The September launch of Sports Illustrated Sportsbook in Colorado marks the completion of a longtime goal for 888 Holdings’ senior vice president and head of US, Yaniv Sherman. Ever since he moved from his native home of Israel to the United States to work for 888, he held onto a vision of partnering the online gaming provider with SI, one of America’s iconic sports media brands. That ambition came to fruition this summer, when 888 inked a licensing deal with SI owner Authentic Brands Group (ABG). The partnership allows 888 to develop its US sportsbook platform under the SI brand and gives 888 access to the sports magazine’s print and digital readership.
Based in the British Overseas Territory Gibraltar, 888 is a well-known brand in the United Kingdom and Europe. In the US, however, few customers would immediately recognize the 888 name except for its popular poker platform. After the US Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, 888’s leaders recognized they needed to find a brand or media partner to compete in the American sports betting market.
“It’s a very effective global brand, but it’s not a local American brand,” says Sherman. “With some challenges in getting it to where it needs to be, we made a very cold, economical calculation, and we came to a realization we need to invest a lot more to get to where brands like Sports Illustrated are already in terms of brand mission and awareness.”
Three years passed between the repeal of PASPA and 888’s deal with SI. During that time, Sherman says 888 at some point had a seat at the table in every closed deal between an operator and an American brand. 888 kept its sights on SI even as negotiations were tested when ABG acquired the magazine in May 2019. But ABG’s acquisition of SI ultimately aligned with 888’s plans. The New York City-based company collects licensing fees from the hundreds of brands it owns, and positioning SI into the sports betting and online gaming space continued the magazine’s transition from a 20th-century print publication to a 21st-century digital behemoth.
“The things we were excited to see with Sports Illustrated is that ABG has done a great job with its partners like Maven [operator of SI’s print and digital assets] to digitize the brand, which means it’s driving beyond awareness; it’s driving a lot of traffic,” says Sherman. “It has a very loyal and active user and reader base, which is important to us. It served as sort of a one-stop shop of brand media distribution channel.”
The partnership gives 888 exclusive integration into SI digital and social channels. According to 888’s investor presentation, SI attracts 30 million monthly unique visitors and garners 4.05 billion annual impressions. SI readers also have a higher propensity to wager than the average consumer.
Sherman says SI Sportsbook will be intelligent with how it integrates wagering content onto the magazine’s digital assets.
“We want to make it where if you land on SI.com and you’re looking to bet, we would be your natural choice because we’re integrated into the product flow,” says Sherman. “The SI readers consume content in a large degree to bet, and they’re just betting with competitors. We want to keep that in the family.”
By partnering with SI, 888 is tapping into an older demographic than many of its competitors. Approximately two thirds of SI readers are 35 or older, and more than a quarter are 55 or older. Many SI readers are also people who grew up with the magazine, which was first printed in 1954.
“The editorial, content and betting experience will reflect the integrity and ethos that SI has maintained for more than six decades,” said Ross Levinsohn, CEO of Maven.
SI Sportsbook hopes to tap into the nostalgia associated with SI by offering throwback bets and incorporating gambling content into the print publication, which had a 1.7 million reader subscription in 2020. Sherman himself was an avid reader of the magazine while growing up in Israel. He was just as captivated by the images as the language. With SI Sportsbook, he wants to recapture the magazine’s iconic visuals by using high-quality videos.
“To be able read about the story behind the teams, behind the athletes, it basically to me was a form of literature,” says Sherman. “The visuals Sports Illustrated produced immediately trigger that reaction from my generation. We’re just trying to reenact that and also appeal to a younger demographic that knows there is such a thing as Sports Illustrated but doesn’t really know what it stands for. We’re trying to capture all these touch points with potential customers and really get the name out there leading up to our launch.”
SI is putting out a gambling-focused print magazine issue in September, the same month when SI Sportsbook will begin accepting mobile wagers in Colorado. The Centennial State was the ideal initial market for SI Sportsbook because of good GDP per capita and the presence of multiple professional and college sports teams. SI Sportsbook also has market access in New Jersey, Iowa and Indiana.
“To start with, we have a regional strategy in mind in terms of market access so we’re going to follow and execute against that,” says Sherman. “A market has to have certain commercial terms because we’re focused on return. In the near term, it’s going to be a growth market generally, but in the longer term we need to chart a course toward profitability, something I think is missing from a lot of operators’ state of mind at this point.”
From a product perspective, SI Sportsbook plans to separate itself from competitors by introducing igaming, including online poker in states where 888Poker is already live and running. Leading up to or after the event, there’s a significant window to draw customers to other games, Sherman says. One way SI Sportsbook might do this is by offering a poker tournament ticket to the tournament that starts a half hour after a football game ends, or by promoting online casino tables at halftime.
“We develop all our products in-house and we also have a very successful gaming proposition,” he says. “Gaming is highly complimenting for sports betting.”
888 is also establishing avenues for how it can turn SI Sportsbook from a primarily digital brand to one that incorporates retail experiences. The borders between retail and digital are “very blurry,” says Sherman, and it’s easier to move from digital to retail than the other way around. SI Sportsbook will likely take advantage of ABG’s existing brand assets, such as a party line and celebrity access. During high-profile events like the NCAA Tournament or Super Bowl weekend, SI Sportsbook could host physical experiences.
Whichever path SI Sportsbook chooses to follow, its successes or failures will come back to 888’s decision to fully invest its gaming platform in an established American media brand.
“We were willing to rebrand,” says Sherman. “A lot of the operators out there are looking at media deals but they want to use the brand that they came into market with, and we were really willing to rebrand 888 into SI Sportsbook.”