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Fanatics Is Coming To Play, But When, Where, And How?

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Sports betting is known throughout the gaming industry as a low-margin, high-risk venture. The biggest companies spend millions of dollars — maybe even hundreds of millions — developing and refining technology and acquiring customers.

Despite those low margins, which states around the U.S. are coming to realize can affect projected tax revenue, corporate America wants in on what some have called the hottest new industry in decades.

Fanatics, the massive sports merchandise marketplace that has the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute all Nike NFL jerseys, is clearly prepping to become a major player in the space. And while it’s unclear exactly what that will look like, there is rampant speculation and curiosity around the move.

The goal at Fanatics is for it to become a “global digital platform for sports,” according to Ari Borod, the company’s chief commercial officer for betting and gaming. Think of it this way — at Walmart or Target, you can buy a hot dog, a basketball, and a pair of sneakers. Fanatics envisions a similar opportunity for NFL fans, with Fanatics an omni-channel operation where a fan could watch a game, buy gear, and lay down a bet — all with the same entity.

In the not-too-distant future, you may be able to use Fanatics to place a three-team parlay, bid on a Tom Brady NFT, and order a Brady jersey all from the same digital wallet. Should Fanatics further extend its brand and acquire a ticket-selling company, it would also be possible to buy a ticket for a game on a tied-in platform before wagering on the game from your seat. Fanatics already has a deal with Ticketmaster to sell merchandise and tickets on each others’ sites.

Fanatics isn’t the only non-sports betting company that wants into the space. Already in the last 12 months, Fubo TV (Fubo Sportsbook) and Sports Illustrated (SI Sportsbook) have entered the market. Disney’s ESPN has made deals with multiple sportsbook operators and has floated the idea of renting its name for a sportsbook. The marriage between media companies and sports betting — see Penn National Gaming’s $2 billion purchase of Canadian-based theScore or NBC’s stake in PointsBet as evidence — is well documented. There is a clear “synergy,” stakeholders say, between fans watching games and engaging in sports betting.

Since wagering has been legalized in 32 states across the U.S. and in Canada, consumers have seen their sports pages and broadcasts turn into odds boards while they also have the option everywhere from ESPN to NBC and beyond to click through on a sportsbook link and register.

Despite ESPN’s overtures into sports betting, Fortune 500 companies for the most part have been reticent to launch full-fledged sportsbooks. The so-called “Big Five” of Facebook (now Meta), Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (now Alphabet) have become tangentially involved in sports wagering but do not accept actual wagers. It is one reason why Fanatics’ anticipated sportsbook launch is widely viewed as a game changer for the industry.

Fanatics’ Rubin wants to dominate

It’s clear that media companies see sports betting as a way to keep consumers engaged. But Fanatics isn’t a sports media company. Rather, it is a dominant sports merchandise retailer that in recent months has expanded its reach with collectibles through a partnership with Candy Digital, sports trading cards through a $500 million deal earlier this year to buy the Topps brand, and NFTs. The moves are stepping stones to what Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin essentially called world domination of the sports space.

“Long term, my goal for Fanatics is very simple,” Rubin said on The Bill Simmons Podcast in March. “I want billions of sports fans globally looking at Fanatics as a beloved brand and use us to do most things digitally. That’s long term.”

Courtesy of Fanatics

Another Fanatics executive told Sports Handle earlier this year that sports betting is a “natural follow” on the company’s growth chart, and went on to say what others industry also see — that Fanatics is uniquely positioned to capitalize on “fandom,” selling consumers shirts, hats, trading cards, NFTs, and whatever else a sports enthusiast might want. The goal, then, is to create enough trust that a consumer who wants to wager would play with Fanatics.

“There is certainly that cross-sell to other products,” Washington, D.C.-based gaming consultant John Pappas said. “That’s definitely something they are thinking about — how do we bring sports bettors to buy our merchandise? And how do we bring people who are buying our merchandise to sports bet?”

Said Las Vegas-based gaming consultant Brendan Bussmann: “It’s all an extension of the game. If I have someone betting in the middle of a game and they are a Nebraska fan, I can sell them a T-shirt while they are in-game wagering. It’s the Holy Grail of being able to sell memorabilia as well as engaging people in the game.”

It’s all about demographics

But how will Fanatics — or any other sports-adjacent company — get there, and what is so attractive about wagering as a business? Operators are the first to point out that sports betting is a low-margin business, and for some casinos, it is merely an additional amenity to offer in-person or online to enhance other revenue. For a company like Fanatics, though, sports betting represents access to an already engaged customer who meets the company’s demographic profile.

Darryl Seibel of ZAG Growth Consultancy called sports betting a “dynamic” business and said that as technology has become more commonplace, finding a pathway to the right demographic is becoming more and more difficult.

“Sports gaming is a very effective and powerful way for sport broadly to stay relevant,” Seibel told Sports Handle. “An essential part of solving that puzzle is relevance — how [does a company] stay relevant when consumers have so much more time and so many more options available?

