up on a rink board or the back wall. You’ll get media impressions out of that. But you’re not really activating that to anything original, actually engaging your customer base, which was important for us,” Levy said.

Walsh said the CFL has gone the route of multiple sportsbook operator partnerships, in order to diversify where the income is coming from and not being beholden to just one sportsbook.

“What happens if something financially happens to the operator?” he added. “I think the conversations we’re having are how do you create those swim lanes for operators in the marketplace that are looking for an ownership piece, but maybe exclusivity doesn’t make sense for both sides, because the price tags are too high. And they want the flexibility, quite frankly.”

In the case of MLSE, owner of the Leafs, Raptors, Toronto Argos of the CFL, and Toronto FC of MLS, they limited the number of partnerships to FanDuel, PointsBet Canada, and OLG, and each engages fans differently, Stokes added. More is built into those partnership deals than just the rights. To truly get the most out of your investment, you need to activate it effectively. “Even if you’ve secured the best sports properties, the best rights, you still have got to go out there to differentiate yourself,” he noted.

Ontario Lottery Corporation, which runs Proline and is an MLSE partner, has done a “killer job” utilizing MLSE’s Real Sports restaurant, for example, to build fan experiences around marquee sports events authentic to their brand (like bringing in the Vince Lombardi Trophy for NFL events and the World Series Trophy for an event kicking off the MLB season).

Added Sindhar, “Partnerships are not just sponsorships. Obviously, we monetize it directly through our marketing partnerships with sports-betting operators, but we integrate betting elements onto our platforms, because we want to build that into the experience for fans who want to bet on our games.

“We take the NBA and NBA legends all over the world. Folks in those countries are much less likely to get to an arena for an NBA game. When you actually see fans get really excited about a legend coming or just taking a picture with the trophy, it’s brilliant.”

It’s the sportsbook operators that need to activate these partnerships effectively.

“It’s not the team’s job to tell you how to bring your brand to life through their property,” Levy said. “They deal with a ton of partnerships. They know their property, they know their assets, but they don’t know your brand the way you do.”

Many brands go to a team, buy the rights, acquire an asset package and some marketing ideas from the team, and expect that package to fit the sportsbook like a glove.

“The relationships you get good value from are when you sit with the team and say, can we do this instead?” Levy said. “The person will say, I don’t know if I can do that for you. It’s like, please just go and try to do that for me. Then you push [the team] back and forth and together and you get some good stuff done.”

The market, at least in the short term, for “big flagship sexy partnerships” with sports teams as Levy called them is pretty much exhausted in Ontario, the panel agreed.