September 14, 2021 Interview

On the Up and Up

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Dr. Laila Mintas is the brains behind PlayUp’s expansion into the US market, where the Australian-based technology company plans to use its Down Under experience and product innovation to deliver an all-in-one app.

PlayUp US CEO Dr. Laila Mintas likes to joke that she made a mistake by writing her legal PhD on internet gambling with a focus on fixed odds sports betting. As a grad student at the University of Berlin in the mid-2000s, her decision to expend intellectual energy on an emerging form of gambling probably didn’t endear her to the ivory tower types. It did, however, garner plenty of popularity outside the campus halls. Mintas’ German language thesis was turned into a book soon being read by the European gaming elite, including members of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). After a few years working as an attorney and law professor, Mintas joined FIFA in 2012 to run their sports integrity unit, and later took on a similar position for soccer association CONCACAF. 

Looking back, her decision to write the book on online sports betting and fixed odds ultimately “brought me here today” to PlayUp, the Australian-based technology company entering the US sports betting space. Along the way, Mintas picked up valuable experience investing into betting platform Bet.Works and served as deputy president at Sportradar US, where she developed key relationships with regulators.

Mintas moved to PlayUp during July 2020 right as global sports were beginning to return from a months-long pause caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and quickly came to appreciate the company’s tech-driven focus. Within two weeks of the stoppage of traditional sports, PlayUp’s team had developed horse racing fantasy sports and esports to provide content to customers.

“The team in Australia did a very good job in turning around very quickly and getting some products out into the market, and since then, our revenues have been increasing,” Mintas says. “We’ve had the best results ever since Covid. It’s kind of ironic to say that, but we really benefit from that online business and the shift to online rather than retail.”

Since 2015, PlayUp has been Australia’s leading daily fantasy sports provider. The company also offers esports betting and fixed-odds horse racing. For years PlayUp had ambitions to expand to the US market. As business picked up in Australia, PlayUp was better equipped to secure capital for its expansion, and by November 2020, the company had raised approximately $25m and gained market access for sports betting in Colorado and New Jersey. Mintas’ experience dealing with the wide variance of US regulations by state made her a natural fit to lead the company’s American expansion. Australia, Mintas says, is itself a highly regulated market, which lends valuable expertise for the PlayUp staff.

“We cannot copy and paste what we have done in Australia,” Mintas says, “But we use the learnings and experiences of having worked in a very regulated market just like the US for a long time, having our own risk and trading team in house that does US sports to a big percentage. So what I always find very exciting and very interesting is that Australians love US sports.”

PlayUp launched its mobile sports betting app in Colorado in March through a 10-year contract with Bull Durham in Black Hawk. In June, the company announced a trio of market access partnerships with Caesars Entertainment that will lead to sports betting in Indiana and Iowa, and igaming in New Jersey. PlayUp also obtained New Jersey online sports betting licensure via a separate deal with Freehold Racetrack. So Mintas bills PlayUp’s online platform as a one-stop shop.

“What we want to offer for example in New Jersey, where we’ll have sports betting soon as well as igaming and fixed-odds horse racing, is we want to come into the market with one single app that has also one wallet,” Mintas says. “So the user doesn’t have to re-download apps when they’re traveling into other states where they live. They’re just using the same app. They don’t have to put their bank information again in the app and all of that hassle. So it’s really making that a more seamless and user friendly experience.”

Fixed-odds horse racing is still a mostly foreign concept in the US, where wagering on horses is traditionally parimutuel. Under fixed-odds, a bettor can place a wager on a horse at 10-1 and be assured they’ll receive those odds upon the start of the race. Parimutuel, on the other hand, allows for last minute odds changes that can drop a 10-1 horse to 3-1, leaving bettors feeling short-changed when they go to cash in their ticket. In June, New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill that legalized  fixed-odds horse racing and they were implemented at some New Jersey locations this summer.

“There are a lot of conversations that we are involved in because we have that Australian experience where fixed-odds on horse racing is a big percentage of our revenues and of our business,” Mintas says. “And now, seeing that become legalized in the US, step by step, is a great movement.”

Fixed-odds is just one ingredient for PlayUp to use to its advantage as it looks to carve a name in the ever-competitive New Jersey market. Mintas calls user experience the “secret sauce” behind PlayUp’s platform.

“Our biggest advantage is that we’re focusing on technology, so we see ourselves as a technology company that’s in the sports betting and entertainment space,” she says. “User experience is still very fragmented if you look at the other operators that are out there. I think the tech will be a great differentiator apart from obviously having a great product out there.”

Another differentiator is PlayUp’s in-house risk and trading team. Though the group is based in Australia, they’re used to providing US sports odds because of the popularity of basketball and football back home.

Additionally, PlayUp’s Australian-based leadership team is well respected for creating the country’s first fantasy platform where customers have to pay to play. Mintas is confident in the team’s product development innovation as PlayUp enters its next chapter.

“I’m always saying that a leader alone cannot win a war,” she says. “You need a team behind you, and I’m very proud of my US team that I’ve been able to put together step by step over the last year. We have a lot of experienced and hungry employees who want to be on the forefront, and want to achieve something. We don’t want to copy what’s out there. We want to improve what you see from a user experience, but there’s a lot of improvement that still needs to happen in the US.”

Amid all the excitement surrounding the US launch, Mintas takes a grounded approach when thinking about PlayUp’s future in the American sports betting and igaming space. She’s seen too many companies fall prey to short-sighted goals and impatient ambitions, only to miss out on the long-term gains. For PlayUp to reach its full potential in the US, Mintas knows it will take plenty of patience and persistence.

“I know people say we’re three years in and they feel like everything is set in stone. I see it totally different,” Mintas says. “Think of the Blackberries and Nokias and where they all are today. It’s still a very early journey and early market in the US, so we want to play an important role over time and I’m sure we’ll get there.”

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