21 October, 2021

Don’t forget the hype

Jason Ziernicki, Head of US Audience at XLMedia, speaks about maintaining an audience through marketing strategies and the post-Covid future of sportsbooks.

Given your expertise, could you tell me a little bit about your background and the steps that brought you to being an owner and operator of many popular sports websites?

Back in 2011, I was involved with daily fantasy sports here in the US – we didn’t have regulated sports betting then. At the time, it was the closest thing we had, when daily fantasy sports took off with DraftKings and FanDuel. In that time, it was the next great sport affiliate opportunity here in the States. So that was where I went and created some sites around that niche and the understanding of what was coming forwards. Fingers crossed it was the regulation of sports betting.

We were the number one DraftKings affiliate and top five for FanDuel. And then we rode that wave into regulation of sports betting here in the States. Then, ultimately, we were acquired by XLMedia last December. They took my sites, they took my business partner’s sites, then we all came in to be part of XLMedia’s US launch. They didn’t have anything in the US, so we represent that.

What is it that sports betting companies are doing to continue to attract customers and maintain their attention until the NFL kicks off?

Years ago, we didn’t have a social media approach like what we have now. So, sportsbook operators have an unbelievable advantage these days in creating ‘hype.’ It just simply wasn’t there before. Barstool Sports has an unbelievable reach on social media and through podcasts. For years, the College World Series in baseball just kind of sat in this little pocket of interest on ESPN, but when Barstool started, they sent their personalities to the games and all of a sudden there was this grand interest in the College World Series. Which means this lull can be filled via hype of sportsbooks. But that’s a very small niche.

What we are seeing on a practical application of it is that UFC fights are doing huge numbers. Mega numbers. I don’t think most people understand the popularity of that sport or understand it has a very different user base and audience, which isn’t necessarily involved or participating in football, basketball, golf or anything like that.

So they are all coming in, especially these Conor McGregor fights: the McGregor fights are absolutely mad. We wouldn’t put those on par with NFL week one because those numbers are huge; but in terms of user acquisition, they are surprisingly, shockingly high for a McGregor fight. One thing I would point out is early state bonuses or pre-open bonuses; so, if you’re in Wyoming or Arizona, DraftKings and FanDuel will give you $100 in free bets just for downloading their app. It’s another way to focus on new acquisitions.

Given your company’s experience, what are the tactics used to maintain and even grow a customer base, and what are you doing specifically at XLMedia? Also, do you think your marketing experience has helped pave the way for a step up in the industry?

There’s no doubt that my marketing knowledge has helped. We have learned a lot of the SEO side and it’s something we were really able to figure out and build that niche. The ability to build a multi-level funnel to help bring in new customers from sportsbooks is extremely difficult.

One of the things we do very well at XLMedia, which most companies don’t have the ability to do yet, is we work off of fandom. We own a site called ESNY in New York and New Jersey, then we own Crossing Broad in Pennsylvania. We partner with people in Illinois and Colorado – so all the states that are legal – and then we work off of that. It’s not your core basic betting promo, it’s very specific to the local fanbase. And that really works well in terms of naturally converting fans to somebody who wants to bet on sports. I would say the key difference that XLMedia does compared to other sites is being able to access the fans of local states and teams: knowing the customer base and honing in on each state.

With Arizona getting ready to launch soon this year, they announced they are going to allow up to 40 skins. That’s a massive number of sportsbooks. We see in New Jersey there are roughly 23-24 skins. You’ve got to remind yourself that the market can only support so many. It’s still early times in the US and everyone’s trying to figure their companies out... Bet365, even with all the money they have, they’ve yet to be really aggressive here in the US. Sometimes I think they are letting everyone do all the work for them before they’ll swoop in.

With over a year since the strike of Covid-19, what have sports betting firms learned from the pandemic?

I am not sure what they have learned from it. I think what everyone probably learned is to accept it. Imagine if a few years back, all of a sudden, the Euros announced they aren’t going forward. You wouldn’t believe it. But now, we have learned to accept that we have to put the health of these athletes in business as paramount. We have to be safe and we have to do things properly, and there’s been a natural acceptance to that.

In terms of sportsbooks, let’s imagine there’s an event for the Olympics and it gets cancelled. That will be used as a promotional opportunity, most likely. As an example, if you bet on Simone Biles and it gets cancelled or she left because she had Covid, sportsbooks will refund your bets with the ability to then use that money again on the site.

I think sportsbooks have learned and found a way to be creative in knowing that they have someone who is participating on their site, and wagering, so you don’t want to lose them; you want to have high retention rates the best you can in this new environment. I think they have found a way to make the best of a tough situation. It’s probably the greatest way of trying to become more creative with those refunds and promotions. When we first saw that a year or two ago. Pointsbet was the first one here in the States to do it. People didn’t understand it but now it’s become a common thing to see and I think it’s a good approach, especially with these new variants. We have to just be open to the fact that football is coming up but there may be some issues and things have a possibility of being delayed for a couple of weeks. We have learned it’s okay to move things back and everything will be alright in the best interest of others.

What would you say the long-term effects are for the industry?

If you want me to throw a little bit of a pessimistic spin on the effects of Covid-19, it would be the following: locally here the Philadelphia Phillies, only half of the team are vaccinated, and in college football we are now hearing the potential of team forfeiting games due to the vaccination level on the overall team. So out of all the positive things we said, there does seem to be the competitive side, with the conversation of ‘our team are vaccinated and ready to play and why should we reschedule because your team isn’t.’ I think we will probably see that play off here in one of the major sports or college sports in the US over the next month or two for sure.

It’s a high opinion at the time as we are still all waiting to find out the official FDA approval; here in the States it is very political, some people being Republicans and some Democrats. We can almost already see the political divide between teams or colleges in the different vaccination rates in the states. There is that collision across the political divide between the sports. It’s an unavoidable issue.

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