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IGT: Product always wins out

By - 5 May 2022

The last time G3 sat down with Joe Asher was shortly after he left his post as CEO of William Hill US, who signed off our interview contemplating his options:

“Truthfully, I don’t know what’s next. It will be nice to have some time off over the summer with the kids in Del Mar and try and pick some winners at the racetrack now that fans are allowed back in.

I could go and work for a company, buy a business, sit on a few Boards, do some consulting – I just don’t know.

“I’ll see what the opportunities are and what makes the most sense. I still enjoy talking and thinking about the gambling business – it energises me. I will undoubtedly continue my involvement and try to do something productive.”

Fast forward a few months and Joe was back in the saddle. Appointed as President of Sports Betting at IGT, he now reports to Enrico Drago, IGT’s CEO Digital & Betting, and is responsible for spearheading the expansion of the IGT PlaySports sports betting business in North American markets.

Six months into the role and feet firmly under the table, we begin by addressing the most urgent of questions – did he get to call the races during his brief summer sojourn?

“I did! I called the races with my son at a small county fair in Northeastern Nevada. Not long after the deal with Caesars closed I went to Del Mar with the family and didn’t have much to do. It was wonderful! Enrico then reached out to ask if I was interested in doing some consulting for the sports betting side of the business.

“William Hill had previously partnered with IGT to win a sports betting contract in Rhode Island and that’s when I first encountered Enrico. At the time, I had a mindset of ‘listen to everything, commit to nothing, wait until the kids are back to school’. Well, I must have mentioned the date they went back to school because Enrico called that day and what started as a consultancy-type thing morphed into a job.

“IGT is a B2B business I found attractive – I didn’t have any desire to jump back into the B2C world and, regardless, my non-compete with Caesars would have made for a very different conversation. However, when I talked to Tom (Thomas Reeg, CEO of Caesars) he was very gracious.

A student of the history of gaming, IGT’s illustrated history going back to being founded as A-1 Supply by William “Si” Redd in 1975 factored into Joe’s decision to join the company.

“If you live in Nevada for any period of time, IGT is one of the premier companies in the industry going back to the days of “Si” Redd when he founded the company. Coupled with the fact I liked Enrico and my experience working with them at William Hill (who partnered to win a sports betting contract in Rhode Island) led to me taking the position.”

PURE B2B

Whilst there was a B2B element during his decade at William Hill and Brandywine Bookmaking, a company he created as a start-up in 2008 before being acquired by the tier one operator, IGT marks the first time Joe has worked purely within the B2B space. What has proven of particular interest during Joe’s last six months has been making sure customers have what they need and enabling people for whom sports betting is new to tap into his expertise.

One such example is the Oneida Tribe who have been enjoying the benefits of running the first and only sports wagering operation in Wisconsin since the winter of last year. However, they aren’t naive and don’t expect this situation to continue forever. Oneida’s flagship casino is in Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the most storied NFL franchises.

“The Packers are very popular nationally, but it is almost like a religion in Green Bay. It’s everywhere so one can guess who the residents of Green Bay are predominantly betting on and the team was having a great season. I helped the Oneida team understand they should look to build a business for 365 days a year, not just for one day or game.

“I advised them that the points spread they should offer on the Packers should be same you can get anywhere else because fans know what the line is. If you try to juice up the line, customers are going to think you’re sticking it to them. When the Packers win, give them the money with a smile and they’ll come back.

“Having that perspective and experience proved useful and I’ve helped with this type of issue before. In the early days of sports betting in Mississippi when I was at William Hill we had one partner who called me and asked what they should do when the Saints were playing because his place was relatively close to New Orleans.

“My straightforward advice was to simply root for the other team! Having the perspective of an operator who understands these nuances helps folks that are new to sports betting get up to speed.”

PLAYSPORTS

Joe’s remit is the evolution and expansion of IGT’s PlaySports solution, whose roster of clients includes Boyd Gaming, Resorts World, FanDuel, SuperBook, and many tribal casinos. Going forward, IGT’s main points of focus for its sports betting operation are twofold.

1) Help existing customers as they look to expand and grow into new jurisdictions.
2) Assist companies currently using different systems but are looking to change.

“Going forwards we need to look at where we are taking the product,” explains Joe. “In the industry generally there has been a lot of attention to marketing, but over time product wins. Making sure we are continuously focusing on the product, sometimes in rather mundane ways that the end consumer doesn’t necessarily see but our customer does appreciate, and on product enhancements that are apparent to the end customer.

“We have a big team of software developers in Belgrade who I recently went over to meet. It was great to see everybody in-person and get a better appreciation for the team and technology. London also proved a useful pit-stop as there are no direct flights. I needed to cash my ticket at Coral because I had made a bet on Biden to win the election!”

CANADA, FINALLY

Last month, Ontario opened the first licensed and regulated iGaming market in Canada. According to several estimates, the post-regulated province will become the most attractive iGaming market in North America for both players and brands, surpassing all its US online counterparts.

Whilst acknowledging the size and scale of Ontario’s regulated gaming potential, whose largest city, Toronto, is home to MLB, MLS, NBA, NHL, and Canadian Football League teams, Joe believes a lot of the province’s potential success comes down to how ‘sticky’ customers are to their current provider.

