Stars of the small screen: Inside the battle for mobile betting dominance

As legal sports betting gradually spreads across the US, the tussle for supremacy and share of wallet seems set to be played out on mobile devices. So how should operators tackle the critical issue of mobile UX to ensure they offer the slickest and most intuitive products out there?

When Los Angeles Dodgers short stop Manny Machado swung and missed at a fizzing 84mph curveball delivered by Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale in the bottom of the ninth inning it confirmed the Red Sox as 2018 World Series champions. The strikeout sparked delirious celebrations among the players and back home in Boston where fans reveled in their fourth title in 15 years. However, one DraftKings Sportsbook customer was probably also toasting the victory after collecting $325,000 from a $500,000 bet placed on the company’s mobile app in New Jersey before the World Series began.

While bookmakers are often accused of embellishing these kinds of anecdotes for PR purposes, DraftKings stressed to EGR NA that media reports regarding the bet were indeed true. A half-a-million-dollar wager via a recently launched regulated sports betting app in the Garden State is another indication of just how significant mobile’s role is going to be in the sports betting mix. Mobile and online already account for over 75% of sports betting revenues across the board in New Jersey. And with operators acquiring hordes of customers through mobile, the conversion funnel and customer journey needs to be as smooth as possible for the onboarding process. It’s very much a mobile-centric mindset for US sportsbooks.

Regulated mobile sports wagering has been available in Nevada since 2010, yet it’s still a newish – or even alien – concept and product for many people, particularly casual bettors or betting virgins. Although it’s still early days for mobile sportsbooks in New Jersey, it stands to reason a stellar mobile product, across both web and native apps, will be a defining factor in determining which brands win the hearts and minds of bettors. Indeed, the quality of the mobile product and overall offering is probably more important in the long run than being first to market (as was the case with online casino in New Jersey).

Peter Jackson, CEO of Paddy Power Betfair, which has a 61% stake in FanDuel, alluded to this during a recent Q3 earnings call when discussing the performance of FanDuel’s sportsbook app in New Jersey after being beaten by perennial DFS adversary DraftKings in the scramble to unleash a mobile product. “As we have demonstrated with our business in New Jersey, it’s important to get a great product out there rather than rush. I think that people who get a product into market just for the sake of it will find that isn’t a good way of acquiring customers.”

Similarly, Ulrik Bengtsson, chief digital officer at William Hill – the US’ largest sports betting company – was unequivocal during the firm’s recent Capital Markets Day, a group strategy presentation in London, when he declared: “It’s all about the product, product and product.” William Hill, which is currently accepting sports wagers in five states and has taken over $200m in handle (outside Nevada) since PASPA’s repeal, rolled out iOS and Android apps in September for the New Jersey market to compliment a desktop product. Frustratingly for the London-listed bookmaker, the iOS version was stuck in Apple’s opaque approval process before finally going live at the end of the month.

Interestingly, the New Jersey mobile product is different aesthetically to its cousin in Nevada, where mobile accounts for 67% of the company’s handle. With the New Jersey app, internal tech teams took William Hill’s European front-end, known as Trafalgar, tailored it to US audiences, and integrated it with the William Hill US proprietary back-end, CBS. And talking of CBS, the firm is investing $70m in building a new proprietary back-end for the US that will supplant CBS and provide the flexibility and scalability for omni-channel expansion, with mobile very much leading the charge.

‘Appy days

At the time of writing, there are eight mobile sportsbooks (some offer desktop versions too) in New Jersey. Besides the aforementioned DraftKings, FanDuel and William Hill, native and web apps are available from playMGM, BetStars, Caesars, SugarHouse and 888sport. And the market is set to get more congested as other brands enter the fray. Increasing choice means products need to stand out; branding and sign-up offers will only get you so far. “Consumers are hugely impatient, and their expectations have been set by incredibly well-designed experiences from big brands with near infinite resources,” says Brian MacSweeney, a product specialist and UX consultant who works with DraftKings and other operators.

Indeed, US consumers won’t tolerate an underwhelming mobile product that doesn’t match the UI and UX they have become accustomed to with mainstream apps like Instagram, Netflix and YouTube. Speaking to EGR NA on the condition of anonymity, an exec from an online betting brand already live in New Jersey, says: “US consumers are used to strong tech; they are used to the eBays and the Amazons of the world. But European sportsbooks look the way they look because of how a soccer coupon looked in a British betting shop 40 years ago. If you sat down with somebody in Amazon and said, ‘design a betting site,’ I’m sure it wouldn’t look anything like what we have now.”

