Following a rollercoaster 12 months for sports betting affiliates, what have been the lasting impacts of the pandemic on their businesses and what do they see as the biggest opportunities and disruptors ahead?
Listed results show traffic/revenues have recovered, and in many cases exceeded pre-pandemic levels. What have been the lasting impacts of the pandemic on your business?
Richard Moffat (RM): 2020 was a real rollercoaster of a year for us, from hitting rock bottom when there was no sport taking place through to record levels of business when sport returned.
For a number of years the UK has seen a gradual movement of sports betting activity from land-based to online. I believe that the pandemic will expedite this trend as it will many other trends.
Those sports bettors who carried out most or all of their wagering offline pre-pandemic should have now experienced online betting enough to realise the huge benefits it offers over land-based betting. It is hard to imagine that they will return to worse prices, fewer offers and less convenience.
Karl Pugh (KP): Being an international company with offices across the world, we were fortunate to have strong experiences of working remotely with our colleagues. However, the primary shift was transferring that way of working with our partners and removing travel from the equation. Communication has become paramount in that regard, adapting to not having the face-to-face interaction with our partners. The pandemic has proven that while conferences and in-person meetings play a huge part in relationship building, it’s very possible to continue building trust and innovation through a digital setup.
Harry von Behr (HvB): Our digital business is performing very well. With an abundance of sport to enjoy, and fewer competing entertainment options, our traffic and revenues have certainly benefited. That applies across the portfolio, in the US and Europe.
Alex Beecham (AB): Our core brands, Footy Accumulators, The Winners Enclosure and Oddschanger, have gone from strength to strength in the last year as sport has returned and we are continuing to see high levels of interest in poker after we added it to our product mix. When the pandemic hit, we also began integrating top operator APIs to strengthen our user experience and that work has paid off.
Are affiliate agreements less likely to be based on revenue share deals moving forward?
RM: In the US we see operators very comfortable with pure CPA arrangements and while the focus is on gaining market share I don’t see this changing. When US operators focus more on value than numbers then that could be the point at which they look more to revenue share agreements.
Conversely, in the UK we have seen almost an opposite approach. Early on, pure revenue share deals were preferred by operators perhaps due to a worry around quality of traffic and possibly limited budgets. Where there are long-term relationships with trusted partners, operators have been happier to move to CPA-based agreements over time.
KP: Better Collective has historically been primarily focused on revenue share commercial arrangements. With the addition of the Atemi Group in Q4 last year, due to historical agreements, we have naturally pivoted towards CPA for our paid media traffic and now have a setup of varying commercial models.
HvB: Not from our perspective. We’re always looking to work closely with our partners, and revenue share is one way of doing that. We have a well-diversified commercial model, and revenue share will continue to play a part.
AB: We anticipate that customers will become more loyal to one or two betting partners moving forward and deals will change to reflect that. Rewarding partners for driving bets and volumes will become more a key metric than opening new accounts and this is why it is key to integrate partners and third parties within products to deliver a slicker experience for sports bettors. Content is also key to help substantiate bets.
What new opportunities or gaps have been presented by operators – or the market – in the last year?
RM: Back in 2018 we took the decision to really focus on what we do best. We called it a back-to-basics project. This put us in a really strong position when the pandemic struck. There was the potential then to go off focus and chase around Belarusian football or esports but actually we just drilled down more, focused on being stronger for when major sports returned. This has led to exponential growth for us.
I see how the pandemic has led others in our industry and in other industries to do the same, to really focus on what they do well. This is what I believe has been the biggest opportunity over the past year, businesses which have really understood what they do well and got even better at it.
KP: The past year has shown that while performance marketing naturally rewards new player acquisition, operators are demonstrating more than ever that retention of players is becoming increasingly important. Affiliates need to ensure they have strong brand assets across a diversified market footprint and brands that have high engagement, returning users and a place for operators to invest in their brand marketing spend.
HvB: We were focused on diversifying our business beyond its core prior to the pandemic, and the last year has only accelerated that. We’ve had great success in the US, and we’ve continued to grow our B2B operations. The value of quality bet-stimulating content to operators has become even more important, which has helped us capitalise on the B2B opportunity.
AB: We are seeing an increased appetite among our two million-strong social communities for new multiple bets and more competition between operators to deliver them first. Sports operators are exploring a wider range of markets which can be added to build-a-bet style picks. Also, poker is a vertical in which we have seen significant growth in the last year.
Affiliate M&A picked up again during 2020. Do you expect this to continue and how do you see this impacting sports betting affiliates?
RM: It feels like we are getting close to something huge, a really big shake-up in the industry. For a while I have wondered if some of the bigger companies will merge, whether we will see a big new entrant (perhaps with affiliate experience in another industry) or a huge new company formed from large investment.
Right now, ducks are being lined up for the huge opportunity that legal online sports betting provides in the US so I expect to see that shake-up fairly soon.
KP: Speaking from a Better Collective point of view, M&A is still a crucial part of our business and growth strategy as acquisitions historically have added significant value to our business. Today, we have a strong M&A pipeline and still see ourselves as a consolidator within sports betting affiliation.
HvB: There will always be a role for M&A. We’ve used it in the past to add great people and capabilities to our business. Within sports betting specifically I would expect to see a lot of demand for engaged audiences in markets that are opening up – affiliation is one way to make that audience much more valuable.
AB: It is likely this trend will continue with affiliates investing in product and tech to improve the user experience and retention. Many are also investing now to help facilitate moves into new territories such as the US, which presents a significant opportunity for UK affiliates. We will be looking at any opportunities ourselves to see if there are any M&As like Oddschanger out there for us this year.
What other products, companies or developments can you foresee disrupting the sector over the next 12 months?
RM: With regards to sports betting specifically, eyes and wallets are very much focused on the US right now, where things are moving at quite a pace. I’m not sure so much in terms of disruption as the affiliate sector for legal sports betting sites is still undergoing a process of formation.
There seems to be much investment in partnerships with large media companies but being a good affiliate requires a high level of specific expertise. So I believe we will continue to see the companies which have done well in the UK and throughout Europe develop strong affiliate offerings in the US as they have the know-how.
KP: Regulation will be the primary disruptor over the next 12 months, both in a positive and adverse sense. We already know changes in the UK, Germany, Netherlands are on the horizon and the shape of regulation will ultimately affect the products, companies and developments in the respective territories.
HvB: A lot of focus will be on the US, and rightly so. However, I suspect there will be significant opportunities for affiliates in other countries, where regulatory changes are creating attractive environments. I also think we’ll continue to see more traditional media businesses experimenting in the affiliate space. However, that can be a challenge unless they fully commit to the model.
AB: We are starting to see more free-to-play games as a way of driving sign-ups and retaining sports bettors and this will continue well into the summer, with operators also exploring new betting markets. We expect Euro 2020 to play a major role in aiding post-Covid recovery for operators and it is up to affiliates to deliver customers through the provision of compelling content.