America's got talent: How are sportsbook operators finding the staff to build out their businesses?

The spread of legal sports betting means the fight to attract experienced online gaming professionals is escalating into a full-blown talent war

It was during Macau’s G2E Asia event in May that the biggest industry news story for years broke: the US Supreme Court had overturned PASPA, the federal sports betting ban that had effectively constrained wagering to the state of Nevada for a quarter of a century. To a certain extent, PASPA’s demise – although adjudged beforehand as a strong favourite among clued-up observers – overshadowed the annual gambling expo held inside the Cotai Strip’s capacious Venetian Macao, owned by octogenarian casino magnate and fierce online gambling critic Sheldon Adelson.

“There was a real tangible buzz of excitement,” says Keith McDonnell, CEO of boutique consultancy KM iGaming and who has 18 years of industry experience under his belt.

The court’s monumental ruling some 8,000 miles away meant that for many attendees, particularly those based in the US and Europe, their focus immediately drifted from the latest gaming trends in the Far East to gearing up for the state-by-state roll out of sports betting in America. “There were some people who were saying, ‘I need to leave now to get back and talk about what we are going to do strategically for the US,’” McDonnell recalls.

More than a few were probably planning to hot-foot it back from the former Portuguese colony to polish their résumés and press their best suits. With the subsequent flurry of deals struck between US land-based casinos, racetracks, online operators and suppliers, assembling online teams with the required skills, industry know-how and right to work in the US would be key, yet also a somewhat challenging proposition for the industry as states regulate sports betting.

Since PASPA’s demise, legal wagering on sports has launched in Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are poised to go live before the end of 2018, while the former is also introducing slots, table games and poker. And with more states likely to pass legislation in 2019, it means would-be online operators are the hunt for people to fill key roles covering, product development, UI/UX, fraud, compliance, trading, customer service and more.

The early settlers

According to online gambling trade body iDEA, regulated egaming in New Jersey created almost 3,400 direct and indirect jobs and generated $218.9m in wages in the first three years between 2013 and 2016. Before online gaming was up and running, certain land-based casinos turned to European professionals to run their new online arms. For instance, Landry’s-owned Golden Nugget hired Thomas Winter and Warren Steven, both of whom had previously been employed in senior positions at Betclic Everest Group in London, among other egaming roles. This experience across the pond could be one reason why Golden Nugget went on to take the market by the scruff of the neck.

Seeing as online sports betting and egaming has existed for two decades in Europe, experienced industry people from this part of the world are desirable candidates to fill similar roles in the US. Yet it’s never that simple. “People coming to us are saying, ‘find us people with experience,’” reveals David Copeland, founder of recruitment agency Betting Jobs. “They need to work in the US, [so] they need to be eligible to work in the US and that makes it difficult. There is a huge number of people who want to be involved in the US, but the reality is few people right now are able to participate.”

Obtaining a coveted Green Card can take years, so most foreign nationals will require a Temporary Worker Visa (skilled workers), known commonly as a H-1B, which allows individuals to work in the US for up to six years. The government limits these visas to just 85,000 per year (65,000 with bachelor’s degrees and 20,000 with master’s degrees or higher). Yet four days after the window for the popular program was opened in April, the cap had already been exceeded, while last year US Citizen and Immigration Services received a record 236,000 applications.

Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that under the Trump administration the labyrinthine task of obtaining the requisite visa to legally reside and work in the US has become even more frustratingly slow. “Getting a Green Card or visa has become a lot more difficult – it’s been far worse under Trump,” one US egaming professional tells EGRNA under the condition of anonymity. But that’s not to say securing a work permit in the past has been anything other than a “long, drawn-out affair,” according to Copeland. “We’ve seen it take up to two years, and that’s when it has been sponsored by a company.”

When PASPA was repealed, Irishman McDonnell was himself part way through the process, which involved a 400-page application document, to migrate himself, his wife, their two teenage children and the family dog from the UK to the city of Winter Garden, 14 miles downtown of Orlando, Florida. In all, the immigration procedure took about five to six months. “The Americans love their red tape, so they like paperwork for everything,” he says. “Nothing is really a complex process, but a lot of things are a lengthy process. The positive news is that is all front-loaded and once you get through all that, it becomes a lot easier and you get to enjoy the good things here.”

