Online sports betting has existed in Europe since the days of suitcase-sized computers and agonizingly slow dial-up internet.
But how sports betting has grown and evolved over the years offers the nascent US online sports betting industry a chance to learn from online betting across the pond.
Starting with a mobile-centric approach to sports betting
The past two decades have seen regulation sweep across Europe. Governments moved to license and tax the activity, while hundreds of online bookmakers sprang up to cash in on the online gambling gold rush.
In the United Kingdom, the world’s largest regulated online market, online gambling today generates £5.4 billion ($7.1 billion) in gross revenue a year.
Mobile fueled much of Europe’s betting explosion, with many online sportsbooks over there now reporting that roughly 80 percent of betting activity comes via handheld devices. For leading UK online bookmaker Sky Bet, which was snapped up by The Stars Group for $4.7 billion last year, 90% of bets are on mobile.
A mobile-first mindset to product and customer acquisition has been prevalent across the Atlantic since the advent of smartphones and betting apps. The gradual evolution of products and devices means today’s sports betting sites and apps are night and day compared to the rudimentary early versions.
But whether it’s desktop or mobile, European operators have worked hard over the years on iterating their products with an emphasis on speed and simplicity. It’s all about logging in, often biometrically these days, pinpointing the desired market, and placing a bet with the fewest clicks possible before or during live sport.
“A key lesson for the US is that sites have got to be functional, particularly with mobile,” said Ed Andrewes, who has held senior positions at Ladbrokes and BetVictor and now owns EAGC, lead consultant to Resorts Digital Gaming. “It’s all about ease of use and getting your bet on as quickly and easily as possible, and following a clear customer user journey.
“Nothing must get in the way of putting a bet on as fast as possible.
“The evolution of product has been fairly phenomenal in Europe, albeit over a relatively long time period. The product has certainly come a long way, but I definitely think the US will start with a much more advanced product.”
The first wave of sports betting apps
The public experienced a taste of what to expect from a stellar mobile betting experience when the first NJ sportsbook apps were unleashed last August in New Jersey. On the whole, the products were well received and were a notable upgrade on the betting apps in Nevada.
Despite mobile launching after retail betting in New Jersey, mobile already accounts for 80% of revenue in the state. However, as legal sports betting spreads, it’s going to attract vast numbers of casual gamblers and betting neophytes.
This underscores the need to keep products straightforward with clear navigation, especially on mobile, rather than overwhelming inexperienced gamblers with confusing layouts and too much content.
Too many or too few betting options?
A case can be made that less is sometimes more when it comes to online sports betting. However, operators fear missing out on business if they don’t offer a bewildering array of markets.
For instance, FanDuel Sportsbook in New Jersey offers almost 200 pre-play and around 70 in-play markets for major sports events. According to FanDuel, this easily outstrips the average number of the markets offered by its competitors.
For a while, European bookmakers were engaged in an arms race to see who could offer the most markets on soccer. Yet, many of these derivative markets became window dressing as most casual bettors are looking to bet on core markets.
“I think trying to present 200 markets to a new US consumer would be a mistake,” said Warren Llambias, co-founder and managing director of RedZone.bet, a London-based online bookie with a heavy focus on US sports betting. “You need to slowly grow with the US customer base and listen to what they are saying.
“The additional markets that you want to add should be geared toward the player prop markets, which are the basis of fantasy games. That’s the way you should go, not by copying European operators in offering too much too soon.”
Features US bettors expect to see
Arguably the biggest innovation of the past decade has been the cash-out feature, whereby bookmakers offer customers a cash amount to immediately exit a winning or losing position. It’s a ubiquitous and high-margin tool. It’s especially popular with recreational gamblers who bet parlays – and it’s available in New Jersey, too.
Four years ago, though, online giant bet365 became the first major online operator to launch a partial cash-out feature. Users adjust a slider to decide how much of their bet they want to cash out and how much they want to keep running, giving them greater control over their bets.
Another feature that has been a phenomenal success the past few years is the so-called “request-a-bet” service, first pioneered by Sky Bet. This is where bettors ask bookmakers via tweet for odds for specific occurrences or outcomes during a sporting event.
The company then chooses whether or not to price it up and post the odds on its website. To illustrate the popularity of these personalized wagers, UK bookmaker William Hill received more than 2 million #YourOdds requests on last summer’s soccer World Cup alone.
All the leading UK companies boast these customer-generated offerings. However, the process has been automated to a certain extent with the emergence in the past 12 months of what is dubbed “bet builders.”
These are tools inside a sportsbook allowing customers to combine possible in-game scenarios to build their in-game parlays, e.g., Barcelona to win 3-0, Luis Suarez to score any time and there to be more than six corners. That’s +1100.
Besides this, obligatory features US sports bettors will automatically expect live streaming. The likes of bet365 stream 140,000 events a year, while FanDuel Sportsbook was the first in New Jersey to launch live streaming (tennis’s Australian Open in January).
When streaming is not available, in-play visualization, live scoreboards and stats aid with engagement help encourage users to keep the app open and bet in play.
Learning from mistakes made in Europe
While online betting has soared in popularity in countries like the UK, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Responsible Gambling (RG) has been one area where the industry has badly fumbled the ball, resulting in multimillion-dollar fines meted out to operators for RG failings.
RG has become a huge issue that has garnered widespread mainstream media coverage. It has shone a spotlight on the industry’s practices.
Amid mounting scrutiny over the pervasiveness of gambling, the UK industry has agreed to a self-imposed whistle-to-whistle ban on all betting TV commercials during live sport before 9 pm.
This was seen as a pre-emptive move to stave off possible regulatory intervention.
Nevertheless, Llambias had this advice.
“I would say to the US, ‘get your house in order before someone else does’ because it might become a little bit more forgiving if you’ve handled the problem yourself. America is a very litigious country, so I expect some quite huge fines if they don’t keep their houses in order.”
Rein in the aggressive bonus culture
Reining in attractive bonus offers is sometimes easier said than done in a competitive marketplace. Operators might be wise to curtail the aggressive bonusing to acquire and retain players.
In Sweden’s recently re-regulated market, for example, operators are now only permitted to award a bonus to a player when he or she first signs up.
“During the online boom, operators were perhaps a little too gung-ho with their bonusing,” Llambias said. “It’s led to responsible gambling being managed for us by the [UK] Gambling Commission when it would have been much better if perhaps the industry had regulated itself.”
Self-exclusion measures are a top priority
One key RG component should be an adequate self-exclusion register allowing players to block themselves from all sites. (This is the case in New Jersey.) Sweden introduced a similar scheme at the turn of the year. By the end of March, more than 30,000 players had self-excluded.
“One thing that works well in New Jersey is the self-exclusion list,” said Andrewes. “In the UK, you can self-exclude on one site but there are 173 others that you can register straight away with and go and place a bet…A proper functioning self-exclusion list is important and a really solid starting point for a good responsible gaming policy.”
Overall, US operators and regulators can learn a lot from online sports betting’s journey in Europe. It boils down to taking bits of the good and taking heed of the bad.