If you’ve been living in a WiFi-free cave for the past few years — or perhaps just avoiding large crowds for fear of infection — you’ll likely be in for a surprise the next time you attend a major sporting event in the U.S.
Sports betting, once verboten in those venues, is all over the place.
Perhaps you turned off your TV before leaving for the stadium just as another one of those Caesars ads featuring JB Smoove and Halle Berry came on. You might have passed a billboard for DraftKings, FanDuel or another book on the way there. Once you settled into your seat, you might have opened up the program and noticed an ad with a QR code for easy access to a new betting account.
To some people, we’ve reached the point that can be described as marketing saturation of the sports betting legalization movement. Spending on TV ads for online gambling jumped to $725 million in 2021, a 148% increase from 2020, according to Nielsen Holdings, among other indicators of gambling’s hold on the sporting world these days.
“There’s too much of it,” Charles Barkley told the media last month. “We’ve got people in the stands betting on who’s going to make the next free throws. Think about that. If I was a scumbag, I’d look at a guy in the stands, a friend, and say, ‘Yo, I’m going to miss both of these free throws.’ Now, that’s cheating.”
Leagues loosening restrictions
Believe it or not, even though they’re the ones fueling it, industry leaders spend a fair amount of time pondering Barkley’s challenge. When is enough too much?
“It’s not something we want to oversaturate or even start getting into that territory too much, whether it’s on TV, broadcast, at NASCAR.com or, certainly, at our races,” said Joseph Solosky, the managing director of sports betting at NASCAR. “We know that we’re talking about 20 percent of our fans who bet on NASCAR. It’s not something we just sort of put out there blatantly, but from my division, we do want it to be part of the race-day experience, just as drinking a Busch Light or going to a concert is part of the race-day experience.”
Solosky’s comments came during a panel discussion at the SBC North America Summit last week in Secaucus. New Jersey. The panel, titled “Teams and Leagues: Improving Fan Engagement,” also included Betfred USA Sports COO Bryan Bennett, co-founder of SharpLink Gaming Rob Phythian, and Eric Pettigrew, who handles sports betting deals and government relations for the NHL’s Seattle Kraken.
The leagues and teams are steering a lot of the discussion as they not only get comfortable with sports betting but try to profit from it.
Bennett said Betfred got some pushback from the NFL last season when it revealed its plans for the Denver Broncos gameday experience at Empower Field at Mile High.
“They weren’t comfortable with the overt messaging and offers in-game, because of the kids and families involved, which is fine,” Bennett said. “We’re still trying to find out what that sweet spot is in terms of offering games and having a better message, versus making sure the leagues don’t get too uncomfortable with these overt advertisements of betting offers.”
Bennett said he expects the NFL to loosen its restrictions somewhat, just as Major League Baseball did this season. For the first time, sportsbooks were allowed to post QR codes at baseball stadiums and to promote sports betting on stadium videoboards at many ballparks.
“All the leagues are sort of trying to find their way on what they’re comfortable with,” Bennett said.
Massachusetts ponders limits on marketing
Lawmakers in one state, Massachusetts, have even pondered baking restrictions on sports betting ads into the law that potentially could legalize sports betting there. Some legislators want to ban any marketing campaigns that disrupt the viewer’s experience during live sports broadcasts; limit promotional betting incentives, which could mean no free credits or signup bonuses; and prohibit sportsbook advertising unless 85% of viewership is over the age of 21.
Like many aspects of the sports betting landscape, the level of saturation depends on which state you’re in.
Pettigrew said the Kraken largely take their cue from the tribes that offer retail sports betting in Washington, as the state has yet to legalize mobile sports betting.
“We really are tied to the direction they want to go forward, and they’re very cautious about moving forward,” Pettigrew said of the tribes. “They want to keep their eyes on what’s going on in other parts of the world — the UK, et cetera — and they’re concerned about problem gambling. They don’t want to be in a position to where the political winds will switch and move away from support they have now.”
Educating fans about betting
The other aspect to keep in mind is that this bombardment from sportsbooks might not go on much longer in many states. Operators spend most heavily on marketing right before and after legalization, in part to educate sports fans about how to place bets. Once sports betting is established across the nation, the sensory overload could lessen.
“We are siloed thinking everyone has this innate knowledge of sports betting, just as we do,” Solosky said. “At the races, we talk to fans about signing up for a sportsbook, and they still have no idea you can bet on NASCAR.”
That’s where Phythian’s company comes in. SharpLink Gaming uses technology powered by artificial intelligence to analyze fans’ behavior with the intention of “connecting them with personalized real-time sports betting content from leading sportsbooks; and seamlessly converting them into recurring, paying customers,” according to the company’s website. In other words, it makes it even easier for fans to become sports bettors.
Phythian said GameLink has 5 million players on its servers. The company seeks to simplify sports betting for new players by expressing odds in easy-to-understand formats such as, “If you bet $10 on your favorite player to win, you can get back $23,” rather than just saying that player is +130, or by helping people make the leap from fantasy sports to straight sports bets. He said 90% of sports fans still are intimidated by the notion of making their first deposit to a sportsbook.
“We’re just trying to dumb it down, get them to engage,” Phythian said.
The opposite of engagement is severance, but perhaps in some people’s case, it’s just a matter of leaving them in peace until they figure out what they want to do.