How Caesars became masters of their own fate

At a certain age and life stage, you start thinking of birthdays less in terms of your own progress and more in terms of the people around you. So while I will enjoy my flourless chocolate cake with raspberries tonight (my wife Denise bakes a mean anything), it is a book that arrived yesterday from Amazon that has my attention this morning.

It’s not a Florida mystery that I’ve rediscovered. Or yet another baseball tome. Or one of the many “99 Must Reads” that I haven’t gotten to yet.

It’s the US News Best Colleges guide. How did we get from AA Milne to this already?

This week’s SBJ Brand Innovation Summit in Chicago included a presentation from Caesars Sports CMO Sharon Otterman outlining how the company rebranded the William Hill sportsbook and launched it behind a hard-to-miss national ad campaign in only 99 days.

You couldn’t miss Caesars’ long-awaited, full-throated arrival — but it’s easy to forget how quickly the company had to execute, hand-cuffed first by complications from the largest merger ever between US casino companies, and then by UK acquisition rules that forced it to keep its distance from William Hill for the nearly seven months it took to close that transaction.

When the dust settled, football season was less than four months away.

As a recurring marker to count down the days, Otterman included the familiar beep of the countdown from the Kiefer Sutherland-fronted Fox show “24.”

“I used to love that clock, until my heart felt like this for the 99 days,” Otterman said. “As the CMO of a brand-new division in a company that was just acquired, that was how we felt during the entire time.”

The presentation took the audience step-by-step through Caesars’ approach and timeline, highlighting key decisions the company made as it completed the acquisition of William Hill at the end of April of last year, with football season a shade more than three months away . FanDuel and DraftKings combined for about 60% of US market share, while Caesars had only 2% unaided brand awareness as a sportsbook. “We had entrenched competition, nobody knew who we were, and we had 90 days,” Otterman said.

Otterman walked attendees through the rapid ramp up for Caesars Sportsbook

One of the more interesting stories Otterman shared outlined the hiring of ad agency Ten6, which won the business by an uncommon approach to its slot in an eight-hour pitch that Caesars hosted in DC upstairs from its then freshly rebranded retail sportsbook at Capital One Center.

Headed by Spence Kramer, whose prior stops included JWT Atlanta, ESPN and unlike Wieden+Kennedy (on the Nike and Coca-Cola accounts), Ten6 won the business with a pitch any Otterman had seen before, showing up with the production company it would work with if it got the job. “It was a bold, bold move, not to just come with a concept, but to come with a production company,” Otterman said, “and to be there to say we not only will create the great concept for you — but we ‘re ready to bring it to life.’

With only 67 days left before the Aug. 2 launch date, Ten6 established that it was ready to get to work. “With most agencies I’ve worked with, it takes more than 99 days to even get through procurement,” Otterman said, “much less get an agency on, get them onboarded and having a clear concept and opportunity.”

The risk-free offer is de rigueur for any sportsbook that expects considerations in the hyper-competitive US market. Caesars had one, as William Hill did before it. But, with the NFL season approaching, it managed to tie it back to brand positioning in a way that few have, rewarding bettors who wagered $100 or more on NFL games $150 to spend on a jersey at the NFL online shop.

The sportsbook offered attention-grabbing risk-free bets of up to $5,000 in some states, but the jersey offer set it apart for the many bettors whose first-time deposits would be far lower than that. “From a promo standpoint, the business is very much about risk-free $500,” Otterman said. “Bet this, get this. We did that because you have to do that in this space. But we also know you have to start the NFL season with a jersey. So our promos were about winning the heart. We would say bet $100 and get an NFL jersey, because that was on brand for us to do.”

The promo connected to Caesars brand positioning as a sportsbook for the people — in this case, the fans. The root of that positioning traced back to surveys of sports bettors that the company did while seeking a differentiator. “One of the things that shocked us the most is that most sports bettors felt unappreciated and unrecognized,” Otterman said. “Coming from Caesars Entertainment, a hospitality company, that felt unheard of to us. But customers felt it was transactional. I put my money in. I take my money out. It felt more like a bank than it did a fun, entertainment experience.”

Nearly one year after taking affiliate marketing company Gambling.com Group public on Nasdaq via an IPO, founder Charles Gillespie sat on the patio of a Charlotte coffee shop, considering the ebbs and flows of what has been a tumultuous year for many stocks tied to US sports betting.

