Louisiana newspaper The Advocate has launched an affiliate site, bet.nola.com, following legalisation of sports betting in the state in November 2020.
Billed as a “new site for Louisiana’s new sports betting era,” the paper promises “a resource that gives Louisianans all the information and entertainment they can handle as it relates to sports betting and fantasy sports”. They’re even hiring sports betting and fantasy sports dedicated reporters.
The inclusion of media companies in the affiliate landscape is not new, but some may question whether newspapers should be getting in on the act? Does an affiliate offering differ from other types of commercial revenues, such as allowing advertising by gambling operators for example?
Just last week it was announced that ESPN was forging new, more extensive partnerships with Caesars and DraftKings. While these may not include affiliate marketing deals, they would certainly mean substantial marketing commitments by the operators.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the proposed deal is worth US$3bn, and will include a specified annual advertising commitment. However, ESPN executives are reported to be keen to steer clear of being directly involved in gambling and betting transactions. So why the distinction?
Affiliate marketing is a very specific model. Affiliates drive traffic to operators and are remunerated on the level of traffic they provide and how many sign-ups are received from that traffic. As such, they have to push the product to a far greater degree than basic display advertising does. They often off bonuses and incentives to drive traffic, although this is increasingly regulated in many jurisdictions.
For a newspaper to get in on the act makes sense, as the best affiliate offerings ride on the back of genuinely useful content. News on odds and matches, features reviewing the best casinos and other content can help punters navigate what can be a complicated entertainment offering in some verticals. Sports betting particularly lends itself to traditional news reporting platforms, as sports betting news is crucial to bettors who can’t get to the games themselves.
Newspapers in the UK have long seen the benefit of affiliate offerings that appeal to their readership’s gambling predilections. Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper launched its own betting app, Sun Bets, in 2016 via a partnership with Australian operator Tabcorp. The online-only offering sat alongside the paper’s existing gambling brands, Dream Team fantasy football and Sun Bingo.
The paper still operates several gambling brands, but Sun Bets ceased operating in 2018 after the platform struggled to perform to the level expected. Tabcorp pulled the plug on its side of deal, reportedly paying Murdoch’s News Corp £39.5m to withdraw from what had been a 10-year deal.
Even the UK’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper launched a gambling platform back in December 2013. GoWager was run in conjunction with FSB Technology, who still operate the platform to this day – without the paper’s involvement.
At the time of the website’s launch, the Guardian’s commercial teams reasoned that their readers were free to choose whether or not to gamble, and therefore offering them a chance to do so on a regulated site was not immoral or contrary to the paper’s mission.
However, the site was not received well by many readers, and it received complaints. One column, published by the paper itself on the subject in 2014, quoted a dissatisfied reader, who had received a marketing email for the new platform, as saying: “It seemed highly inappropriate that a socially responsible newspaper should encourage online gambling at all – but that they should do it in the form [of] an unsolicited email on a day when people may feel either reckless or bored, or else be facing up to the debts induced by Christmas spending, left me feeling quite shocked,” he wrote in a letter of complaint.
In February 2015, the paper pulled out of its deal with FSB in response to the accusations of hypocrisy from its readers. This is perhaps more a lesson on knowing your audience than the rights and wrongs of providing gambling products. The Guardian failed to adequately balance its commercial needs with the sensitivities of its stakeholders.
As for bet.nola.com, it says itself in an article announcing the launch that “voters in 55 of the state’s 64 parishes approved sports betting and daily fantasy sports on the ballot,” so one would hope that, on the whole, its readership will welcome the new resource.
The issue for any affiliate, or new operator for that matter, launching in the U.S. today is to tread carefully and understand where similar operations in other jurisdictions have struggled in the past. The U.S. has historically been less tolerant of affiliate marketing than Europe, and new affiliates would be wise to heed the lessons of the past.
On a moral level, I’m not sure that a paper launching an affiliate offering can be said to be either morally good or bad – the ethics of the thing come in the way it is operated and whether unscrupulous incentive and bonusing techniques make up any part of the offering. Whether the reporting is unbiased and accurate and the balance between affiliate content and more neutral reporting on the sports and betting in general.
The U.S. will see more of this. The opportunities are just too great for many businesses to pass up, and while the market expands at the rate it is, many more are likely to take a chance and jump on the bandwagon.