Sports·Analysis

How online gambling sites aim to turn your sports debates into bets

If you’re a sports fan, you’re no stranger to debate. Sportsbooks, which legally entered the Ontario arena last week, aim to aid those debates with increased information and eventually convert those fans into gamblers.

Legalization of sports betting in Ontario changes fan experience on TV and in arenas

Fans are seen during the Toronto Blue Jays' home opener in April. With sports betting now legal in Ontario, the fan experience is bound for change. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

If you're a sports fan, you're no stranger to debates.

The Raptors have the best homecourt advantage in the NBA. Auston Matthews scores most of his goals at the beginning of games. Scottie Scheffler is going to bogey the 12th hole at Augusta on Sunday.

Those are the types of opinions that could only be argued anecdotally in the past. But sportsbooks, which legally entered the Ontario arena last week, aim to aid those debates with increased information.

Dale Hooper, general manager of the online gambling site FanDuel in Canada, said his goal is to help create content and drive narratives for sports fans.

"If we do our job well, it's not going to be about pushing betting on people. It's going to be about giving them more data to talk and argue about their teams," Hooper said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.

Vijay Setlur, a marketing instructor at York University's business school, added the part that Hooper didn't: the point of the extra information is to convert fans into gamblers.

"He's right when it comes to the heightened storytelling which improves fan engagement. But there's no certainty that that's going to lead to the conversion that they're looking to achieve," Setlur said.

Hooper said the information enriches the fan experience, regardless of whether there's any money at stake.

"All of these conversations of Auston Matthews on his way to 60 goals, it's really interesting stuff. Where does he score them from? What time of the game does he score them at? What's the score at when he scores those goals? If we can tell those narratives, you don't have to be a bettor to make the game experience improved," Hooper said.

Evolving fan experience

FanDuel recently signed partnership agreements with the NHL and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Argonauts, Marlies and TFC. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation also inked a deal with the NHL, as did PokerStars.

TheScore Bet, meanwhile, agreed to a 10-year exclusive partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays.

As more teams and leagues buy into sports betting, the fan experience is sure to evolve. The shared goal of both sports and its betting industry is to keep more people watching for longer, and thus spending more money — through ticket sales, increased TV ratings, merchandise and more. A Deloitte Canada report suggested that the industry could grow from $500 million to $28 billion within five years of nationwide legalization.

Where sportsbooks think they can change the game is by keeping fans engaged beyond wins and losses. Bets such as over/unders (the total points, runs or goals in a game) and spreads (such as the Jays being favoured by 1.5 runs in a certain game) increase the stakes even in games where the winner seems irrelevant or quickly determined.

Bettors will soon be able to gamble on when Auston Matthews will score his next goal. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Richard Schwartz, CEO of online gambling site BetRivers, pointed to in-game betting as the next frontier.

"That's an area that we really have seen very large growth in the United States where it started when the market opened to 20 per cent. And now most days over 50 per cent of the betting is in-game betting during the course of the match or between the whistle," Schwartz told CBC Sports.

The simplest example of in-game betting could come at halftime of a basketball game, if you think the losing team will come back to win in the final two quarters.

By partnering with the NHL and MLSE, FanDuel says it wants to arm fans with the type of data to form that type of opinion. Inevitably, that will lead to debate with friends and family. It will also provide additional colour for the broadcast, which can supply live betting odds.

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There's one other element of conversion, which hasn't gained as much publicity in the past week: online casinos, featuring slots and card games.

Schwartz said nearly 90 per cent of BetRivers' betting volume in the Ontario was in the casino.

"You hear a lot more talk about sports betting. But casino's really where the revenues are not just expected to be in Ontario, but we've seen the same thing in all the U.S. states as well," he said.

Varied audiences

Because many Ontarians bet in the unregulated grey market prior to last week, there are three audiences sportsbooks, leagues, teams and networks must cater toward: serious bettors, casual bettors and non-bettors.

FanDuel is also partnered with TSN. Sportsnet, meanwhile, doesn't have an official partnership but did recently launch its own vertical called SN Bets. The goal for those networks will be to add enough betting information to their broadcasts to appease the first two audiences, but not so much that it will alienate the third.

You may have already noticed the recent onslaught of sportsbook ads on TV. But Setlur expects networks will find a sweet spot between all three audiences.

"As long as they continue to have the consumer in mind, I don't think there'll be any issues because knowing what the consumer wants and providing that is paramount to them," Setlur said. "And the last thing they want to do is turn people off and result in people maybe cancelling their cable subscription or cancelling their streaming service subscription."

Guests arrive at FanDuel Sportsbook for its opening in Arizona in September. (Matt York/The Associated Press)

Demographically, Setlur said sports betting would appeal to Gen Z and a young generation of sports fans whose interests differ from those before them.

The gamification of sports that gambling provides through in-game betting helps grab the attention of a younger audience who may not interact much with a sport like baseball otherwise.

"In this hyper-competitive attention economy that we're living in, it's so important that we provide as much value as quickly as possible to consumers so that they see the value, they stay with us and that they become consumers well into the future," Setlur said of the sports betting stakeholders' mindset.

With its introduction to the Canadian market, Hooper said FanDuel plans to add more options for betting on hockey. Whereas there are plenty of opportunities in basketball betting, hockey is relatively untapped.

Further into the future, the in-arena experience could change too, whether it's with a gambling room or the ability to bet whether each pitch at a baseball game, for example, will be a ball or strike.

The sports betting industry is here to stay.

The sports viewing experience — for better or for worse — will never be the same.

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