'The next big thing': Agencies place big bets on sports gambling

It's not just for Vegas anymore. PR firms are rolling out sports gambling practices as casinos and betting apps ink deals with pro sports leagues.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

With eight states and counting having legalized sports gambling, PR agency leaders are also making bets that this new marketplace will be big business.

While states are anticipating betting could be a boon for their tax rolls, PR firms say they could enjoy a lucrative windfall, too. Some are focusing on taking sports gambling out of the shadows and legitimizing it, as well as integrating betting into the sports-watching experience for fans.

"We are doing outreach from a business-development standpoint to identify opportunities and start working with clients," says Shawn McBride, EVP for sports at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment. "This industry is emerging right before our eyes. It is the next big thing in terms of sports business and for teams and brands to engage with sports fans."

New Jersey-based MWWPR is working closely with clients "to capitalize on this seismic landscape shift," says Joe Flores, co-head of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice.

"Before [the Supreme Court decision in May to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act] and the legalization of sports betting in several states, wagering on sports carried a fairly strong stigma as a vice you’d only engage in either illegally or while in Las Vegas," he explains. "PR firms can help companies like MGM, DraftKings, and our client partner FanDuel eliminate that stigma and educate and excite U.S. fans about this new way of experiencing live sports."

5WPR launched a specialized practice focused on gaming and sports gambling in May. CEO Ronn Torossian says the agency has worked on behalf of resort casinos and offshore gaming companies, but declined to name clients. He adds that all of the work 5WPR has picked up has been through referrals.

"We’ve done celebrity integrations; integrated marketing programs with giveaways, promotions, and partnerships; and see a lot of opportunity for creative digital campaigns," says Torossian. "Our people love working with these companies. They are led by smart, fun, and interesting characters."

"They are willing to take more chances than established brands," he adds.

The forays into sports gambling coincide with months of movement by casinos, professional sports leagues, data companies, and startups since the High Court struck down PASPA in May, freeing states to make their own decisions about sports betting. Since 1992, the law had prohibited sports betting in every state but Nevada.

Seeing it as a new source of revenue and job creation, states have moved quickly on legislation, likely also recognizing a new public acceptance of sports gambling. Most Americans said they support legalized sports betting for the first time in a survey last year by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

The seven states that have joined Nevada in legalizing the practice since May are Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and, most recently, Rhode Island. Others including California and Missouri, as well as Washington, D.C., are expected to follow suit.

Casinos and professional sports leagues are also getting in on the action. MGM Resorts had already secured deals to be an official gambling sponsor of the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association when it inked a third this week with Major League Baseball. These contracts give MGM Resorts access to real-time, verified game data, but they’re non-exclusive, meaning the leagues can also sell their information to other sports betting operators.

The National Football League is the lone major U.S. sports league without such a deal, but likely not for long. In Nevada, betting operators made more money on football than any other sport in 2017 with a record $1.7 billion wagered on professional and college football.

FanDuel, one of the country’s largest providers of daily fantasy sports games, inked a deal with the NHL in early November and its New Jersey Devils franchise for sports betting. It will offer betting both online and at bricks-and-mortar sportsbooks. Like MGM, FanDuel secures access to the NHL’s real-time data.

Flores says a key area of focus for FanDuel is the delivery of expert and educational content. The company has launched sports betting programs, The Barstool Sport Advisors and More Ways To Win, on its horse racing network and app TVG. Both programs feature analysts breaking down sports betting terminology and handicapping NFL matches.

The betting content wave has also extended to cable networks. Fox Sports and ESPN have debuted similar content with Lock It In and I’ll Take That Bet in partnership with The Action Network.  

As programs proliferate on TV, streaming services, and online, Flores expects "more and more news outlets and journalists will be covering and handicapping sports." In terms of social media activity, he anticipates sports betting brands to encourage and incentive fans to share "who, what, and where they’re betting, bragging about what they won or commiserating about what they lost." This type of content is important for SEO and because sports betting is expected to be done online and by a younger, more heavily male demographic than the average casino customer.

However, Flores cautions that responsible gambling messages are "paramount" to growing the sector. FanDuel, for instance, helps users manage gaming activity with wager limits and options to exclude themselves from gaming for a certain period of time.

"At the end of the day, sports betting is still gambling," he notes. "So we work closely with FanDuel to be proactive in reinforcing the importance of responsible gaming."

Responsible gambling has also been a key message from MGM Resorts and major sports leagues. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, said in a statement that "our partnership with MGM will help us navigate this evolving space responsibly."

What the market could look like
PR pros point across the pond when asked what the sports betting market could eventually look like in the U.S. Legalized in the early 1960s, sports gambling in the U.K. rapidly accelerated in the early 2000s with the advent of online betting. Brits wagered nearly $20 billion in the year ending March 2017, according to the country’s gambling commission.

"The popularity of betting in the U.K. has grown hugely over the past two decades, so much so that it now forms a key part of everyday conversation, whether that’s a group of friends in a bar or presenters and pundits discussing an upcoming game," says Ben Cleminson, director of Square in the Air, ranked by PRWeek as one of Britain’s fastest-growing comms firms in 2018. "You have a much larger potential customer base in sports betting than you do in casino or poker."

Given the U.K. audience is already well-educated about sports betting, he says the most successful betting companies create funny, relevant, and engaging content, and have also been legitimized through partnerships with leagues, competitions, clubs, and influencers in the space. Betting has become so intertwined with U.K. sports that more than half of teams in the top two division of English soccer have jersey sponsorships from gambling companies.

If the U.S. gambling market evolves similarly to its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, it could mean a challenge for brands that have traditionally sponsored sporting events and teams.

"Traditional sports brands are going to have to navigate this change as well, because their logos could be right next to sports betting companies at, for instance, Madison Square Garden. Also, it will be interesting to see which brands choose to sponsor these new sports betting programs," says McBride. "Traditional brands will have to figure out their comfort level and how they feel about their proximity to these gambling companies reflecting on them."

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