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The American Sky Bet: Can Bet.Works and theScore make a mark in the US?

Canada-listed theScore is the first media giant to throw its hat into the US sports betting ring, in partnership with technology firm Bet.Works. But can the duo successfully replicate the Sky Bet model? EGR North America sits down with Bet.Works CEO David Wang to find out

For all the talk of US media giants getting into the sports betting business, it looks like it will be a Canadian company that will be the first to truly grab the bull by the horns. In December 2018, Toronto-listed scores app, theScore, announced a partnership with Monmouth Park to secure a New Jersey license, aiming to go live around the middle of 2019.

According to the firm, the decision to get into betting was a natural progression of the scores business. “People are passionate about sports,” said theScore co-founder and CEO John Levy when revealing the plans. “Sports betting is just one facet of why and how they are passionate about it. Why wouldn’t we talk about it?”

“We’ve been looking at this and studying this for a whole bunch of years,” he added. “This is not something that just sort of happened and we said ‘hey, we should get into this’. This is in our DNA. Our user base across the States is huge and highly engaged.”

That user base is indeed formidable. Currently, theScore mobile app boasts around five million monthly uniques worldwide, with 62% of those in the US. For those counting at home, that’s around 3.1 million monthly US users. According to theScore’s recent financial results, an active user on average visited the app 111 times a month, suggesting they are highly engaged.

But can theScore turn those users into regular bettors? Many have tried the integrated media/bookmaker model, but few have really taken hold. UK operator Sky Bet is the obvious success story, while Georgia’s market leader Adjarabet, recently acquired by Paddy Power Betfair with a valuation of some £200m, has links with local media firm Adjaranet, and suggests Sky’s success wasn’t completely unique.

But for every Sky Bet there’s a Sun Bets, the sportsbook established by the UK daily tabloid newspaper, which appeared to have all the pieces in place thanks to a database of approximately six million people signed up for its fantasy football game. Indeed, Sun Bets reported healthy sign-up numbers, but customers were quickly turned off by a poor product, ill-suited for the UK market (it was powered by Australian operator Tabcorp).

Among other things, Tabcorp underestimated the importance of online casino and in-play betting in the UK market, and was unable to react quickly enough to local events or fix technical issues. It’s a cautionary tale about local knowledge that’s not been lost on theScore, or its technology partner Bet.Works, specifically chosen for its US market expertise. “They have a huge wealth of experience and connections in the US gaming industry,” said theScore president and COO Benjie Levy in a recent interview.

Making it work

Bet.Works is based in Las Vegas and headed up by former Wynn and MGM executive David Wang, who served as a consultant to theScore last summer. Wang helped roll out the PlayMGM mobile sports betting product before moving to Wynn to help build the company’s Interactive business. And it’s that US market knowledge that no European sportsbook provider can really hope to match, according to Wang.

“Working at Wynn, we used Oracle for data or Salesforce for marketing tech,” he says. “These are billion-dollar organizations but there wasn’t really anything similar for sports betting. There’s some legacy US software that doesn’t really work well – or we had European folks who entered the US market which is very different from what they’re used to.

“I have a great deal of respect for our competitors and via my past life working for some of the largest US operators, I had a unique perspective as I was a client of most of these suppliers.  However, in respect to US sports betting, I feel that they are all in a way still figuring things out as US operators will require, for a lack of a better term, a true US solution.

“This means having technology built for the US market, risk management/traders based in America who understand US sports, client managers who are American and know the needs and wants of the US consumer base and, lastly, a company that is solely focused on the US and not rest of the world.”

Seamless transition

Arguably the biggest opportunity for theScore is converting those sports fans already using theScore app into real money bettors. As John Levy put it: “[Our customers] are taking our content, they are taking our data and they are going and betting elsewhere. We are just going to give them the option of not having to go anywhere, and I think it’s genius. The best ideas are the simple ones, and this is a simple idea.”

So how will Bet.Works convert those customers? Sky demonstrated it one way with its Super 6 prediction game, where fans predicted the exact score of six Premier League soccer games for the chance to win £1m. Once those predictions are made, a little note scrolls onto the screen telling them a £1 bet on those selections returns £720, and voila, a sports bettor is born.

David Wang, Bet.Works CEO

David Wang, Bet.Works CEO

GIVEMESPORT, a sports media app which also plans to launch a betting sister company, told EGR recently it plans to mimic the Sky Bet model, but with a 21st century twist. “We can put clips and highlights up, and the news alerts on the GIVEMESPORT app are sometimes quicker than the telly,” the firm’s betting chief Dominic Mansour said. “Imagine, ‘Cristiano Ronaldo just scored’ pops up, and you can click through directly to bet on Cristiano Ronaldo to score the next one. That’s what the 21st century betting experience is, and we can make that happen.”

TheScore has similar opportunities, and the existing app already has a sports betting slant with a ‘betting information’ tab on the NFL section highlighting the spread and total, as well as push alerts if lines start moving.

“We want to tie the sports gambling and media together as much as possible,” says Wang. “Users are already on the app, so we want as much crossover as possible. Those are things we’re putting together – most operators don’t have the kind of access and engagement theScore has so we’re looking to do a lot more than just straight bets.”

