Last week’s Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas highlighted the broad-based support from business leaders, law enforcement and former pro sports officials for a legal, regulated sports betting framework.
Some believe federal sports betting laws should be fully repealed, while others believe they should simply be amended to allow states the ability to opt in to a sports betting framework. Others still think sports betting’s legality should be sought through the courts.
But however stakeholders choose to pursue legalization, lawmakers will need to design a regulatory construct that understands and addresses the increasing role of technology in sports betting — specifically, mobile and in-play wagering.
Mobile, in-play betting grow across Vegas books
Nevada sportsbooks both large and small are reporting significant growth in their mobile betting and in-play wagering sectors.
The growth of the former does not necessarily fuel the growth of the latter. In the United Kingdom, for example, both the mobile betting and in-play betting markets are far more mature than they are in the US, and both products are independently popular.
But since in-play wagering is only offered via mobile or web applications, and not in-person at physical sports books, the growth of mobile wagering almost surely doesn’t hurt the growth of in-play betting.
As the speed and thrill of live wagering attracts more customers and higher handles in the US, more and more American bettors are getting used to wagering on outcomes of a game during the game, as opposed to beforehand.
At one of G2E’s several sports betting panels, William Hill US Director of Business Development Dan Shapiro noted that in-play wagering accounted for 20 percent of his company’s total handle.
The company is one of the world’s largest bookmakers, and was one of the first to the mobile and in-play betting markets. But despite that, Shapiro said that as recently as 2012 in-play wagering accounted for “zero” percent of its handle.
On a separate panel, William Hill US CEO Joe Asher noted that mobile sports betting accounted for roughly half of his company’s betting handle in both the US and Europe, and that its growth has been exponential.
William Hill uses betting kiosks at several locations other than physical sportsbooks that allow players to sign up for mobile accounts. The company is believed to have affiliate deals with locations hosting these kiosks. This could be one of the reasons contributing to mobile betting constituting what Asher referred to as a “lower margin product.”
One of the most respected and well known sportsbooks in Las Vegas, the Westgate launched its mobile sports betting app at the beginning of this year. In that short time span, it’s already experienced significant growth.
Sportsbook director Jay Kornegay said that mobile wagering is very popular, and accounts for around 35 percent of the Westgate’s total handle. In other words, the source of one-third of the money the book takes in has changed over the course of less than a year.
Only about four percent of total handle, he said, comes from in-play wagering, which the app is still perfecting. Kornegay remarked that adoption to in-play betting is a slow process, but it is also experiencing strong growth as more US bettors get comfortable with the concept.
The in-play betting handle in the US for CG is growing but is “not even close” to what it is in Europe, according to Jason Simbal, CG’s VP of Risk Management.
But his company’s percentage of sports betting handle that comes from mobile is among the highest in Vegas.
Roughly 60 percent of CG’s year-to-date handle has come from mobile betting, Simbal said. That figure is equivalent to the company’s mobile sports betting figures in previous years, he said.
The majority of CG’s revenue, meanwhile, comes from in-person wagering at a betting window. This could suggest that sharper bettors are placing bets through CG’s betting app, as opposed to physically coming to one of CG’s sportsbook locations throughout Las Vegas.
CG is the only sportsbook that offers entity wagering, a high volume form of wagering done by professional sports betting investors that’s conducted exclusively through CG’s sports betting app.
Simbal said entity wagering didn’t account for much of the 60 percent year-to-date handle figure.
At the South Point Race & Sportsbook, approximately 40 percent of the house’s handle comes from its mobile betting app, according to oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro.
Perhaps more than any other oddsmaker Legal Sports Report spoke with, Vaccaro emphasized the growth in mobile betting was organic, and not a reallocation of handle from in-person betting. In other words, handle from bettors at the physical sportsbook has stayed constant, while the South Point’s mobile handle has grown, he said.
The sportsbook is one of the most well-respected in Las Vegas, but is also one of the smaller books. As a result, it partners with several other sportsbooks, including The Rampart and Virgin River, to offer a mobile betting app called “Nevada Sports Books.”
The app utilizes software developed by William Hill, but features the South Point’s betting lines. South Point only offers live, in-play betting on three NFL games per week (the nationally televised Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games).
Non-Nevada businesses also emphasize in-play experience
In addition to traditional sportsbooks at land-based casinos, online bookmakers are emphasizing in-play betting as well.
The company operates one of the largest sportsbooks in the world. It has utilized features like in-play betting to grow its user base to 23.1 million customers, up 11 percent year over year.
Unregulated sportsbooks are also getting in on the in-play craze. Bookmaker, Pinnacle, BetOnline and 5Dimes are among several offshore books to offer limited but growing in-play sports betting options in recent years.
New, non-bookmaking businesses are building products based entirely around the the in-play experience. In-game fantasy app Fanamana enables bettors to draft players mid-game, and accumulate runs, hits and total bases based on those players’ performance that they can use to outscore their opponents.
Other businesses that don’t necessarily embrace in-play nonetheless have models that are adaptable to growing demand for live betting.
And startup apps like Bait, which link users through their smartphone contacts list and allow bettors to challenge others to a bet, could ostensibly facilitate more than just full-game, traditional spread wagers.
