Steve Friess: America Is No Country For High-End Online Sportsbook Brands Like WynnBET

Written By Steve Friess on August 15, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Steve Friess State of Play How WynnBET Fell Short

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


 

The folks in the C-suites of Wynn Resorts have long shown us their uncertainty about their place in the world of U.S. mobile sports betting.

Now we know: There probably isn’t one. They’re pulling the plug on all but four states — the Nevada and Massachusetts, where they have brick-and-mortar properties, and Michigan, where online casino is also legal, and New York, where online casino legislation will be introduced again.

Yet, in the end, there were baffling zigs and zags. Less than two weeks ago, the company trumpeted the arrival of its new and improved WynnBET app, notably now with the ability to use one account and one app to play in eight of its 12 states.

The news release also touted “several improved features including faster deposits and withdrawals.” One wonders what kind of reputation WynnBET had about giving you back your money that it felt this was the first thing on the list.

It’s not that it’s a bad move. It’s probably a very good one. But the sequence of events this month and the decisions more generally over several years shows a company unclear how to address this area of the business and, also, whether to bother.

That was never a recipe for success.

WynnBET couldn’t make app seem luxurious

From the start, it was clear the company wasn’t throwing its best and brightest at WynnBET. In May 2021, when I reviewed all the iOS-compatible live apps in Michigan for Hour Detroit magazine, I ranked it dead last and described it as “idiotic, confusing and cumbersome.” I also wrote:

“Otherwise, the only surprise is that a brand known for upscale elegance is willing to let you bet as little as a penny on video slots and as little as a dime for a hand of video blackjack.”

And therein is the other conundrum: How does a luxury brand make something as democratic and mass market as a sports betting app seem luxurious? How does it keep this part of its operations from degrading the exclusivity and elegance the rest of the company strives so hard to maintain?

The answer is: It can’t.

No difference in casino games on an app

A sportsbook app is a sportsbook app is a sportsbook app. The fundamental offerings are identical. The navigation and layout can be better or worse, but the content itself does not vary in any meaningful way. In its brick-and-mortar casinos, Wynn can take the lowest-common-denominator feature, the slot machine floor, and elevate with décor and ambiance, with excellent server attentiveness and a sense of warmth and beauty. The slot machines might operate identically at the Wynn and the Excalibur, but the experience is, hopefully, quite different.

On your phone, though, playing the Golden Goddess or Ocean Belles slots is what it is on any app that offers it.

The same goes for placing sports bets, of course. The real-life Wynn sportsbook is one of my favorite places on the planet to put down some money, eat, drink and watch a game. It can’t recreate that for me, though, when I’m on my sofa in sweats soiled by baby spit-up and noshing on undercooked Burger King tater tots.

Yet even more challenging for WynnBET has been how to reward its customers, the silver bullet for keeping them coming back and developing loyalty.

Unlike MGM Resorts, Caesars and Penn Entertainment, Wynn Resorts operates in just two locales — Las Vegas and Boston. Both are among the most expensive places to stay in their markets. It would take a player on WynnBET significantly more time and money to earn any meaningful real-life reward than on apps from the other three aforementioned conglomerates with several tiers of brick-and-mortar resorts. If you play on WynnBET in, say, Indiana or Virginia, you might as well place the same wagers and accrue points toward something closer that you’d be much more likely to be able to enjoy.

WynnBET sent out mixed messages

Ultimately, all of this became obvious to Wynn execs, although I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when those about to kill sportsbooks in at least eight states found out their uninformed colleagues were making a public show of tech upgrades for those same soon-to-die apps.

It wouldn’t have been the first time they sent out mixed messages.

Last year, Wynn threw $12.5 million behind the disastrous 2022 referenda to legalize sports betting in California. Yet even then, executives privately questioned the point of being in the business at all given its slim profit margins. For a luxury brand like Wynn, which gets something like a 10,000% mark-up on the eggs it serves at Tableau, what’s the point of chasing a 4% percent profit on sports betting?

Even if the app had taken off, a look at modest profitability of the market leaders — FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, and Caesars — showed that this so-called Gold Rush was turning out to be more like dirt fishing.

Waiting on more legal online casino states

The only answer is the one that is Friday’s announcement to cut bait alluded to: They wanted to stick around until more states legalize online casino. That’s where the money is, of course, even for less-popular apps. But Wynn execs realized the truth of what I wrote in July, that it’s going to be a painfully long wait for much more iCasino, especially in WynnBET states like Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana and Virginia. Unless and until a serious economic downturn makes states desperate for revenue, iCasino will not have the same sort of wild growth as mobile sportsbooks.

And so a big name, for the most part, walks off the field. With WynnBET following FOX Bet on the sidelines, the expected contraction and consolidation of a glutted market is in full swing.

Wynn might return at some point. That’s always an option.

Yet unless there’s a Metaverse version of online gambling where you immerse in a virtual Vegas and can enjoy lavish surroundings, Wynn shouldn’t. Like Barstool before it, it’s too niche a brand for this business.

That should be OK. Wynn doesn’t chase the Circus Circus customer in real life. It doesn’t need their iPhone’s attention, either.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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