COVID-19 has thrown everyone in the world a curveball, not least of all live sporting events—the producers of which had no reason to expect that the future was anything but bright headed into 2020. Now that their world has been turned upside-down, major sports leagues have a sense of what they’re working with and they are determined, even confident, they can make the most of it.

Also, in a bit of encouraging news for casino operators, the leagues are both conscious of the role legal sports betting can and will play in the all-important area of fan engagement and see wagering as central to how they maximize commercial opportunities in these particular times.

Those were among the takeaways from, “After the Hiatus,” a conference session presented by SBC Digital Summit North America last month. The session was led by ESPN’s Doug Kerzirian, host of the network’s Daily Wager show. The panelist lineup was Brian Carroll, senior vice president, global media distrib ution, LPGA; Norb Gambuzza, senior vice president, media business development, PGA Tour; Scott Kaufman-Ross, vice president, head of fantasy and gaming, NBA; Steve Byrd, head of global strategic partnerships, SportRadar, a sports data firms which has partnerships with all the major sports leagues including the NBA and NASCAR; and  Tim Clark, senior vice president and chief digital officer, NASCAR. Some excerpts from the conversation follow: 


How does the NBA plan to exploit business opportunities with fans in a unique time?

KAUFMAN-ROSS: Certainly it’s going to be a unique scenario when we resume [on July 30]. We have 22 teams heading down to Orlando to play on Disney’s Wide World of Sports. It’s affectionately being called the NBA bubble. Those teams will play eight “feed-in” games which will close out the regular season. Then we will have a short “play-in” depending on what the standings look like and then we will have the playoffs that everyone is familiar with—16 teams playing best of seven series. There won’t be fans; it will be a closed campus. There are 100-plus page manuals of safety protocols that will be closely followed. The challenge for us is how to make that viewing experience unique and authentic without the fans in the building.

There’s going to be a tremendous amount experimentation and a lot of things happening in the lab right now that we’ll be announcing in the next couple of weeks. The commissioner has already announced a couple of things that we didn’t have previously, including unique camera angles. When you don’t have fans in the first couple of rows it gives you a little more freedom to have cameras in certain places. So we’ll have a little bit more access to the players and unique dynamics there. We’ll be mic’ing up the players to a greater degree; you’ll be able to hear more of what’s going on the court. We think that’s an authentic element that brings fans a little bit closer to the action. And then we’re going to be experimenting with different kinds of broadcasts; more personalized streams with overlays of statistics. That’s a lot of what’s in the lab right now—addressing how we create a different kind of experience that keeps the fan close to the game in an environment where they can’t physically be in the building.

Another interesting element of our restart that I think will be relevant for the gaming community is a unique schedule. Because all the teams are in one place, and we’re trying to get as many games in during a short period of time to quickly get to the playoffs, we’re going to have games all day, every day for the first two-and-a-half weeks. Games are going to start as early as noon and continue until midnight for the entirety of the seeding games. Our broadcast schedule is going to have a little bit of a March Madness feel to it in that there will NBA action all day long at a period where most people are home all day. We think that’s going to be a unique dynamic for fan engagement and for the fantasy and gaming community; you’re going to have a long period of time to engage fans in new ways. While we are having fewer games than we otherwise would have, there’s actually an increase in the number of live game windows because we’re going to be playing throughout the afternoon. This is a great excuse to experiment and innovate and we’re excited to see what it looks like.


 
With so many viewers at home, you can see handles increase. I talked to a couple of bookmakers last weekend and they said the PGA tour has really taken off—they’ve seen handle grow 5X, just because it is one of the few sports that has returned. Brian, you’re about two weeks out from opening up the LPGA. What kind of conversations are you having to spread the word and get the LPGA into the betting rotation? I’ve always said golf is a great sport to bet because you’ve got action on every shot.

CARROLL: That’s true. When I was first asked to join this panel I said the LPGA isn’t doing anything with betting even though we’re almost there. And the answer was yes, we want to hear from organizations at different stages of development.

We have to be careful about how we approach it. We’re partnering up with IMG Media, just like the PGA Tour and the European Tour. We told them we just want to be on the plane when it takes off. When betting starts this summer and a lot more casinos around the world has everything up and running, we want to be there. We’re starting with a smaller, less robust platform. You can bet on who’s going to win, the top five, best rounds of the day and things like that. Next year, we will start with betting hole-by-hole and a faster feed. I’m not sure, at least in the near term, that we’ll get to shot-by-shot or a really fast program. We just want to make sure that when golf fans around the world start looking for betting we’re right there and that tab includes us along with the PGA Tour and the European Tour. We think it has a lot of promise down the line but immediately we see it as a fan engagement tool. We think it will be really successful with four days of play plus Friday mornings. It’s different times of day for people to engage with a sport that is loved around the world. We think we have a lot of potential.

 

Turning to the PGA, where we’ve seen five-fold handle increases, how comfortable has the Tour been with betting and integrating it to elevate interest in the sport?

GAMBUZZA: It’s clearly an interesting time—we’re back and we’re live where some other sports are not. We’ve been producing golf tournaments for 50 years and we can do that blindfolded with two hands tied behind our back. But we have effectively deconstructed the whole model in order to just produce a golf tournament. It sounds a lot easier than it is, but it involves literally thousands of people on the ground from volunteers to caddies and players to media officials and production personnel.

