Why you should care

Major league teams are gambling on the belief that offering fans live betting opportunities will keep them more connected. 

Against The Spread: This OZY Series Probes Sports Gambling's Future. Against The Spread: This OZY Series Probes Sports Gambling's Future.

Whether guessing the outcome of the Super Bowl coin flip or spreading $5 on every March Madness result imaginable from the floor of the MGM Grand, predicting arbitrary outcomes is an entertaining way to engage with the games we love. That excitement only escalates when provided the ability to wager on games that are already underway, as is common in Europe, where 70 percent of all sports bets are placed live, mid-game.

Now, with states racing to legalize gambling following the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 2018 decision allowing them to do so, major league sports teams are developing in-stadium lounges and interactive television channels dedicated to keeping fans engaged by letting them place wagers during games. Ironically, they’re making these moves even as the leagues themselves — especially the NBA and MLB — are claiming they’re worried about betting hurting the sanctity of games, while seeking an “integrity fee” in exchange for allowing states to legalize sports gambling.

The Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers have both tied up with regional NBC sports networks to broadcast Predict the Game broadcasts where viewers are prompted to answer questions like “How many Wizards will have multiple assists in the first quarter, 0-1 or 2+?” They tried this first for eight games in the latter half of the 2018-2019 Washington Wizards regular season, and for two Sixers games in March.

We know that we need to be prepared for when [legalized sports betting] comes to California.

Ryan Montoya, Sacramento Kings CTO

The NHL’s New Jersey Devils have signed up for in-stadium marketing partnerships with MGM, Caesars Palace and FanDuel to promote gambling via an app. Meanwhile, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings are taking this approach to the next level. In a state that has yet to legalize sports betting, Sacramento uses a free-to-play app and in-stadium lounge to educate fans and get a head start on the trend that may soon define the sports fan’s experience. Large screens in the lounge offer odds that fans can bet on — for the moment, with no money on the line.

“We know that we need to be prepared for when [legalized sports betting] comes to California,” says Ryan Montoya, the Kings’ chief technology officer. “Our goal is always ensuring that we are delivering the best fan experience in the world. How do we use technology to provide that?”

For the Wizards and Sixers, the answer, it seems, is television. Their betting broadcasts were available for streaming online, and while they featured the same teams and commercial breaks as the main telecast, the feel was quite different. On-screen graphics highlighting relevant statistics, live odds and point spreads made for a product that felt like it belonged on a big screen inside a smoke-filled sportsbook — where players place bets.

 

For each Predict the Game question, viewers submitted answers via the NBC Sports Plus app for a chance to win $500, with a real-time leaderboard shown on the broadcast. Participation was free, but according to those involved, the project was a proof of concept for more aggressive campaigns on the horizon. Keeping users engaged, and thus watching your product, is key, as is the potential to serve real bets in legalized markets. It was a unique experience for many participants, says Damon Phillips, GM of NBC Sports Washington, and many said they wanted to return for more.

“Many said it added to the excitement of the game itself, which is one of the primary goals,” says Phillips. The expectation across key stakeholders — from the teams to viewers to sales partners (MGM was a sponsor) — is for an enhanced product next season, he adds.

These betting platforms — whether on TV or through in-stadium lounges — offer teams a fresh route to building a lasting connection with fans. “Fans who have the appetite to place bets are looking for a different type of content experience,” says David Preschlack, President, NBC Sports Regional Networks. “We’re all about serving our fans.”

And helping their own bottom line. The sports gambling industry in the U.S. — just a year after the Supreme Court verdict — is already worth $60 billion. For major league teams, it makes sense to try and secure a slice of that pie for themselves, and keep fans engaged while they’re at it — instead of losing them entirely to external sportsbooks.

It’s no surprise that the Kings, owned by billionaire tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé, are among the early teams to recognize this potential. They’ve built up a reputation as one of the most innovative organizations is professional sports. The team’s home, Golden 1 Center, has been named the world’s most sustainable and technologically advanced arenas — equipped with 1,000 miles of cable power and a 200 gigabit per second internet pipeline. But it’s the Kings’ work with gamification that they’re counting on next. This season, the team rolled out an enhanced version of its three-year-old “Call the Shot” app, an MGM-sponsored predictive gaming product similar to the Predict the Game broadcasts. The team hasn’t yet aired any such broadcasts, but Montoya says that those are coming, and will be “much cooler” than what has been tested in Washington and Philadelphia.

The most obvious enhancement to the Kings fan experience is the Skyloft Predictive Gaming Lounge, launched in March inside Golden 1. It brings free-to-play prop bets — where you bet on an event within the game, rather than on the outcome of the game itself — to a physical in-arena bar that Montoya describes as a “sportsbook meets Apple Genius Bar” aimed at educating Kings fans on an intimidating topic in an inviting setting. Located on the suite level, the Skyloft Lounge saw nearly 1,000 total visitors across five home games. Next season, a predictive gaming lounge will open for all fans on the main concourse. According to Montoya, 90 percent of Kings fans who placed “bets” in the Skyloft Lounge returned for more action, and 65 percent of all players were women. The most popular plays in the Skyloft Lounge have been the staple of traditional gambling: the point spread, moneyline and over-under total.

“We’ve learned that if you offer these physical experiences in the arena, fans are going to want to interact in a social way and keep coming back,” says Montoya.

The last time I intentionally watched a regular season Wizards game was during the Gilbert Arenas era in the mid-2000s. That changed this spring. The inaugural Predict the Game broadcast, a Wizards 113-106 win over Milwaukee, made a meaningless game entertaining. Was I glued to the screen for all 48 minutes? Hardly. But I submitted my answers for each on-screen proposition, and you can bet that I’d gladly hang in an in-stadium lounge that allows for such activities.

And that’s the point, right?

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