Sports Decision Makers Summit: Sports Gambling Is Set To Transform Fan Experience

Experts from Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, William Hill US discuss the potential

Sports gambling took center stage at the 2019 Sports Decision Makers Summit in Miami when Adam Davis, chief revenue officer, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, and Ken Fuchs, president, digital, William Hill US, weighed in on the current betting landscape in the U.S. as well as the opportunities and challenges.

“We are excited about the opportunity with sports betting as we watch the engagement of sports betting in Crystal Palace and in Europe,” said Davis. “How you use it to improve the fan experience?”

Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment owns a number of sports teams, including the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, and the Crystal Palace Football Club outside London. The UK club, existing in a nation where sports betting has been part of the fan experience for decades, provides plenty of knowledge-transfer opportunities as Harris Blitzer looks to embrace sports betting in the U.S.

SportBusiness’s Frank Dunne (left) examined gambling on sports with Harris Blitzer Sports Enterprises’ Adam Davis (center) and William Hill US’s Ken Fuchs.

Harris Blitzer is currently working with William Hill US, a sports-betting–services provider currently operating in New Jersey, Nevada, West Virginia, and the Bahamas. Its parent company in the UK was founded in 1934, when gambling was illegal, but has been listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2002.

When fans walk into the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, they are made aware of William Hill US via signage and even activation areas that help fans understand how to place bets via their phones. The efforts have meant an incredible spike in brand awareness for the company.

“It’s not very often that you have 2,500% growth in brand awareness,” said Fuchs. “Right now, sports betting is in the education stage, and the hurdle is that 95% of the public does not understand what sports betting is. It’s like fantasy sports in 1996, where the core avid person has done it but the mass of sports fans has not. Now it’s about educating consumers on the registration process for mobile. The trust factor also has to be there.”

To the uninitiated, the roadmap to gambling on a national level may seem simple, but it is much more complex and fraught with challenges. For example, the rules vary on a state-by-state basis.

“In New Jersey,” Davis pointed out, “there is no entry fee [to launch a sports-betting business] and just a 14% tax on bets, but, in Pennsylvania, there is a $10 million entry fee, and the tax is 36%. Each state sets its own budgets, and the margins aren’t as big as people think. In Europe, bettors will have three different accounts and then bet with whoever gives the best odds.”

States are now sorting through how they will embrace gambling. Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, West Virginia, and Washington, DC, are next in line for making it part of their sports and entertainment landscape.

“Most looking at this see it as a five- to 10-year window to get to mass adoption,” said Fuchs. “There will be things like free-to-play games that will provide an experience that is fun. And that is one of the problems today: all the apps out there make it like the stock market, and it is very transactional. Apps today have not done a good job in differentiation for sports fans.”

Gambling, he added, starts with technology, and one of the things William Hill US has invested heavily in is proprietary technology for algorithms, account management, and the frontend of the betting experience.

“You need speed and flexibility,” Fuchs noted. “We are working with different partners and integrations to redeploy in different states. And we need to architect it with components that can extend across states and different regulatory environments.”

To get to that point, William Hill US has a New Jersey-based team of 80 full-time employees that is acting like a startup within a larger and stable organization, cutting deals and aligning with partners quickly in states that legalize gambling quickly.

“FanDuel and DraftKings are great at activating their databases, and we are the clear No. 3 in the marketplace,” he added. “But we have experience as operators, so now we want to build products that are attuned to the user and make the customer journey as frictionless as possible.”

Working with leagues and teams is a key part of that frictionless experience. Working with the NHL, Fuchs said, is a great example of a mutually beneficial relationship. “We love working with leagues and teams and want to be part of that and do it in the right way.”

Davis said that, in the EPL, athletes are deployed to get a responsible message around gambling out to fans to ensure that it is enjoyed in a way that is not troublesome: “Today, leagues have come out and said that no player imagery or highlights can be associated with betting partners. Five years from now, things will be vastly different as to what leagues are allowing.”

It’s important, he added, to stay within the rules to drive gambling. It might start with something like an email poll to fans of who will score first tonight and then, when they get to the building, they can place a bet via the online app.

Said Fuchs, “Sports betting adds engagement to the broadcasts and fans of every sport. Allowing those fans to engage through betting is another way to drive interest and stay connected with the sport and team they are betting on.”

And, added Davis, that engagement doesn’t always mean having money on the line. At Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers games, there is a Wendy’s Frosty Freezeout: fans win a Frosty if the opposing team misses two free throws in a row.

“When you see the reaction from fans, you would think they were winning a Ferrari,” he said. “The engagement of sports betting, and getting it into more arenas, will only be a great enhancement for sports.”

One of the goals is getting to a point where sports arenas and stadiums have betting parlors similar to what can be found in other countries. Davis said that decision is going to be made by each state and, currently, only Washington, DC, has passed a law to allow sports venues to be Class A gambling facilities.

“How do you turn a 20,000-person venue into a sports book?” asked Fuchs. “It will be interesting to see if it manifests that way, but you have people like Ted [Leonsis, CEO, Monumental Sports & Entertainment] and others who are in that market, so I am interested to see how it plays out.”

In-venue betting will open up another big opportunity: in-game betting for things like who will score the next goal or hit the next home run. In Europe, in-game betting accounts for upwards of 70% of betting; in the U.S., it is only 30% (in New Jersey, less than 15%). The problem is, the infrastructure is not there yet to support that type of betting, but, once it arrives, it will be a game-changer.

“This has not been the best year for the Devils on the ice, and, in the past, fans would just get out of there,” said Davis. “But now they can go to the William Hill app and bet on whether or not the Devils can win the next period. It will be an education process.”

Fuchs said in-game betting will allow fans to enjoy the game a bit more, whether or not it is the fourth quarter. “Sports is an escape, and this is a part of that.”