When sport returns: Treating the corona crisis as industry wake-up call


This is a guest contribution by Bill Pascrell, III of A GAME ABOVE.com. If you would like to submit a contribution please contact Bill Beatty for submission details. Thank you.

when-sport-returns-treating-the-corona-crisis-as-industry-wake-up-callGreen shoots

The past several months have been challenging to all of us. The way we work, school our children, take care of the elderly and socialize have changed dramatically. This global pandemic crisis is unlike anything the betting and gaming business, has ever witnessed before. Certainly, there were snapshot precursors – individual, cancelled matches and the UK’s 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis – to what we are going through today but, nothing like the wholesale loss of nearly all professional sport for such an enduring term.

At the time of writing, it appears the curve is flattening, the pandemic peaks are settling and the relaxation of quarantine conditions in many territories is permitting the green shoots of a late Spring for the return of elite sport:

-Baseball: Korea and Taiwan are playing in empty stadiums but live streaming to ESPN in the USA 

-Soccer: Bundesliga in Germany is playing, the English Premier League recommences on June 17 and many other EU countries are discussing plans to resume matches “behind closed doors”

-Rugby: Australia’s National Rugby League resumed play on May 28

Soccer aside, this hardly represents the “saving” of global sports betting, particularly since many markets are so focused upon both international and local contests and leagues to entertain and engage audiences, but, at least we are seeing some indication of a return to the sports and schedules that the audience know and love. Even MLB and the NFL are scheduled to return for training soon.  

Business as Usual?

COVID-19 has become an era-defining moment for our society. Our response to it so far, as an industry, has been to pivot to other product, such as eSports; virtuals – Inspired Gaming have run two hugely successful virtual horse racing “events” with the Virtual Grand National and Kentucky Derby; and, adapted sports, with FSB Tech creating and launching the entertaining and engaging Remote Darts League

The return of sports is still, obviously, very early stage and any resumption may well be subject to further, later in the year change and cancellation as we accustom to a virus about which we still have much to learn, but are acutely aware of its potential for a “second wave” to be even more unkind. 

The same can be said for its impact upon sports betting should a second wave of the virus decimate seasonal calendars in the fall and winter.

Over the last months, did we really “replace” the sports betting calendar to any revenue-reliable extent with product-only pivots, on behalf of our existing audience? Did we, convincingly, surprise and delight the audience, and regulators, government and other stakeholders, with a proactive, media-friendly dialogue across attracting players to a hobby of casino, poker and slots play? Did we propose methods to make our business more sustainable and focused upon fair play, at a time of widespread stake caps calls, and acknowledge player protection as an already accepted, but yet to be embedded, part of the player experience we seek to give our customers, overall? 

The answer to all of these questions is, sadly, negative. At this point, that is. We should accept that we are under siege – and already were, before the corona crisis – but acknowledge that we are a creative, innovative industry that can and must engage, convincingly, across all of the critical missions in the questions above. Betting and gaming is a business I have spent many years of my career in – it is a business I love, especially when we collectively answer the challenge of needing to adapt, as we have so often in the past, and need to now, if we are to persist and progress, positively, past this pandemic.

Betting & Gaming: The Core Challenges, Today

Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, wrote in a recent report (Euro 2025 Outlook), about 6 factors creating a gathering storm for betting and gaming:

  • Revenue: Slowing growth
  • Regulation: Higher barriers to entry
  • Scale: Being redefined
  • “The Death of Fun”: Forgetting the player
  • Regulation: Country by country fragmentation
  • Audience: Changing tastes

All of these challenges, combined with an uncertain and potentially unavailable sports calendar, may be telling our industry one thing:

We need to adapt.

When sport does reliably return, do we then simply go back to a reactive, business as usual approach? The one that already led us to the 6 challenges above, prior to the pandemic, and the character of being an industry, according to many stakeholders and commentators, in a clear “negative phase”.

Going back to the same old habits, offers, actions and expectations we create in and for our audience – both playing and non-playing – is surely no kind of an acceptable response from an industry that has challenge and adaptation in its DNA. Over our history, we have met challenge with creativity, delighted our players, and succeeded commercially. I would hope for, and expect, the same of us during this current crisis.

The Player Experience

In betting and gaming, we should always remember that regardless of the current challenges we face, we have one fundamental challenge that defines our business like no other:

Our Products. 

As they are all the same, to the vast majority of the audience. 

Some might characterise this “a problem” for an industry, but it is not one for betting and gaming – a clear solution has existed, for years, and it is up to each of us how we interpret and effect that solution for our operations, across whichever channel, product and market.

The solution?

The Las Vegas Lesson. 

Las Vegas casino operators never sell gambling. They welcome the audience to

▪ The Lifestyle

▪ The Resort

▪ The Adult Playground – Sin City – What Happens in Vegas…

The Las Vegas Lesson?

Las Vegas does not gain and retain by product alone. Las Vegas packages the product with the experience to captivate its customers.

I joined Steen Madsen and his team at marketing experience agency, A GAME ABOVE.com, after many years of lobbying and advisory work for betting and gaming brands, to address The Las Vegas Lesson, and the impact it deserves to create across our online and brick and mortar distributed industry, today.

The positive experiences I witnessed from player events A GAME ABOVE has been involved with – in terms of player response, retention, reactivation and, most significantly, revenue – across customer-focused events, showed the need for a different kind of audience engagement: healthy, mission and achievement-focused customer behaviour, with loyalty built-in, throughout participation with the game above. It wasn’t just about the transaction of gambling for these players. It was about the status and achievement in completing a mission, qualifying for a championship, or receiving a prize from an against the clock challenge.

Stories that Celebrate Players

The audience, and the players we seek to help brands gain and retain at A GAME ABOVE, come for reasons – “stories” we call them – not simply percentage-based commercial deals and welcome offers, that are, typically, generic and emotionless. 

If one thing is clear from the success of community engagement platforms like Barstool and Monkey Knife Fight, it is that content with emotion, that fans and players can relate to and become enthralled by, are predominant. 

In betting and gaming we need to move towards packaging The Product with The Experience, and seek new ways to turn the page upon gaining, celebrating and retaining “players”, and not just “gamblers”.

At A GAME ABOVE, we’re committed to delivering a narrative of inspiring, entertaining and captivating stories for players, on behalf of brands, and alongside their marketing, social media and player relations teams – because we, as an industry, need to adapt to captivate and celebrate the audience, bigger and more receptive now, in this time of challenge and quarantine, than they have been at any point in our history. We welcome the opportunity to help operators, providers and content partners make player promotions a part of their marketing mix, to help meet, greet, gain and retain this audience.

In betting and gaming today, and for the future, it’s time to create stories that celebrate players and create community. We have the products to do it. We need the experience to be allied to them, and shift our focus from solely new customer-obsessed, to becoming player and audience-obsessed across all stages of the lifecycle, for an industry that thinks, acts and is seen to be sustainable, responsible and fun. 

Welcome to A GAME ABOVE the gambling.

About the author:

Bill Pascrell, III is President, North America for A GAME ABOVE and is a partner in Princeton Public Affairs Group – America’s largest state contract government and public affairs firm.