Homegrown talent

Whether or not the bureaucracy of hiring from overseas plays a significant factor in the decision-making process, recruiting professionals from brick-and-mortar sportsbooks is another option. Take DraftKings as a case in point. The DFS giant, which beat the competition to the punch in New Jersey by launching the first sports betting app, powered by Swedish supplier Kambi, recently poached legendary oddsmaker Johnny Avello from Wynn Las Vegas where he’d spent the past 13 years as director of sportsbook.

A 30-year veteran of the industry, Avello will manage retail sportsbook operations and risk management at the company’s new Las Vegas office. Furthermore, Frank Kunovic, who previously managed 20 sportsbooks and racebooks for Caesars Entertainment, has been recruited by DraftKings as director of sportsbook operations, while Jamie Shea has joined as head of digital sportsbook operations. These hires – but especially Avello’s appointment – raised eyebrows and were certainly a bold statement of intent.

DraftKings is also in the process of building new custom-designed headquarters in Boston (scheduled to be complete in early 2019). The 105,000 square-foot space is more than double the size of the current office. The company is raising $200m to fund its expansion into sports betting, including a recruitment drive that will see the headcount at its Boston HQ increase by 75% over the next year. At the time of writing, DraftKings was advertising over 60 positions on its corporate website – roles spanning engineering, marketing, operations, product and sportsbook.

And there will probably be no shortage of potential candidates, as illustrated when co-founder and chief revenue officer Matt Kalish tweeted on August 23: “Crazy stat – just saw we have had over 30,000 applicants for jobs at DraftKings in 2018 so far!” It seems DraftKings’ omnipresence in the world of sports as the leading DFS site, as well as the fact it’s a young, vibrant tech company fusing DFS, betting and sports is an enticing draw. However, Copeland says: “There’s no doubt they will have no shortage of applications, but whether those applicants are the right applicants for the job is another story.”

Put Penn to paper

Over in Pennsylvania – the second largest commercial gaming state – leading operator Parx Casino recently hired Matthew Cullen as SVP of interactive gaming and sports. In the opinion of Cullen, whose previous roles include CEO of San Manuel Digital and president of social casino RocketPlay, recruitment is becoming an increasing issue. “With all these new markets opening it has gotten pretty competitive for talent,” he says. “Depending on where the operator is located, it can be even more competitive and even tougher. The companies in the large metropolitan areas, places like Philadelphia, have an advantage or a leg up simply because you have a bigger talent pool to draw from.”

And although plucking people from the land-based side of the industry is an “easier solution,” Cullen doubts whether the skills are transferable. “It’s like trying to take someone from interactive and putting them on the land-based side of the business and asking them to operate and market there. It’s a different beast and the business mechanics are different. You’re trying to get players in and monetize them in both environments, but I think the activities for acquiring those players are very, very different. And the way you manage those players are very different.”

Putting these differences to one side, assembling a team to manage a sports betting operation certainly isn’t cheap. A Betting Jobs’ Salary Survey conducted in 2015 found the average cost of staffing a sportsbook can exceed $1.7m a year, although this could be considered a small price to pay if you’ve shelled out $10m for a sports betting license in a state like Pennsylvania. For a sportsbook manager, the survey revealed the going rate to be $85,000 a year, rising to $170,000 for a head of sportsbook or $210,000 for a VP of sports betting.

And a sneak peek under the hood of the latest survey, due to be released imminently, indicates a hefty jump in wages for most senior and highly sought-after US egaming roles, which is partly due to a dearth of available talent. What’s striking generally is how egaming salaries tend to be markedly higher in the US; a job paying $100,000 a year would be advertised at £50,000 in the UK, Copeland suggests.

Meanwhile, it can be a hard sell persuading product developers and engineers to come into gaming. They may not always view online gaming as a desirable career path, especially when opportunities are plentiful across various industries. “There is no shortage of [tech] roles and they get called by head-hunters every day,” says Copeland. “Is online gambling interesting for them? It’s quite interesting, but is it more interesting than Apple of Facebook for people? I don’t know.”

And for some people, gambling is a ruinous vice and a dirty word. After being exposed to negative rhetoric and anti-online gaming slogans like, ‘click your mouse and lose your house,’ it’s little wonder some professionals would rebuff job opportunities on ethical grounds regardless of the fact the activity is fully legal and above board in certain states. Indeed, our anonymous industry source is sure a chosen candidate for an online role at his company performed a volte-face at the last minute because his fiancée was “against gambling.”

