888 Holdings has been at the epicenter of regulated US online gambling for the past six years. In other words, the Gibraltar-headquartered company has been a leading player right from the outset.
888 has its poker platform in Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey, plus its 888 Casino and 888 Sportsbook products in NJ. Additionally, its technology powers Delaware’s lottery. So it’s clear that the US continues to be a strategically important market for this global operator.
PASPA’s repeal in May 2018 only intensified 888’s ambitions stateside.
At this time last year, 888’s head of commercial development, Yaniv Sherman, relocated to the US to spearhead operations from 888’s office in Secaucus, NJ.
“Living in the US and looking at it from a different perspective, every organization needs to have boots on the ground to know where it lives and operates,” Sherman said.
“The US is a lot about scale. Growth is put on a pedestal here, and you have to demonstrate that you can grow and scale. Ever since 2013, we have wanted to be in the marketplace with the scale that would allow us to grow effectively.”
888 is cashing in on the betting gold rush
Since late summer 2018, states have legalized sports betting at a rapid pace.
And Sherman, who has held various roles for the London-listed operator for more than 12 years, believes the sky’s the limit for US sports wagering.
Indeed, the vast pool of recreational bettors and a packed sporting calendar sets Sherman’s pulse racing.
“The illegal market is worth billions today and, from our experience globally, when a market regulates, and you cater to the recreational base, it grows.
“It’s like any other market that regulated, whether it was Italy, Spain, the UK or New Jersey.” He added: “The propensity to bet on sports here is unrivaled. The American sports calendar is a lot more intensive than anywhere else in the world.”
So, just how untapped is the US from an online gambling perspective in Sherman’s view?
“That’s the multibillion-dollar question. I remember Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. Now that seems ridiculous; it’s less than the license fees required in one of the states [Pennsylvania]. But it’s the six-billion-dollar question.”
Doubling down on casino with Orbit
888 Casino has been available in New Jersey from the market’s beginning in late 2013. However, the product received a welcome upgrade in July with the launch of Orbit, 888’s latest web-centric casino platform.
Built over two years, Orbit was first to launch in May 2018 as part of a staggered global rollout. New Jersey was one of the last territories where 888 operates to adopt Orbit.
The new desktop and mobile platforms have received more than just an overhaul to the aesthetics, though. The whole user experience has been redesigned, resulting in faster logins and smoother transitions between games.
Under the hood, artificial intelligence and machine learning provides game recommendations and personalized user experience. “A step change” is how Sherman described Orbit to PlayUSA.
“It’s very mobile-orientated and very intuitive. What the consumer doesn’t see is the clever stuff; it tries to learn the players’ preferences and recommends content. We are trying to cater to players’ specific needs.”
How 888 sees its products
In the last 12 to 18 months, Orbit has been one part of a driveby by 888 to focus on product development. “We recognize that today, consumers are more agnostic to the brand – there are product preferences and you need to tick that box,” said Sherman.
“Living in the US for just over a year now, I can safely say that if the product doesn’t make the cut, the brand is almost irrelevant. So, we were aiming for Orbit to put us on a different level.”
It was also crucial for 888 to unleash its new casino product ahead of the NFL betting season. That way, 888 Sport customers in New Jersey are more likely to try out a revamped and cutting-edge casino product.
In fact, sports betting has given most operator’s casino revenue a meaningful boost over the past 12 months. Sherman doesn’t think we are close to hitting the ceiling for online casino in the Garden State. Far from it, in fact.
“We are running surveys, and I’m constantly surprised that people don’t realize New Jersey has offered online gaming since 2013. So, there is an immense runway there to be taken.”
Taking 888 Sport to the next level
888 has traditionally been a casino-centric brand, with 60% of global revenue in 2018 still derived from the casino. Sports betting has historically taken a back seat to gaming and poker.
