PROVIDENCE — As legal sports betting was on the fast track to becoming a multibillion-dollar business in the spring of 2019, Twin River Worldwide Holdings was a heavy underdog in a crowded market, where established brands like MGM and well-positioned newcomers like DraftKings and FanDuel already occupied the space.
But the Rhode Island-based company had just gone public following its acquisition of Delaware-based Dover Downs, and executives knew they had to do something quickly to avoid missing out on the gold rush that began a year before, when the US Supreme Court gave every state the go-ahead to legalize sports wagering.
Twin River’s first idea was flawed from the start. The company thought it could build the sports betting technology it needed in-house to compete with its more prestigious rivals, but “we couldn’t get there fast enough or with the best quality,” according to Marc Crisafulli, who was named an executive vice president in April 2019.
Instead, Twin River brought in a new board chairman, Soohyung Kim, and quickly pivoted to an aggressive acquisition strategy that included buying the Bally’s brand and changing its name to the Bally’s Corporation. It now owns 10 casinos in six states, and Crisafulli said it will continue to expand, with eyes on states that have already legalized sports betting or are on the cusp of doing so.
The company cemented its status as a serious competitor in the sports wagering market last week when it announced a 10-year partnership with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or operates 193 television stations across the United States, as well as 23 regional sports networks that own the television rights to half of the teams in the NBA, NHL, and MLB. Those stations will be renamed after Bally’s.
Bally’s also paid $125 million for Bet.Works, a sports betting platform provider that will allow Bally’s to offer its own betting service, rather than having to partner with an outside supplier or build the technology in-house.
“There’s no reason why the combination of Sinclair, Bally’s, and Bet.Works can’t produce a company that can credibly compete,” said Chris Grove, a managing director of sports betting and emerging verticals for gambling research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.
Grove said it’s unlikely that Bally’s has what it takes to vault into the top tier of sports betting brands, but with the market projected to grow to $6 billion by 2023 and to $20 billion if 45 of 50 states end up legalizing sports betting, all it needs is a piece of the action to thrive. Grove said legal sports betting is already a $1.5 billion industry.
So far, the market has responded favorably to the partnership between Bally’s and Sinclair, which owns Channel 10 in Providence and New Bedford. The stock price jumped from $30 a share on Nov. 18 to $48 by Nov. 20, and closed at $45.54 on Monday.
As it stands, 23 states, including Rhode Island and New Hampshire, allow some form of sports betting. Rhode Island, which has sportsbooks at its two casinos and a phone app that can take bets anywhere in the state, has brought in more than $30 million in profit — split between the state, IGT, and Twin River casinos — since allowing sports betting in late 2018.
Crisafulli said Bally’s’ strategy of buying up brick-and-mortar casinos — it owns facilities in Colorado, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — goes hand in hand with its sports betting play. Although not every state requires an online sportsbook to also own a local casino, having a presence in those states can be a regulatory advantage, he said.
With all of its casinos, Bally’s has access to 14 million customers, largely in the form of people who have signed up for a rewards card at one of the locations. Crisafulli said the goal is to persuade about 10 percent of them to participate in sports betting or iGaming, which involves playing casino games for real money on a mobile device or a computer. That’s where the experts see real growth potential.
“The future of sports betting is everything online; it’s not going to casinos,” said Rev. Richard McGowan, a gambling industry expert who teaches at Boston College.
McGowan said that is what makes the partnership with Sinclair, which has the right to purchase a 14.9 percent stake of Bally’s, so significant. He said the television company will have the ability to push viewers to the Bally’s sportsbook 24 hours a day.
And while companies like Penn National Gaming have formed a partnership with the ultra-popular Barstool Sports brand, the Bally’s/Sinclair deal is a guaranteed way to get in front of fans who are already deeply invested in their favorite teams.
“Instead of trying to get to the sports bettor through entertainment, it’s doing it through local sports,” Crisafulli said.
If sports betting is already well on its way to being a big business in the United States, the other area of focus for Bally’s — online casinos — is considered further off.
While a handful of states do allow iGaming — New Jersey rakes in more than $80 million a month in online casino and poker revenue — most have been more hesitant to move forward.
Grove, from Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, said there is a significant opportunity in online casinos, but policymakers and lawmakers in many states are still weighing the pros (enormous revenue opportunities) and cons (the potential explosion of problem gambling).
“People look at sports betting and playing slot machines very differently,” Grove said. “Sports is lowercase ‘g’ gambling and slot machines are seen as uppercase ‘G’ gambling.
Crisafulli agreed that iGaming is more of a longer-term bet for Bally’s, but said the company wants to be in a strong position as it takes off.
Experts like Grove and McGowan say the odds are on the side of Bally’s, as long as it keeps growing.
“Our goal will be to have a presence in every state that allows it,” Crisafulli said.