“It’s certainly an effective way to get in front of people. An association with a sports gambling entity gives you an audience that is the exact audience you are trying to reach.”

Fanatics brings a gigantic database to the table — 80 million people, Rubin told FastCompany earlier this year — and that will benefit it in multiple ways. Should the company consider doing a deal with an existing wagering company, its database will be a key driver of an agreement. And once Fanatics does begin offering wagering, it will leverage that database like DraftKings and FanDuel have leveraged their daily fantasy customers in new sports betting markets.

Will Fanatics partner or buy a platform?

With its filing for the brand “BETFANATICS” last week, the company has made its intentions crystal clear, though Borod said the brand name is “not yet set.” The next step is how will Fanatics offer sports betting? Will it partner with an existing major wagering operator? Will it purchase an existing brand? Will it purchase a tech stack? Or will it essentially go it alone, buying source code and developing its own tech stack?

Rumors have surrounded three of those options in the business community. The idea of partnering with a company the size of FanDuel or DraftKings seems unlikely, though not impossible. Certainly a partnership could further foster the idea of trust. A customer might think, “I already bet with FanDuel, so if they trust Fanatics, maybe I should buy a shirt from them.”

According to Borod, the company doesn’t have a set plan that it’s ready to share publicly for how to get to market. Rather, he said, Fanatics has a goal: “We’ll take whatever steps it takes to make the best product for consumers.”

Here’s a look at some of the options.

Partnering/purchasing

Partnering with or acquiring an existing wagering company would give Fanatics market access in whatever markets the target company is already in, which would mean getting to market quickly and with a functioning, tested platform. But it could also mean that BETFANATICS would not be the front-facing brand.

A partnership would mean the sports betting company and Fanatics would both have access to new databases of highly targeted consumers. But given the Fanatics filing, and the fact that it tried to get into the New York market (with Kambi providing the platform) and is among the companies funding an initiative for mobile wagering in California, other options seem more likely.

Fanatics was shut out of New York, but should it acquire a smaller wagering company like PointsBet or Rush Street Interactive (BetRivers), it could get into the Empire State. Both companies are live there as part of a Kambi-led consortium selected by the New York State Gaming Commission last NovemberOver the last year, rumors have circulated about Fanatics’ interest in acquiring Australian-based PointsBet, according to an Australian gaming source.

The purchase/partnership possibilities are really endless. Besides considering a partnership with a major player, Fanatics could be considering acquiring a smaller operator that is live in multiple states but which doesn’t have the capital to expand.

Options could include MaximBet, which is live in Colorado and has market access in nine other states plus Canada’s Ontario province; PlayUp, which is live in Colorado and New Jersey and has market access in Indiana and Iowa through a partnership with Caesars; or Tipico, which is live in Colorado and New Jersey, has plans to launch in Indiana and Iowa, and has a deal with Caesars that would allow it market access in multiple other states.

Buying a tech stack

Purchasing a tech stack seems to make a lot of sense. Joe Stauff, an Institutional Investment analyst at Susquehanna International Group, says Kambi is a logical target.

“It makes the most sense to buy Kambi,” he said. “They’d have to pay a significant premium because if they acquire it … they’re going to have a lot of decisions to make, because they’ll lose a lot of clients who sustain revenue in Kambi. But in Kambi, you’re getting a good sports betting tech stack, you’re getting 600-700 engineers, you’re getting capabilities in sports, but it’s going to be really expensive.”

Kambi is a B2B sportsbook manager that handles everything “from pricing and risk management to integrity monitoring and customer services support,” according to its website, and provides backend services to many in the industry ranging from Penn National Gaming to Rush Street Interactive to Pala Interactive.

The company essentially provides a “white-label” service, in which it runs a retail or digital sportsbook but the front-facing platform is that of its customer. Should Fanatics purchase Kambi, it could mean that companies using the Kambi platform — and bringing in shared revenue — would move to a different provider, thereby killing the current revenue stream as Fanatics gets up and running.

Fanatics already has an existing commercial relationship for its player account management system with Kambi in Europe, which suggests that key aspects of an integration on U.S. soil could be seamless. Fanatics disclosed the relationship last year in its New York application.

The PAM is a critical part of every operator’s technology stack which houses (and allows operators to utilize) all customer data, reporting, bonus campaign creation and management, KPI analysis, third-party integrations, and similar services. The Fanatics Sportsbook PAM via Strive has an existing integration with Kambi’s sportsbook in Europe (powering the likes of the Belgian National Lottery) and has proven to be successful at comprehensively managing the backend player experience via Kambi.

–Fanatics’ New York online sports wagering application, 2021

There are other companies, including BetGenius, IGT, or OpenBet, that offer similar services, but Kambi is the clear market leader.

