June 5, 2019 Sports Betting, Conference

From the top: Are CEO clashes a good thing?

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Following a frank exchange between DraftKings CEO Jason Robins and William Hill US CEO Joe Asher at a sports betting panel, Tim Poole wants to see this kind of approach more often

In 1984, British pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood released “Two Tribes.”  The song was a massive hit, topping the UK charts for nine weeks in a row and breaking into the top 10 in 12 other countries. Equally memorable however, was the song’s video, in which suit-wearing politicians from the US and Soviet Union fought it out in front of a baying audience.

Now, we’re not quite comparing this satirical fight with the recent exchange between DraftKings CEO Jason Robins and William Hill US CEO Joe Asher. For starters, Robins vs. Asher saw verbal sparring which didn’t involve bloody collars or sand being kicked in people’s faces. But there was something about two formally-dressed, high-ranking individuals facing off in public that stirred memories of the creative 80s record.

More generally, it was refreshing to see Robins and Asher provide such executive directness at a trade show.

Every gaming industry regular has been to a trade show conference and knows how they can unfold. A simple formula enhances any panel discussion; the more a speaker is willing to say, the more emotion they are willing to display, the better the conference will turn out. That’s why audience members at the American Gaming Association’s (AGA) Sports Betting Executive Summit hit the jackpot back in March.

During a panel on the expansion of sports betting – moderated by Darren Rovell, Senior Executive Producer at The Action Network, and also including Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin – Robins and Asher put all pretence aside. The duo have a history of disagreeing with one another, dating back to a 2016 hearing in Nevada, where Asher testified that daily fantasy sports should be considered gambling. That move significantly dented DraftKings’ position in the Silver State and it’s something Robins hasn’t forgotten.

“Part of what’s caused a lack of innovation, lack of opportunity, in the gaming industry has been infighting,” Robins told the panel. "You asked me about Nevada; I said it was a tricky state because of guys like Joe running around telling people we’re bad and need to be shut out.

"Either way, 19 other states are for it. The point is, Joe, that’s not really your motivation. Your motivation is you don’t want us to compete with you, which is totally understandable. I get it; you’re not able to keep up with us. That’s the problem with the industry: people like you.”

On social media, there is even a video available of the pair in the heat of battle. It certainly isn’t the Ronald Reagan vs. Konstantin Chernenko exchange in Two Tribes, but it does verify the severity of the dispute. Robins and Asher were in direct opposition and, while maintaining overall control and professionalism, didn’t fail to make their respective feelings perfectly clear.

You can tell it’s a matter close to Robins’ heart, as the entrepreneur is usually a sea of reserved calm within the trade show setting.  When Gaming America spoke to the DraftKings CEO at ICE London, for instance, he was the epitome of quiet composure,
just as he always is when presenting on stage. Here, by contrast, he was alive with grit and emotion, demonstrating something it would be great to see far more of; especially when it’s the top brass of the industry gathering for discussion.

The confrontation raises the issue of DraftKings and FanDuel taking on the rest of the market – or rather the rest of the market taking on them. The topic was already discussed at a National Indian Gaming Association panel in April, when Gaming America asked if the rest of the market can keep up with the DFS-come-sports betting giants.

The pick of the responses came from Neale Deeley, VP Sales, Gaming at Sportradar: "They're capable organizations, but they're not unbeatable. Who is, right? It's about picking the right partners to make yourselves successful." So far though, no one else has proved they can come close to beating either.

It is early days, but you can’t help admiring the conviction shown by Robins when representing his brand on the show floor. The AGA, which hosted the conference, is keen on the industry pulling together and showing a united front. But it won’t necessarily be complaining about this episode any time soon.

Friction causes fire. Nothing but good can come of honest exchanges like this one and, more besides, it’s the issue of infighting Robins was actually addressing – exactly what the AGA will want to eradicate most.

That however, is not the main benefit of two high-profile CEOs being so forthright. In a corporate world where a pin drop can be heard at most business events, Robins vs. Asher made for a welcome change of pace.

With so many trade shows now on the gaming calendar, which of the conferences you’ve attended in the last year can you actually remember? A handful will probably come to mind: there exists some undeniably excellent analysis across the board. Equally, you won’t even remember the name of some conferences you sat the whole way through, let alone the content.

Now imagine those in the audience during Robins’ dialogue with Asher. That panel won’t be forgotten in the near future and is newsworthy enough to make an impression on readers who weren’t actually there – regardless of what industry those readers work in.

There will be very few occasions when a group of top-tier gaming executives fully agree on a contentious issue. Is corporate social responsibility important? Of course. Is money laundering a major threat to the industry? Obviously. But is esports betting really going to overtake traditional sports wagering one day? Are crypto-currencies really going mainstream? Has the regulation of US sports betting really progressed as quickly as people expected?

From Jim Murren at MGM Resorts International to Caesars Entertainment’s new CEO Anthony Rodio, every big player in the industry will have a different opinion to express. That’s just how the human brain works. It’s up to those big players to actually express it though, as Robins and Asher did – triumphantly – and risk any fallout that expression may bring.

Robins, arguably the aggressor of the two, will be helped by the fact DraftKings is not a publicly-traded company. But, while not wasting an executive’s media training and trying not to affect a company’s share price is one thing, is saying nothing of real value simply wasting an opportunity to put your strongest foot forward?

Ultimately, Robins’ disagreement with Asher was the best possible fuel for a genuine discussion on how the sports wagering industry can most effectively move forward. Any personal or brand rivalry, if channelled correctly, can only help the sector advance in the US. The panel took place in March but will remain relevant at G2E in October. By October 2020, that won’t have changed.

The direct approach is one which bucks monotonous trends, entertains audience members and provokes positive thought.

Let’s have more of it.

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