US Sportsbooks Use Free-to-Play Games To Scout New Bettors In March Madness And Beyond

Posted on March 18, 2021

As sports betting continues to proliferate in the US, free-to-play games are several steps ahead.

Sportsbook operators and their partners are teaming up to scout potential bettors with free-to-play options. Whether pick‘em contests or March Madness bracket challenges, consumers seem to be participating.

Roughly 36.7 million Americans will fill out a March Madness bracket this year, according to an American Gaming Association survey.

The main goal for most games: build databases and convert users to real-money sports betting. But for operators, teams, leagues and even retail partners, there are other learnings and benefits to the new push of fan interaction.

Real-money conversion as end goal

Operators see free-to-play games as an ideal way to find consumers who want to bet. But for league and team partners, they don’t want to push too hard.

“We think sports betting should be a pull vs. push,” said Scott Kaufman-Ross, NBA SVP and head of fantasy and gaming. “Fans have it at their disposal if they’re interested, but we don’t want to push if they’re not. Free-to-play gives a mechanism to opt-in, raise their hands that they’re interested in predictive gaming.”

BetMGM head of partnerships Kyle Wachtel said lead generation is important but free-to-play games remain a valuable tool for engaging existing users.

“Once you enter a new market, it’s a bit of a race to get them to try you,” Wachtel said. “But having other tools lined up for existing users to engage hopefully lines up well with retention and reactivation.”

Free-to-play games as engagement push

Second-screen experiences are more important than ever for sports entities to offer as more fans watch a game with a phone in hand.

Since 2014, the NBA has called FanDuel its official fantasy sports partner. In 2016, the league offered its first real-time, free-to-play fantasy game, building into a pick ‘em game in spring 2018.

Now the league offers an “ecosystem” of different free-to-play games, including:

  • Weekly6 — pick the winner of six games each week
  • Primetime Picks — answer 10 questions each night
  • Trivia — questions about teams, players and matchups
  • Draft Challenge
  • Playoffs Bracket Challenge

“We see free-to-play as a way to engage with our fans,” Kaufman-Ross said. “We’ve been pleased with the engagement we’ve seen around them and encouraged by the volume, how many and how often the fans are coming back to play. It’s clear it’s a product fans want to engage with.”

Wacthel echoed those sentiments about BetMGM’s endeavors with MLB and MLS.

Building sponsorship opportunities out of free-to-play

Fox Bet has built out an expansive free-to-play platform called Super 6. With a user base of 4.5 million — and 90 million contest entries — Super 6 is a driver for real-money conversion for the operator.

Beyond that main goal, the Super 6 platform has helped expand sponsorship opportunities. During the 2020 NFL season, Fox Bet and Fox Corp. offered a prize with Ford, a signature sponsor of Fox NFL Sunday.

The platform also offers Fox Bet the ability to teach new users how the games work and even offer action it can’t with real money, Fox Bet CMO Andrew Schneider said.

Reaching into new audiences

Offering news and entertainment prediction games — around the Presidential debates and election or The Masked Singer, for example — allows the platform to stretch into new audiences and broadening the overall user database.

“We’ve proven that Super 6 is an engaging complement to live events and enhances the live viewing experience. While we lead with sports, the success we saw in utilizing the platform for non-sports live events this past fall was remarkable and speaks to the appetite of our users as well as the versatility of Super 6.

The NBA also has found value in the pick‘em games, like giving FanDuel the presenting partnership on Primetime Picks.

“It’s a very valuable sponsorship asset,” Kaufman-Ross said. “It’s a valuable piece of inventory that sponsors want to attach their names to.”

Watchel said sports partners find value in the database information. Both parties also know other brands see the users as an attractive demographic.

The team point of view on free-to-play games

Teams across the US are rolling out free-to-play games as part of their partnerships with sportsbook operators. The Denver Broncos might be the most bullish on the offerings.

All within the Broncos 365 app, the team has games with all three of its official sportsbook partners: BetFred, FanDuel and BetMGM.

A major piece of the offerings is helping educate fans, said Brady Kellogg, Broncos SVP of corporate partnerships. He said the Broncos found a big chunk of fans intrigued by sports betting but intimidated.

“It’s a novel introduction to a legal concept,” Kellogg said. “It’s a risk-free environment: if they win, they win. If they lose, they don’t lose.”

Free-to-play games were in the strategies of every operator with whom the Broncos talked, Kellogg said. It became important to structure the deals for all to include free-to-play, plus it offers their fans more chances to win.

“Enabling the strategy of the three partners is the primary goal,” Kellogg said. “Secondarily, any time you have an offering that correlates with increased engagement, that’s something teams should be doing.”

Easy first database of users

The most beneficial use for operators right now is the database building in states yet to legalize sports betting.

For operators like Fox Bet and PointsBet, their partnerships with national broadcast companies allow for huge market penetration with their free-to-play offerings.

While PointsBet was able to generate local awareness in Colorado ahead of its launch in the market, it can’t do the same major partnerships or locate its headquarters in every state.

So its partnership with NBC and the free-to-play game they offer in concert can help compete with the DFS operators that have worked hard the past seven years to become national brands, said Patrick Eichner, PointsBet director of communications.

For Fox Bet, the rollout in a state like Michigan was much smoother with a database of interested users than its pre-Super 6 launches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

BetMGM’s push into eater-tainment

BetMGM is using its offerings with entertainment venues like Buffalo Wild Wings and Top Golf to expand its user database. The Buffalo Wild Wings partnership now actually allows in-app bets in Colorado, New Jersey, Indiana, Iowa, Tennessee and West Virginia.

There’s even an in-bar channel called OT Odds Powered by BetMGM. The FTP Picks and Props game available across the US now includes parlay-style gameplay. More than 500,000 users have played the BWW and BetMGM free-to-play offerings.

“As sports betting continues to grow throughout the country, we look forward to further expanding our footprint in the space and activating our partnership with BetMGM in ways that make the experience at our sports bars second to none,” Buffalo Wild Wings CMO Rita Patel said.

Free-to-play games moving forward

All parties LSR spoke to find great value in free-to-play, even beyond the push to convert to real money bettors. Yet all also declined to give conversion percentages.

Watchel said he wishes free-to-play was as simple as just getting email addresses and transitioning them to real money bets. Instead, it’s a lot of trial and error, a place to test new products, and a way to be nimble for partners.

“Success is varied across the board,” Watchel said. “First and foremost the goal is to build a tool that is engaging and fun for fans. The first thing is to participate, hundreds of thousands of users across the games. Ultimately we want folks to have fun and engage, within that the hope is to encourage to try real money products. But there is value in just having a bunch of sports fans engage in the products.”

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Pat Evans

Pat Evans is a Las Vegas-based reporter covering sports business. Evans previously worked at Front Office Sports and the Grand Rapids Business Journal. He has authored two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer.

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