Buying source coding and amending it

Eiliers and Krejcik Gaming earlier this year reported that Fanatics has already bought source code from Amelco, but Fanatics has denied that there is a deal in place. Amelco, according to Stauff, has an “inferior” product that would require an enormous amount of work to make Fanatics competitive with the biggest players. The reason to buy it would be more for its licenses then anything else, he said. Amelco has already sold its source code to multiple players, including Hard Rock and FOX Bet.

Buying source code, though, is tricky business, no matter whether it is from Amelco or elsewhere. Industry insiders say that while such an investment would be cheaper on the front end than, say, buying Kambi, it could be costly in the long term, as Fanatics would have to hire engineers to rework and modernize the code, as well as to maintain the platform. Fanatics would ultimately have to create a whole new division, devoted solely to the operation and maintenance of a sportsbook.

Said Lloyd Danzig of Sharp Alpha Advisors: “That process of ripping up source code and building up from scratch is quite lengthy.” Danzig pointed to the DraftKings-SB Tech deal as a similar situation — and it took two years to complete the transaction.

Time to make a move is now

Most new companies in the sports betting space start small. For example, PointsBet and Smarkets made their U.S. debuts in Colorado, while both Circa and SuperBook Sportsbook expanded into Colorado before considering other markets. Fubo Sportsbook and SaharaBet debuted in Arizona, and SI Sportsbook (partnered with 888) dipped its toes in the water in Colorado and Virginia.

However Fanatics decides to get into the game, it is clearly looking to do so on a major scale, as evidenced by its attempt in New York. It also has put $12 million so far into the online initiative attempt in California.

 

“That’s consistent with what we want to build,” Borod said. “We want to be the number one operator over time, and to do so, you have to be in the biggest markets. California isn’t live yet, there’s a long way to go — same with Texas — but we hope there is a robust legal sports betting landscape in both.”

According to the BETFANATICS brand filing, the company is also interested in offering online casino, which stakeholders say is where the real profit lies. Throughout the industry, sports betting is generally known as a way to get into a market, in hopes that a jurisdiction will legalize iCasino in the future. A popular phrase is “Sports betting for show, online gaming for dough.”

So far, only six states have legalized iCasino — Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. While operators hope that every state with legal sports wagering will eventually add online gaming, that could be years down the road. Fanatics is taking a long-term view on the growth of online casinos as well as the adoption of online sports betting in the largest states.

“Today, based on legalized states, the TAM (total addressable market) is approximately $15 billion,” Stauff said. “But if a handful of the biggest states legalize, it’s two times that. And if all those other [smaller] states add on, it’s even more.”

Stauff also said that, relatively speaking, it’s a “cheap” time to get into wagering. A little more than a year ago, trading multiples for sports betting stocks reached their peaks, and he said they have declined 60-70% since then. Anyone who owns stock in DraftKings or Penn National Gaming can see the change in their portfolio — DraftKings hit an all-time high at $74 a share in March 2021 and is currently trading for less than $14, while PNG closed at $138.81 on March 15, 2021, and is currently trading for less than $32.

“The market opportunity is still significant,” Stauff said. “The market is not giving stocks any credit for that, which is much more about inflation and stuff like that. It’s not that the market opportunity is lower, it’s higher.”

When and how will BETFANATICS launch?

Whatever direction Fanatics chooses, it’s clear that sports betting will be the next addition to its portfolio. The question, then, is when? Should the digital California initiative pass in November, it requires that potential operators already be live in 10 other U.S. states and pay an application fee of $100 million. For a company like Fanatics, which is valued at $27 billion, the entry fee shouldn’t be an issue. But as it stands now, Fanatics does not have market access anywhere in North America, meaning that a partnership with an existing platform could make sense.

The company has been fairly mum on the question of when it would go live, though it is already making moves to embrace its new wagering persona. Less than a month after the brand filing, email addresses that end in @betfanatics are already in us. It also hired former FanDuel CEO Matt King to run its sportsbook operations in June 2021. A look at LinkedIn shows a sports betting division that includes more than 38 employees and another 40+ jobs listed.

“Considering what I’ve seen of what positions they are now hiring for, and the moves they are continually making, they have to be looking to do something in the near future,” Bussmann said.

Another industry source told Sports Handle that Fanatics is potentially working to secure a large market access deal as part of its tech platform search. Put all of the pieces together and Fanatics’ reticence to confirm anything, and it’s sounding a lot like consumers may be able to place a wager on some type of Fanatics platform sooner rather than later.

It’s then fair to ask how it would launch. Considering the different routes for developing a platform, it appears that acquiring an existing white-label company or existing wagering company would be the quickest ways to get to market. Drilling down a little deeper, buying an existing company would automatically make a Fanatics-owned platform live in multiple states, though it would have to rebrand.

“Launching by the start of NFL season would likely require Fanatics to have quietly secured a multi-state market access deal in parallel to their search for a technology platform,” Danzig previously told Sports Handle.

It would be a heavy lift to move that quickly, but Fanatics has been on a buying binge of late. And maybe that means fans will playing on a digital sports playground before the next Super Bowl LVII.

— Matt Rybaltowski contributed to this report.



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