In terms of betting, we have seen a massive jump in handle in everything that we look at; our daily fantasy partnership with DraftKings, volume, time spent, engagement and frequency is all moving up in a positive direction. We’ve got leadership now that is really leaning into this space more than it had in the past. We’re trying our best to capitalize on this moment where we’re back and fan engagement and consumption is really high and we’re optimistic about moving forward on an appropriately aggressive path.  


 
The sport also lends itself to the pandemic in that it’s individual in nature. The team sports have some stuff to figure out and, hopefully, the bubbles work accordingly and we’ll see about football in the fall. But if there’s someone who’s positive, whether it’s a crew member or a caddie, sports books have protocols in place. Tim, it sounds like NASCAR is in the same position as the PGA, to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak…

CLARK: That’s right. You hate to use the term “opportunistic,” but we were in a situation that everyone around the world is facing and we felt we were in a position to pivot to a product and a platform that we had with iRacing. That relationship goes back about 12 years and it’s really just a virtual version of what you see on tracks. A lot of our drivers are active on that platform and use it as a training tool. We have some drivers that race literally at the highest levels of the sport and have used that as part of their development. The week going into our Atlanta race, which was when we went into hiatus, we started to have a dialogue with iRacing. Ultimately, our season suspension lasted for about nine weeks and we put on seven iRacing broadcasts during that period of time.  

Quite frankly, we had no expectations so I’d be lying if I said they exceeded expectations. But we had a strong television audience and really good engagement across a number of different platforms. It also created opportunities in the gambling space—DraftKings was involved in that; we also had our free-to-play game with Penn National and that pivoted to iRacing. From a fan engagement and awareness standpoint, it obviously checked a lot of boxes and put us in a really good position. We did two pivots: From real racing into virtual and then back from virtual to real. It has been an interesting couple of months. These sports are driven by the stars—that’s who people want to see. So the fact that we had active drivers like Chase Elliott and retired drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon jumping into this thing really made it what it was.


 
Steve, what have you uncovered in terms of data during this pandemic period that stands out the most?

BYRD: I think two things have been interesting. One is people will engage with almost anything; they want to have something to engage with. We actually delivered more events in April of this year than last April; our partnerships group was very busy to set up things like dart and tennis tournaments. You mentioned that golf and NASCAR have done things to come back more quickly than team sports. That’s what we dove into to deliver content to our betting partners. As well as virtual sports, which are shortened versions using random number generators—that took off manifold. We even did some simulated reality using the data that we had to look forward to what would have happened with the 2020 Euro Championship.

The other interesting thing that happened was the sports books in the U.S. have been scrambling to open up in every state and get their mobile offerings out. So not a lot of them have developed streaming capabilities that we serve on an international basis. So in this downtime we have been able to get clients like DraftKings, FanDuel and MGM to stream live events that we provide to them. They’re now streaming Bundesliga, tennis tournaments, darts…we don’t yet stream U.S. sports in the U.S., but that’s a trend that I think you’ll see. The sports books will be offering live video to bring people in.


 
Two years after the PASPA ruling, what is the NBA’s level of happiness with where sports betting is now?

KAUFMAN-ROSS: We’re pretty pleased with the rollout. There are a lot of benefits to legal sports betting but there are risks, too. Fortunately, we haven’t seen any major issues to date. It’s interesting to see how the rollout across states has gone. On the one hand, 30 percent of the country can place a legal sports bet, which is pretty rapid progress in two years. What has surprised me a little bit is how complicated an issue mobile sports betting is in various states. There are various dynamics in play such as the interests of brick-and-mortar casinos, whether it be the presence of tribal gaming and the complications that that brings. It has been a little more complicated to legalize mobile betting.

If you take a step back from politics, the notion that you’d be passing a law for sports betting in 2020 and it would not authorize mobile betting seems pretty strange. So that has been a little bit surprising especially when you consider for the states that have legalized mobile sports betting—like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana and now Colorado—the data that we’re seeing is that 80 to 90 percent of bets are being placed on mobile phones. So the consumer is clearly showing their preference to bet that way and yet we’re seeing a little bit of hesitance in certain states to legalize mobile. And there’s a whole new element to that in the COVID-19 world where there are safety reasons to not bet in person or casinos are being forced to shut down or open under certain protocols—one would think that would even further accelerate the adoption of mobile.  

The other thing that has been positive in the last two years is the relationship between the leagues and the gaming industry. Certainly, we got off to a little bit of a rocky start, but I think you’ve seen that relationship improve drastically. From the NBA’s perspective, we now have more than 20 sports betting partnerships, including SportRadar and Genius Sports.

We are really expanding our reach in the partnership space and we’re finding a way to work together. We’ve licensed our official data feed and the importance of official data has really taken hold. At the state government level, there are multiple states that have passed a requirement to use official data, at least for in-play betting. We have seen more and more operators realize the importance of real-time data. There has been a real step forward in the collaboration between leagues, operators and media companies, which is really going to benefit the fan experience moving forward.