However, this long-standing stigma isn’t confined to the US – it’s an industry-wide problem. “You have to work quite hard now to get people to come in [to the industry] because there are moral issues and ethical objections,” Copeland reveals. “In fact, it’s certainly not easy at all, so that’s why you need people who know how to sell the proposition. It’s not a case of sticking a job advert out there and being flooded by 200 applications.”

Managed services

While some operators have in-house traders to set and adjust betting lines, others will rely upon their sportsbook platform supplies like Kambi, SBTech and SG Digital to handle trading and risk management with their finely tuned algorithms, especially when it comes to the fluid in-play markets. So, of course, providers have had to ensure they have a sufficient workforce in place to cope with US expansion. For Instance, SG Digital is busy building teams in the US and abroad, including assembling its new sportsbook operations team based in Gibraltar.

“We heavily prepared for US sports betting legislation leading up to PASPA, and that included a comprehensive plan to approach the growing need for talent,” says CTO Chris Armes. “For us, it’s meant finding talent in the right time and in the right place, so we are staged to succeed in a booming marketplace.” When quizzed on a potential talent war in the industry, he responds: “The talent market is more competitive than ever, and demand is skyrocketing. We’re finding that talented people are not only seeking high salaries and great benefits, but also a stable workplace with a bright future.”

Meanwhile, Alistair Boston-Smith, chief strategy officer for Bede Gaming, says: “There are always challenges when it comes to recruiting the right people, and it’s no different in North America. When it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent, the key element is showing Bede as the great place to work it is, with attractive benefits and a company culture to appeal to high-calibre commercial and technology professionals. It’s not all about money and compensation levels – ultimately the key determining factor is going to be hiring people who align with the core values of our business, and providing them with an environment that allows them to be both comfortable and engaged at work.” Most egaming companies find that onboarding senior staff typically takes considerable effort and time, though. It is usually eight to 10 weeks to reach the final interview stage, after which the chosen applicant negotiates for a couple of weeks over the remuneration package and any relocation costs. Once they’ve worked their notice period – typically three months in Europe – it’s suddenly six months since you first advertised the position. There may also be delays if the individual needs to be granted a license by the regulator. Moreover, his or her chances of being approved could easily be scuppered if background checks reveal previous employment in the gray offshore gambling industry or involvement with US-facing ‘bad actors’ post-UIGEA. Cullen says: “You could spend a lot of time finding the ideal candidate to discover they can’t get a license because of companies they have worked for in the past or markets they have worked in before. That’s a major challenge right now.”

All of which explains why some companies turn to experienced US-based consultants as a short-term solution. Not only will they usually be able to start almost immediately and work remotely in some instances, but both parties can easily part ways if needed. And with their past experience, they should be able to hit the ground running and deliver quick results. “As long as they can deliver on measurable objectives then I think it is a good option,” says McDonnell. “Obviously from a working and legal perspective, it is easier for the operator, both in terms of being able to get them in to do a job but also being able to release them if it doesn’t work out.”

Supply and demand

But whether operators go down the route of permanent roles or a more short-term option of hiring consultants, is demand outstripping supply as it stands? “A lot of it is going to depend upon what happens with other states,” says Cullen, who spent 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area before relocating to the Keystone State for the Parx job. “If other states start to legislate, regulate and go live then demand will outweigh supply out there. It could quickly happen. I’m not seeing it right now, but it’s always challenging to find great people and to assemble great teams.”

McDonnell concurs: “If demand is not outstripping supply already it will not be long before that becomes a real challenge.” However, he adds: “Make no mistake, there is already a lot of talent here – some really smart people – so businesses that can create a blend of business acumen, sharp wit, challenging nature and core experience are likely to do very well.”

The entire US gaming industry supports some 1.8 million jobs – up from 1.7 million in 2014. And with online set to balloon as sports betting proliferates, with online casino and poker riding on its coattails, this number is set to rise further. Indeed, the US really is shaping up to be “the land of opportunity,” as our source describes it, for job hunters. It means those professionals with proven egaming industry experience and, crucially, are fully eligible to work in the US are the ones holding an extremely strong hand right now.