The rise of sports betting in the US has not taken a route that has matched that of its European counterpart. In mature markets such as Europe, the big betting brands have been just that – sportsbooks. The media has indeed expressed interest, the likes of Sky Bet leading the pack in this regard. But in the US, market share domination has come from somewhere much different from that of Europe: daily fantasy sports (DFS).
Fanatics, a sports merchandiser now looking to enter the sports betting arena, knows the sports teams favored by its customers, the players customers like printed on their jerseys and even where its customers live.
A UNIQUE POSITION
DFS was already a huge market in the US and, when companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel took the sports betting plunge, they were perfectly positioned to do so. They already had their core target on board, and knew players’ favorite sports, teams and stars. The result? FanDuel and DraftKings both took a lead in all regulated US markets – FanDuel in particular is now starting to stretch ahead of the competition. It was the extensive insight DFS operators had on their existing customer base that allowed them to get ahead of the competition, giving customers personalized offerings and exclusive bets.
It’s in this regard that another much-anticipated market entrant can take a similar advantage. Fanatics, a sports merchandiser now looking to enter the sports betting arena, knows the sports teams favored by its customers, the players customers like printed on their jerseys and even where its customers live. It already has an ‘in’ with push notifications – with customers already signed up via email.
So when speculation began that Fanatics had its eye on sports wagering, the metrics for success given to DFS operators could naturally also apply to the merchandiser. Speaking to our sister publication Gambling Insider in 2022, BestOdds Co-Founder Will Armitage said: “If you were a major, well-funded, unlisted sportsbook, I think you'd have a very exciting journey in US markets. That`s where a brand like Fanatics would be very interesting, for a merger perhaps. They've got the brands and there's a lot of excitement around that. Ultimately, when you look at the industry as a whole, it’s the same process of choosing a bet, placing a bet and either you win or you lose.”
However, Armitage did note that Fanatics may face challenges DFS operators don’t have: “The question around Fanatics is whether it can transfer its social media followers into bettors. Because it's a further gap between saying 'I love you on social' and 'I'm going to place a bet with you on Broncos vs Seahawks.' For fantasy sports, FanDuel and DraftKings, it`s easier to close that gap: if people are going to compete in fantasy sports, betting is just a small additional step.”
SLOW OFF THE MARK
The path was first paved for Fanatics to enter the sports betting field when CEO Michael Rubin announced he would be selling his 10% stake in Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment, owner of the Philadelphia 49ers and the New Jersey Devils. However slight, NBA rules prohibit franchise owners from running sports betting operations. Given this initial hurdle, Fanatics wanted to add another, as predicted by Armitage, by acquiring a sports betting company to provide it with the solutions needed to run a successful book before its online launch. This saw the would-be operator enter talks to acquire Tipico in the summer of 2022.
Despite this seeming an inevitability, given Fanatics’ track record of acquisitions with the likes of trading cards company Topps and sports merchandise manufacturer WinCraft, the Tipico deal failed to materialize. This followed its trademark applications winning approval to do business in Maryland but failing to land a license for operations in New York. In fact, Fanatics Sportsbook has now, as of February 2023, begun launching in key US states except New York.
Although things seemed to slow down after a period of attempted acquisitions and license submission, the operator did continue to onboard new staff. Having already appointed Lydia Jett and Jonathan Mildenhall to its Board of Directors in early 2022, and hiring Matt King as its CEO, Fanatics Betting & Gaming continued its onboarding spree by appointing Jason White as its CMO in September 2022. White’s approach to his new position was quite unique, too, announcing plans to collaborate with market leaders from various industries. A man in the same position at Airbnb, Mildenhall, is also a board member of Fanatics – making collaboration between the bed & breakfast giant and Fanatics an easy and unique prospect.
Such partnerships, and the Fanatics database of 90 million sports fans, are what White feels will give the merchandiser an advantage in the online sportsbook market, eventually rivaling US giants FanDuel and DraftKings. As noted by White, attempting acquisitions and onboarding staff was Fanatics’ way of “building the brand and business at the same time.” The Fanatics team grew further in October 2022, when Andrea Ellis was named CFO. Having varied experiences, Ellis joined the group following two years as CFO of electric scooter and bike share company Lime, and various positions at Restaurant Brands International. She was joined just over a week later by Orlando Ashford, who took the position of Chief People Officer. Coming from three decades of C-suite experience in executive and talent management, organization development and human resources, Ashford now leads Fanatics’ HR, culture, and talent strategy. Not only does he work across Betting & Gaming, but also in Fanatics’ Commerce and Collectibles business arms.
With a team firmly in place by the end of 2022, it remained unclear if Fanatics would make another acquisition attempt before its launches got underway in 2023. With near radio silence coming out of Fanatics in the first week of January, the company then launched its first betting operation inside the Washington Commander stadium. This marked the company’s formal entry into Virginia, as well as the retail scene. At the time, Fanatics Betting and Gaming’s Chief Business Officer said: “We are rolling out our platform first at retail and we will have more exciting news to share in the coming months, as we bring to market new mobile technology designed to improve the betting experience for sports fans.” The launch was also significant, as Fanatics' first retail location is the first to ever open inside an NFL stadium.
However, observers didn’t have to wait long as reports emerged that Fanatics was in talks to acquire sportsbook platform BetParx, the same day it launched with the Washington Commanders, in fact. This was the claxon moment, as it were, when Fanatics Betting & Gaming really came to life. Although further details of Fanatics’ acquisition of BetParx have been sparse, it seems this potential deal is one Fanatics needs to get over the line if it is to launch online operations on schedule.
Any hold-ups in its acquisition of an online platform to support sports betting haven’t stopped it from advancing its attempts to get its sports betting operations off the ground, though, joining the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) days after its Washington Commanders launch. Fanatics Betting & Gaming joins more than 45 companies and over 100 sports betting brands at the IBIA. Its SVP of Trading Andrew Wright said: “Partnering with the IBIA is an important step in providing our customers with a secure trading environment as we begin to roll out our sports betting platform in 2023.” There’s no going back from here, it seems, for Fanatics' wagering arm.
The push from Fanatics to date to get its sports betting operations up and running has helped it raise the value of the wider company to a staggering $31bn, following $700m worth of investment in bolstering its gambling arm, as well as other segments of its business. A calculated growth from Ruben’s initial announcement in 2020, the journey to launch Fanatics Betting & Gaming even saw it sign up with Jay-Z in 2021 – 99 problems but, clearly, a brand ambassador isn't one... This flurry of announcements at the start of 2023 shows the company will be accelerating the launch of sports betting sooner rather than later; so the question that remains is how will Fanatics fare, and what will we be saying about it this time next year?
This flurry of announcements at the start of 2023 shows the company will be accelerating the launch of sports betting sooner rather than later.
A lot goes back to what Armitage said about Fanatics’ ability to turn its customers into sports bettors and how the brand goes about targetting its market. The success of this will indeed become apparent in the coming months. While prospects for Fanatics’ success appear high, whether or not it will be able to eclipse the likes of FanDuel and DraftKings is another matter. In a market dominated by a select few operators, not only will Fanatics’ ability to turn its customer base into bettors be vital, but so too will its ability to poach customers from other big-hitting operators. So can a merchandiser successfully transition into a leading sports betting operator? Fanatics' results will provide the acid test here.