Sports betting in mature, crowded markets like the UK is now largely a commoditized industry, with many sportsbooks bearing more than a pass resemblance to one another; remove the branding and recreational bettors would be hard-pushed to name the operator the app belonged to. Sportsbook suppliers provide brands the flexibility to create unique front-ends, while the major players have taken control of their own destiny by having proprietary tech stacks, yet a commonplace grid-like interface displaying markets and selections replicates the appearance of an Excel spreadsheet.

Atlantic City located on the Jersey shore is a resort city on Absecon Island in Atlantic County, New Jersey. Atlantic City is known for its two mile long boardwalk, gambling casinos, great nightlife, beautiful beaches, and the Miss America Pageant

Atlantic City

So could the US – touted as the biggest greenfield opportunity the industry has ever encountered – be an opportunity to rip up the well-worn playbook and give developers carte blanche to create a totally unique mobile betting experience? “The great thing about America is there is no requirement to copy and paste that [traditional] layout,” says Adam Wilson, co-founder of UK-based mobile sportsbook Bookee – often described as the Tinder of betting, with users swiping left and right to dismiss or accept suggested bets.

“We are skipping the desktop generation. They [US sportsbooks] will have desktop products but I assume the mobile-to-desktop split will be more than 80-20. For that reason, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of need to try and fit as much content onto the screen as possible. That’s an amazing opportunity to start from scratch in a nascent market.” Squeezing so much content on mobile is why users can find navigating menus and tracking down markets an infuriating experience. Most operators are guilty of offering a bewildering array of derivative markets, including on mobile, out of fear of losing business or a customer if you don’t offer everything and the kitchen sink.

What’s on the menu?

Sometimes, though, less is more when screen real estate is in short supply. The unnamed exec says 80% of his company’s hold so far in New Jersey is focused on the three core markets: money lines, spreads and totals. Many of the more exotic bets are window dressing. If you go down the road of including all the desktop content on the app, then the layout obviously needs to be intuitive and bets easy to find. It’s then about tracking customer journeys in order to ameliorate confusing aspects to the navigation and awkward friction points.

Stephen Baumohl is an American football fanatic and co-founder of London-headquartered, a bookmaker focused on North American sports. Partly due to the “educational curve” with sports betting in the US, he advocates that apps boast simplistic layouts that don’t overwhelm the user. “This means concentrating on the core markets, rather than a myriad of derivative markets, and delivering them in a way that is user-friendly and engaging. I’m not sure offering every permutation of odd or even just to say you have 200 markets is really the way to win customers.”

“I think bettors will get conditioned to what the industry puts out,” Jason Trost, CEO of Smarkets

The team at RedZoneSports has made a concerted effort to filter out the least popular markets and provide straightforward navigation, but of the ‘sub-markets’ individual player performances have risen in popularity. “Markets such as a quarterback’s passing yards or pitcher’s number of strikeouts are consistently the most heavily bet,” Baumohl says. “It appears to be the world of fantasy sports that has given people more of an insight into what a player is expected to do in a game and, therefore, it is easy to form an opinion against the prices.”

A key consideration with mobile is speed, of course – from the moment a user fires up the app to placing a bet. Slow-loading apps are a huge turn-off, especially for the higher-staking, seasoned gamblers. “Many of the more valuable customers couldn’t care less about how pretty your sportsbook experience is,” MacSweeney opines. “They just want to get money in, get their bet on and get it all wrapped up with a minimum of fuss. Speed and simplicity are what matters.” One way of expediating the customer journey is by enabling users to log in using Touch ID or Face ID. It’s also godsend for those who are prone to forgetting passwords. Without biometric log-in, they could easily churn.

Live and kicking

Americans consume an awful lot of sport, including watching some 30 billion hours of sports programming a year. And with the inherent stop-start nature of sports like American football and baseball, in-game wagering appears poised to flourish as gamblers become more comfortable with placing bets this way. In Europe, where in-play betting first started to take off 10 years ago, it accounts for upwards of 70% of sports wagers with some bookmakers over there. Meanwhile, live betting accounts for 37% of William Hill’s handle in Nevada, and it’s growing exponentially as the company adds more markets to meet demand.

SugarHouse reported that immediately after the launch of its Kambi-powered web and mobile sportsbook in New Jersey, 70% of bets on tennis’ US Open were being placed after the start of play. A natural extension of in-play is cash-out, another wildly popular feature in Europe with juicy in-built margins, which is sure to become a familiar fixture inside any mobile sportsbook here in the US. In-play and cash-out go hand in hand with mobile, so presenting this in an intuitive way for users on the go is key – as is providing education about these features for sports gambling neophytes.