“It’s a new market but it’s not because the grey market has been there so long. Many customers already have an existing relationship. In the legal market you will see an effort to dislodge that customer and attract new ones. How sticky existing customers are to their current provider is something we don’t know at this point.

“My sense is it’s probably a little different in Canada than some of the other states. People betting in the black market in the U.S. may be easier to dislodge than in Canada’s grey. Ever since I joined the industry, every year was destined to be the year before sports betting was going live in Canada.

“This even stretches back to the Brandywine days when we did a consultancy project for Woodbine, a big racetrack and casino operator, who wanted to prepare for sports betting being legalised. Now it really is here and it’s amazing to see.”

MAKING HEADWAY

With the largest companies spending millions on marketing and sponsorship deals, Joe believes there is room for smaller operators to get involved in specific circumstances. Needless to say that each state is different, and the priorities of existing operators differ.

For example, some tribal casinos such as Oneida or Snoqualmie in Washington state are very large properties where the retail sportsbook is of utmost importance. Online, some smaller operators are going to align with major operators whilst others will want to beat their own path.

“Take the Arizona Coyotes who are a customer of ours. In Arizona, the sports teams got licences and all but one decided to partner with an operator – be it selling a skin, some branding, sponsorship, access to database, and so forth.

“Alex Meruelo, who owns the Coyotes and a couple of casinos in Nevada, decided he didn’t want to partner with anybody. He made the decision to control it himself due to the fact he owned the franchise and could promote his sportsbook operation, SaharaBets.

“The market is in a place where you have the four or five major operators and what happens below that level is an open question. Churchill and Wynn are backing off, alongside others. Then you have individual opportunities like the Coyotes or tribes who are just differently positioned. For them the question is how sports betting helps them grow their overall business rather the profitability of the sportsbook as a standalone offer.”

CONSOLIDATION, OR NOT

Last year saw Penn National purchase theScore and DraftKings acquire Golden Nugget Online. Offering his verdict on the M&A landscape, Joe hesitates when asked if a sustained period of consolidation has begun.

“A little bit of consolidation perhaps but in a couple of specific scenarios. Golden Nugget’s solid online gaming business had a factor in the DraftKings acquisition and theScore’s popular brand in Canada and technology emphasis was attractive to Penn. The consolidation thus far has been discreet.

“It remains to be seen what happens with the players outside of FanDuel, DraftKings, Caesars, MGM, and Penn/Barstool. At some point you would expect some consolidation below that, but the growth is going to led by new states opening.

“There is also the possibility of somebody else coming into the market. There have been rumours of Fanatics being interested and bidding for a licence in New York, whilst the possibility of ESPN and what could they do in the market suggest there is significant reason for them to want to be involved. There is a lot left to develop and play out.”

EXCESS ADVERTISING

In February, the New York Post ran an exclusive quoting an industry analyst (who didn’t want to be named) stating that online bookmakers’ profits show they’ve ‘very likely’ lost money – around $200m to be exact – since launching in New York in January.

The acquisition cost is estimated to be between $100 to $150 per customer, with one promotion by Caesars enticing bettors in with a ‘free $3,000 if a gambler ponied up the same amount of his own money.

Speaking to G3 at the time, Bill Miller, President and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said that he understood complaints about the number of sports betting advertisements, but urged people to ‘remember what we are trying to do which is move the market away from offshore, illegal websites.’

Joe shares similar concerns over the amount of advertising: “The concerns around advertising are valid because of the frequency. It has weaned a bit since the start of the football season and there is a seasonality aspect to the marketing. When new jurisdictions open there is a flood of advertising as people want to establish their brand and attract early adopters to work with them leading to aggressive offers for new consumers. This has been most evident in New York.

“It’s not like it was in the early fantasy days when it was both frequency and content. With more advertising you have more problem gambling. It is a very difficult problem to solve because you can’t control what your competitor does.

“From a regulatory perspective it is difficult to do anything at state level because if you’re advertising on a Philadelphia television station that is being carried into Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. You have multi-state media markets – New York is advertising into Connecticut and New Jersey, for example.

“It is a particularly difficult issue to address and historically the concern at the federal level has been the truth in advertising as opposed to the level of repetition. You are seeing this start to subside a bit driven by a sensitivity around responsible gaming issues and the economics. We need to be continually mindful of it as an industry, ensure the content is appropriate, and hope the frequency is only at the initiation of new states and the start of the football season.”

There is an increasing danger that as sports betting gains in popularity and its presence becomes increasingly obtrusive in the media there may be a backlash from government officials.

“There will be media stories about sad and unfortunate situations. There will be headlines about issues involving sports integrity, whether its player betting or questions around insider trading. This is inevitable.

However, Joe says the situation is unlikely to escalate to European levels of intervention. “It is far more complicated to regulate in the U.S. given the fact gambling has always been viewed as a matter for the states. The concern is there, but culturally the U.S. is different than somewhere such as the UK, as well as from a governance perspective.”

EVEN UTAH

We conclude the interview discussing whether the long-term future for the American sports betting market really is as bright as everyone says it is and whether Joe still believes in all 50 states legalising sports betting.

“Even Utah. I’m not giving you a date so you can’t ever say I was wrong. One thing is clear – the American public likes to bet on sports. The appetite is there, as is the support of the leagues and media companies. Eventually sports betting will be legalised in all 50 states. If I live a long and proper life I might even see it happen!”

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