The regular warnings about how the U.S. online betting and gaming industry must ensure the highest standards of responsible gambling are encouraging, but also contradict many executives’ comments around simplifying sports betting products.
The focus on responsible gambling and player safety in the U.S. was one of the most encouraging messages that could be heard from the many panelists taking part in the SBC Summit North America panels last week at the Meadowlands Exhibition Centre in New Jersey.
This focus is not new, but it does show an awareness of what would be the weakest link in the industry’s defence should it come under sustained attack from critics or regulators.
Whether it relates to the high levels of sports betting advertising across national and regional platforms or the vast bonuses and freebets being offered to get players to sign up, no one is denying there is a risk to the industry’s reputation and long-term prospects if responsible gambling obligations are ignored or its communications are off-target.
Bill Miller, president and CEO of the AGA, confirmed this during his fireside chat at the SBC event. He said the industry would be “foolish” not to look at what has happened in the UK, Spain and Australia, to see what happens when the public and regulators turn on the gaming sector.
He added that although social responsibility was a non-negotiable component of being granted a gaming licence, operators should “take that responsibility seriously because if you are irresponsible, the government can take your business away.”
These comments were added to by many of the executives on other panels warning about setting the right tone in their advertising and communications and using technology to ensure the highest levels of player safety possible.
Less skill, more luck
For all those worthy comments, however, there were also many about how the industry should develop more products to encourage wagering and to simplify the products for players.
Soo Kim, chairman of Bally Corporation, opened the event with a fireside chat hosted by NBC’s Contessa Brewer. He said U.S. stakeholders wanted to avoid “the same mistakes that have been made in Europe and ensure player safety is at the heart of everything they do.” However, he was also clear that the U.S. sportsbooks were still way too focused on sharp bettors and needed to recruit truly recreational players.
Kim said that looking “at apps at the moment is really hard” when it comes to the user experience and interface. “It rewards handicappers and knowledgeable (punters) and if you think about sports on ESPN, only 11% of viewers watch sports as part of their cable subscription,” he added, by which he meant the industry needs to attract more of that viewership to truly broaden its appeal to the mass market.
This will happen through technology, Kim said, “which will be an evolution of the user interface that makes sports betting universal. Currently it caters to a narrow subset, but sports and results is really broad: we want to reach anyone who’s watching a game and make it much more integrated, more luck-based, with less skill involved and a wider funnel. Everybody will be able to take a shot.”
The Bally Bet TV regional sports network will be one way of educating players, and a truly engaging sports media environment will be one where “you won’t have to explain how to use a mobile app”.
He added that “those who think only about TAM (total addressable market) have got it all wrong, if people are watching a game let’s make it less about skill and more about fun, turn it into sports lotto, the market will be 10 times bigger.”
On branding, operators are trying to reach consumers by focusing on lifestyle and aspirational features. Ken Fuchs, SVP at Sports Caesars Digital, said his company wanted to learn from what’s happened in the UK and take a leadership position on how it presents itself to consumers.
“It’s about lifestyle and providing a storyline, how the customer interacts with the brand, its values and aspirations. It’s not about throwing free money at players, it’s about building relationships and controlling the experience when it comes to the product, keeping a check on deposit levels and playing times, making sure players are aware of those tools. Since 99% of bettors are recreational, it’s about doing the right thing, innovating and making sure players enjoy the experience.”
When it comes to the product however, Kim’s message was echoed by many of the other speakers on the panels throughout the event. Chris Bevilacqua, chairman and co-founder of micro-betting provider Simplebet, said: “Our product turns a live three-hour event into a slot machine,” while Tomash Devenishek, CEO of gamification tech firm Rush Sports, said the ‘Tik-Tok-ification of sports betting’ was necessary because “today’s sports betting products will be rejected by the next generation.”
Wanting to simplify the betting product and bring in more chance-based, binary elements into it are part of an understandable drive to broaden the appeal of sports betting and push up margins. In many ways Jason Robins’ ‘controversial’ comments about not wanting players who want to make a profit and that betting is “an entertainment activity” also fit into that vision.
One can understand this desire, but there is also the risk of rolling out products that not only equate to ‘dumbing down’ sports betting for both operators and players, but will also move the industry away from its core competency, bookmaking. Such moves will surely open it up to more criticism of the nature of its products and its responsible gambling policies.