Then there’s live streaming of certain sports matches and competitions (online giant bet365 streams 140,000 events a year) when it’s permitted, as well as live scoreboards and stats, live commentary, push notification alerts, and in-play visualisations (graphical representations of the action on the pitch or court for those without live pictures). Moreover, though, mobile sportsbooks these days have become feature-laden entertainment and information hubs rather than purely transactional ports of call.

App Store - Deposit or Withdraw at Home[3]FDSportsbookApp1BetStars NJ[2]

“Sportsbooks have evolved from a screen dump for a database of odds to an in-play-focused, living, breathing portal into the world of sport,” MacSweeney explains. “When a customer fires up your app during a moment of boredom in the day they are really asking what’s happening right now, what’s the latest score, what is everyone betting on, how is my bet doing, and what is the price on that market. Make it easy for them to get the answers on the homepage and don’t bore them to death.”

In fact, his advice for new entrants is to focus on the top-10 customer journeys. “Make them obvious, easy and fast,” he explains. “If you can get the core customer journeys right, and your CRM is integrated into the experience, then you can start worrying about polishing the UI. A really focused app that does the basics well can be a better user experience than a well-established sportsbook, bloated with content and slow to use. Fast and ugly trumps a beautifully designed, content-rich app that runs like a dog.”

DraftKings, the market leader so far in New Jersey, started building its native mobile sportsbook a year ahead of launch in August, using it’s DFS product as inspiration for UI/UX. The app’s interface and functionality drew plaudits when it first landed – as did FanDuel’s, built using PPB’s resources and IGT’s technology. The design and feel of both products laid down the gauntlet to traditional egaming companies and showed that DraftKings and FanDuel aren’t just dabbling with sports betting; they mean business. It’s good news for consumers still getting a taste for legal sports betting on their smartphones.

“Fast and ugly trumps a beautifully designed, content-rich app that runs like a dog,” – Brian MacSweeney, a product and UX specialist  

“I think they [bettors] will get conditioned to what the industry puts out,” explains American Jason Trost, CEO of UK- and Malta-licensed betting exchange Smarkets. “If the operator’s apps that are live in New Jersey aren’t very good people will still kind of put up with them,” he says from Smarkets’ LA office. For Trost, creating a compelling online betting proposition is about putting technology “front and center.” “Some treat technology as a lower-class citizen within their companies. When you have a ‘technology-second’ business plan the product and the ultimate customer experience suffers, and your product won’t be as good as it could be.”

Besides the actual product itself, operators will need to ensure all the cogs are moving in unison, including when it comes to above-the-line and below-the-line marketing, app store optimisation, payments, sign-up bonuses, personalisation and CRM. Yet because of stringent KYC and payment processing (banks blocking transactions with egaming sites despite it being legal in New Jersey) hindering the onboarding process, holding onto players and preventing them from going elsewhere is crucial.

It’s partly because of the friction in the sign-up process why bettors will probably end up with fewer online sportsbook accounts than in Europe, the anonymous exec attests. “They will go through that pain barrier of getting a betting account, but as product’s become more standardised it’s going to be more difficult to get them to change. So, the way you get them to change is by having a shit-hot app. It looks like unless you piss them off you’re likely to hold onto them.”

Left to their own devices

Mobile betting’s potential hinges to a certain degree on legislation, of course. Will states require in-person registration like Nevada, although this could finally be coming to an end, or will mobile wagering only be allowed within a casino like in Mississippi? Meanwhile, some states will only allow retail betting, as is the case with regulations in Delaware and Rhode Island. Unfettered mobile registration and betting, like in New Jersey where the land-based sportsbooks are largely concentrated in Atlantic City, seems conducive to mobile achieving its full potential.

Whether other states follow New Jersey’s lead remains to be seen – but to not allow mobile at all would seem short-sighted. During The Stars Group’s latest earnings call, CEO Rafi Ashkenazi stressed that mobile would continue to be the most important platform for his company and also highlighted how the US is referring to it as “mobile regulation,” as opposed to online regulation. “They are not even considering other platforms or channels,” he noted whilst also revealing that 90% of wagers over at recently acquired Sky Bet are placed on hand-held devices.

Ultimately, there’s little doubt that mobile is going to become the key battleground for established operators and new brands as legal sports betting expands on a state-by-state basis. And the actual products themselves will be at the epicenter of those mobile wars in the months and years to come. “With over 200 million smartphone users in the US, it is without doubt the platform Americans will want to see operators get right,” Baumohl states emphatically.

New Jersey | Product