Wang declines to be drawn on product specifics but does reveal that Bet.Works has hired a to-be named senior Sky Bet executive to help replicate that model.

“We’re definitely evaluating how [Sky] uses data and how they’ve built a business around the mass consumer market – where these players are sports fans who enjoy sports and who want to wager a little bit,” Wang says. “These aren’t hardened gamblers who want to drop thousands on a bet. That’s the model we want to emulate.”

The betting app will initially be separate from the score app, in part because of regulatory issues where if betting is integrated into the main app it requires regulatory approval every time it gets updated. “Over time we will look to make them more tightly integrated,” Wang adds.

America’s Got Talent

The Sky Bet hire is just the latest in a string of high-profile industry names joining Bet.Works, with talent now including Dr. Laila Mintas, the former deputy president of Sportradar, Quinton Singleton, formerly of NYX, and Marc Brody who helped set up SBTech in the US.

Wang says it has been a conscious decision to invest heavily in talent – an area he thinks companies scrimp on all too often. “It is very important to me that our management team truly understands the US market and the intricacies of what is needed for a US sportsbook,” he says.

“I have known Laila, Quinton and Marc for a number of years and I have great respect for each of them,” Wang says. “They each had held high profile roles at their former companies but when they heard the vision and opportunity for Bet.Works, their competitive nature kicked in and they decided to join the company.”

The project will start in New Jersey, where theScore is aiming to launch in the middle of the year, but the two companies could be tied together for up to 15 years, with an initial five-year period that can be extended for two more five-year periods at the discretion of theScore.

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It suggests ambitions are anything but short-term. “We’ve never considered this a single-state opportunity,” said Benjie Levy in a recent interview with Sports Against The Spread. “New Jersey is clearly a great market to start with, but as the sports betting landscape continues to develop, we’ll be exploring all options that make the most strategic sense to us. With an app audience that spans every US state, we’re strongly positioned to take this offering to other regions where mobile and online sports betting is permitted.”

New Jersey will likely be an ideal testing ground, because the media relationship could overcome one of the biggest challenges faced by operators in New Jersey – the cost of acquisition. “We expect that to be a real edge for us,” says Wang.

Pitfalls

If the benefits of a media partnership are so obvious, how quickly will others follow? And will that rob theScore of its unique edge? Thus far at least, it looks like theScore will have a clear run. ESPNBet was one option thrown around by talking heads, but Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger recently dismissed suggestions that ESPN will enter the sports betting fray.

Iger told analysts in a February earnings call: “I don’t see The Walt Disney Company, certainly in the near term, getting involved in the business of gambling, in effect, by facilitating gambling in any way.” He said the sports media provider would likely continue to provide game statistics and content relevant to bettors, but doubted it would “get into the business of gambling.”

NBC was seen as another potential participant after it registered several domains including NBCSportbook.com and NBCSportsSportsbook.com. It also committed to show special gambling broadcasts of Washington Wizards games, with real-time odds and point spreads on screen. However one source with knowledge of the company’s plans says it is a long way from becoming an operator itself. CBS also seems a long shot given it refused to allow its announcers to discuss gambling odds during the Superbowl.

Bleacher Report is perhaps the most similar outlet to theScore and arguably also the most likely to follow in its footsteps. The company live streamed the gambling-drenched The Match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, while Turner president David Levy has said he sees nothing but upside in embracing gambling. “If you watch more of the event, you’re engaged, and if you’re engaged … the ratings will go up,” Levy said. The outlet has also partnered with Caesars to develop sports-betting content and open a Bleacher Report studio, focused on betting content, inside one of Caesars’ Las Vegas casinos.

Clear run

However, Wang believes theScore will have the space to itself in the near term saying: “It takes a lot of time to figure this stuff out. I give John Levy kudos to pulling this off because it takes a great deal of leadership to move down this path. There’s a lot of licensing requirements and a lot of significant costs incurred. Someone has to believe in this and John believes his database is strong and we believe we’ll make this successful.”

There are other questions to be answered too. As laid out above, this is a hugely ambitious product. This isn’t an off-the-shelf white label sportsbook, but rather is envisioned as a unique product designed to make the most of theScore’s media links while also having a unique American flavor. That’s an ambitious project for a well-established sportsbook provider, never mind the new kid on the block.

Can theScore replicate Sky Bet's success?

Can theScore replicate Sky Bet’s success?

One industry exec questioned whether Bet.Works had the operational and tech capabilities to carry out such an ambitious project on time. After all, the history of online gambling is littered with delayed tech projects. Whether the Sky Bet model can be replicated is another question that needs to be answered. If Sky Bet itself can’t replicate it in Germany or Italy, why should anyone else have better luck?

Ultimately, theScore and Bet.Works are taking on a massive task, but the upside is equally massive. There are three million monthly users in the US alone who could ultimately become customers, and theScore says its own testing shows they are already betting sports elsewhere, it’s just a case of giving them a more convenient option. The idea is foolproof. It’s now up to Wang and his team to deliver the goods.

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