“What has become clear to me is the incredible disconnect between the stock market and the reality of the actual underlying business,” said Gillespie, whose company began trading last July at $8/share and rose to as high as $15 before settling in closer to its IPO, trading at $9 at the close of business on Thursday. “The business is way, way, way ahead of where it was at the time of the IPO. We’ve done two fantastic acquisitions. Our underlying business has grown like a weed. We’re delivering big time on all our plans. And yet the share price is pretty much where it was when we IPO’d.

“Considering the overwhelming number of IPOs from last year that are below their share price and what has gone on with some other stocks [in the sector]I’m grateful that we’ve fared relatively well compared to many.”

Gambling.com’s business is affiliate marketing, which is operating websites optimized to land those who search the web for the best way to place a bet on a game or visit an online casino. When those searchers follow a link from one of the company’s many URLs to a sportsbook, Gambling.com collects a commission — frequently $250 to $500 for each customer who signs up. Deals vary widely, with commissions based on the likely, or sometimes realized, value of the player.

“I would argue that what they pay to us is their highest ROI investment of anything they could possibly do, because it’s fully tracked and they wouldn’t do it unless it was ROI positive,” Gillespie said. “What is expensive is radio and TV. What we do is not expensive. They pay a lot of money for it, but that’s because they get a lot of value for it.”

Gambling.com Group sites delivered 67,000 new depositing customers to sportsbooks in the first quarter of the year, a company record that doubled the same quarter from a year ago. Revenue increased to $19.6 million for Q1, up 70% from the same period in 2021, with North America delivering $10.6 million of that, up from $1.7 million.

Last year’s $27.5 million purchase of well-known fantasy news site Rotowire added “an incredibly powerful SEO asset,” Gillespie said. Staff has grown to about 300, with about one-third in the US, where it has offices in Charlotte and Madison, Wis. It expects to join the small-cap Russell 2000 Index of US stocks later this month.

“A lot of investors ask — who is going to be the winner? Who is going to win the US market,” said Gillespie, who is from Charlotte and now splits his time between offices in Dublin and Monaco, where he now lives. “Well, no one will win. It’s going to be highly fragmented. If you want exposure to this space, without having to pick a winner, we offer this very elegant way to get exposure to the secular growth of this sector without the risk of blowing it and not picking the leader. That has very much resonated for our business.”

Gambling.com had its IPO on Nasdaq at this time last year

The first states to report results from May showed the expected downward trend that comes as summer approaches and the betting menu slims. Handle totals in New Jersey and Iowa both were down 17% from April while Pennsylvania ($493.4 million) and Indiana ($308.4 million) were down 14%. New York ($1.27 billion) was down 9%; Oregon ($41.7 million) down 3%.

There was an unexpected turn, though, in New Jersey. As handle has fallen off from March to April and then to May, states all have continued to better their performance of the same month in 2021. Iowa was up 29% vs. May 2021. Indiana was up 21% against last year; Pennsylvania up 10%.

But New Jersey not only dropped when compared to last month — its May handle was down 6% from that month last year.

While that could be taken as indication of a slowing of what has been wildfire growth in the state, a closer look that it might be more specific to the betting menu. Baseball betting was up 4% to $193 million. And $1.8 million in spring football betting created something from nothing, fueled by a relaunch of the USFL.

But basketball betting — which in May is almost entirely the NBA – was down 13%. While New Yorkers’ newfound ability to wager from their couches could have played a role, It’s more likely that the home teams — or their absence — were to blame. The Knicks missed the playoffs this year and the Nets were swept by Boston in the first round. Last season, the Knicks made the playoffs and the Nets won their first-round series.

  • Streaming service FuboTV will launch free-to-play pick ’em contests integrated into the platform’s home screen this weekend, setting the stage for what it describes as a single-screen experience that will allow fans in legalized states to bet on the games that they are watching.
  • BetMGM has a new deal with Carnival for sports betting and iGaming experiences on more than 50 cruise ships ported in the US spanning Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America and Princess Cruises. BetMGM’s platform will roll out in phases over the coming months.
  • Fan engagement platform Tally Technology has closed a $4 million seed funding round led by Acies Investments, reports my colleague Chris Smith. Tally, co-founded in 2018 by Russell Wilson, offers free-to-play predictive games and with sports properties to gather fan partner participant data and insights.

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