However, revenue from sports betting has grown exponentially this decade and now accounts for around 15% of group revenue. The vertical is projected to generate $100 million in revenue for the company in 2019. That’s up from $7 million in 2012, prior to the migration to Kambi’s platform.
While the Swedish supplier has been instrumental in 888 Sport’s growth, this partnership is set to come to an end. In March, 888 snapped up the platform and team behind the now-defunct UK and Ireland operator BetBright in a deal that was worth $19.8 million at the time.
The acquisition means the firm will have ownership over its technology and product roadmap across all four verticals: casino, poker, bingo and sports betting.
By having a proprietary sportsbook platform, it could give 888 a competitive advantage over those reliant upon third-party suppliers.
888 Sport is coming to America sometime soon
The plan is to launch the new 888 Sport platform in Sweden in the first quarter in 2020, followed by a phased market-by-market rollout.
“Sweden is first, but I would want to see our proprietary sportsbook product as soon as possible in the US market,” said Sherman.
“But I’m also conscious of the fact that we need to make sure it’s working and adjusted properly. I don’t have a specific timeline for the US, but my general inclination is to have it here sooner rather than later. We can bring some key differentiating features and a cool product to the market.”
888 was the sixth online sportsbook in New Jersey when it launched last September on a Bally’s interactive license. And, 888 was also the first online casino to sign a deal with an NFL franchise: the New York Jets.
“Ahead of everyone else, it gave us a great look into the NFL machine,” Sherman stated. “The Jets sponsorship definitely gave us a boost and a lot of exposure both on the corporate and the consumer side. We just need to make sure we preserve that momentum.”
New Jersey sports betting is now a crowded arena
So far, though, it is fair to say the 888 Sport brand isn’t exactly pulling up trees in the Garden State. 888 Sport and its license partner, Caesars Sportsbook, posted online revenue of $340,832 for the month of August.
To put that in perspective, FanDuel Sportsbook and PointsBet on Meadowlands’ license notched up $9,269,586 in online revenue that same month. DraftKings Sportsbook, Resorts and Fox Bet generated $6,697,318.
Daily fantasy sports giants FanDuel and DraftKings continue to dominate New Jersey’s online sports betting market. And, with the recent arrival of bet365, Fox Bet, Unibet and TheScore, the increasingly congested space now boasts 17 digital sportsbooks.
“The incumbents are indeed very strong, but I think you will see it will become more competitive as we go forward,” Sherman said. “Much like casino in 2013, once the DFS operators work through their databases, they need to start competing in the open market like anybody else.”
The Wire Act and online poker
A potential spanner in the works for 888 came last January when the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a revised opinion on the Wire Act. In a nutshell, the DOJ said the 58-year-old law applies to all forms of interstate gambling, not just sports betting.
The situation threatens interstate poker expansion and the vertical’s renaissance in the US. Operators and lawmakers appear to view poker as a busted flush, while the wait drags on for online poker in Pennsylvania.
Last December, 888 bought the remaining 53% share in the All American Poker Network from its partner, Avenue Capital, for $28 million. 888 pools players from New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada. Pennsylvania — home to 12.8 million people — is poised to join this compact.
Pooling power is key for poker
“We realize that poker liquidity is paramount,” Sherman said. “It is the most important feature players are seeking. We saw the effect once we connected New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware; the uptake was immediate….But poker is very much alive in the US. Everybody is looking at New Jersey as a case study because most people threw in the towel on poker and focused on casino and now moved onto sports,” said Sherman.
“As a result, poker is relatively small. But we argue that poker will have a significant part in the future of online gaming. I see a future for poker in the US regardless if the DOJ wins or not.”
The DOJ’s revised opinion, combined with efforts by some to derail online gambling, means progress can feel like two steps forward, one step back. Sherman is more philosophical, though.
“Pick a state or a country – Sweden, the UK, Argentina or Australia – and they all have their own internal forces and headwinds. Two steps forward and one step back, I’ll take any day of the week. It’s better than two steps back.”