Live betting could already violate US law
Because mobile and in-play wagering continue to garner industry buzz and account for a larger chunk of the betting industry’s handle, they’re crucial topics for regulators and lawmakers to address.
Two federal laws governing sports betting — the Professional And Amateur Sports Protection Act and the Wire Act — were both written long before the adoption of online betting or smartphone wagering. (In the one state that has legal US sports betting, Nevada online poker is being offered, with online casino games perhaps on the way. Online wagering is only regulated in New Jersey and Delaware, beyond that.)
It’s unclear if a repeal or an amendment of the former would include new restrictions. PASPA does not specifically address online or in-play betting.
A 2009 Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision, however, interpreted the law as allowing for only the same types of sports betting that existed prior to PASPA’s enactment, and prohibiting all new forms of betting.
Since in-play betting did not exist prior to 1992, by some interpretations, in-play sports betting could violate federal law right now, even in Nevada. If the new version of PASPA is merely amended, as opposed to repealed, addressing or clarifying this interpretation could be important.
Wire Act potentially just as important as PASPA
While the American Gaming Association continues to call for the repeal of PASPA, several analysts LSR spoke with noted that such an action would likely need to be accompanied by a repeal of the Wire Act in order for sports betting to exist as a product.
This is because even if PASPA is repealed and gambling is ostensibly allowed in a multi-state framework, the Wire Act prohibits the transferring of wagering information across state lines.
A third federal law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, does not lay out a regulatory construct for mobile or internet betting, either.
On the contrary, it makes illegal the processing of payments related to online gambling transactions as a method of discouraging illegal online gambling as a whole.
Should in-play betting be treated differently than full-game betting?
Regulation 14 in Nevada, for example, lays out a number of compliance requirements for gaming companies operating mobile wagering products in that state.
It’s unclear if a national sports betting legal framework would build off of Nevada’s model or take a different approach.
Headwinds to regulating in-play
Similar to the legalization of traditional sports betting, the regulation of in-play wagering could face several challenges.
The casino industry has traditionally opposed online betting because it believes it will cannibalize the brick-and-mortar gaming industry. Since in-play is only offered online or through a web application, one assumes that traditional opposition would continue from several quarters.
There is also the challenge of educating federal lawmakers. As we saw with a recent Congressional daily fantasy sports hearing, national legislators are unfamiliar with even the basic tenets of mobile gaming products, such as those offered by DraftKings and FanDuel, let alone something as relatively complex as mobile, in-play gaming.
If unaddressed, this unfamiliarity could constitute a major barrier to developing effective legislation and regulatory standards for live sports betting.
Furthermore, some in the UK, where in-play betting is massively popular, have raised concerns that bettors stand to lose more money, and lose more often, from live betting during a match than from traditional betting.
A study by a professor at the University of Sterling in England found in-play betting to be more heavily marketed, exploitative of bettors’ emotions, and generative of much higher losses for bettors than normal bets. William Hill’s gross win percentage during the 2014 World Cup, which featured extensive in-play betting, was 18.4 percent, more than three times the normal win rate.
While the study stopped short of calling for the banning of in-play betting, similar academic and public conclusions could signal to US regulators that live betting poses risks.
Benefits of regulating in-play wagering
For the very reasons that some could call for restrictions on in-play betting, others argue for its legalization and regulation.
Speaking at G2E, UK Sports Betting Integrity Panel Chairman Rick Parry noted that bettors will find ways to bet on all forms of wagering regardless of whether or not those forms are legal.
If in-play betting is not offered by regulated sportsbooks, Parry contended, bettors will just reallocate their business to unregulated sports betting operators, where they are less protected from wrongdoing and where their play could be funding other illicit activity.
Given that reality, Parry argued, it’s better to ensure that licensed operators are offering sports betting, including in-play. In order for that to happen, stakeholders including sports leagues, data companies, lawmakers, and gaming companies need to legalize sports betting and bring it into a regulated environment in order to monitor it and enforce standards and practices.
Parry and others also noted in-play betting poses less of a threat to match fixing or fraud than other forms of gaming, due to match-fixers’ inability to reach players and influence their actions during a game.
United Kingdom, Australia clarifying positions on in-play
The UK Gambling Commission echoed Parry’s views when it recently argued in a report that in-play betting can be offered safely in a regulated environment.
The UKGC rebuffed in its report the recent opinion of the EU Parliament, which called for its member states to ban in-play betting on the grounds it actually increased the potential for match-fixing.
“There is limited evidence to show that the risks are greater than those associated with pre-event betting,” the UKGC report said. The commission said it would study the matter further this month.
Meanwhile, in Australia, betting operator Sportsbet urged that country’s government to regulate in-play betting. The country is considering revisions to its 2001 national gambling law, the Interactive Gambling Act.
The company believes consumers now expect to be able to wager on their mobile devices and over the internet, but draft legislation related to the IGA would ban Sportsbet from offering in-play betting in Australia.
Sportsbet’s CFO called the ban on his company offering in-play betting “illogical” when other Aussie bookmakers, such as Tab, can offer online betting in pubs via tablets and have it qualify as “retail betting.”
Whether American regulators at the federal level eventually take their cues from these agencies, or whether they’ll address mobile and in-play betting at all, remains to be seen.
John Mehaffey contributed to this report.