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SBUSA: Skin in the game

Insight | Analysis

This year’s Sports Betting USA Digital will feature the National Basketball Retired Players Association as a keynote speaker. President and CEO Scott Rochelle talks to Robin Harrison to  give iGB North America readers and SBUSA Digital attendees a taster of how the association is working to bring basketball legends into the betting ecosystem.

“Betting on professional sports is currently illegal in most of the United States outside of Nevada,” National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver wrote in his 2014 New York Times op-ed. “I believe we need a different approach.”

And with that, Silver set out the NBA as the most forward-thinking and most amenable of all the major leagues to regulated betting. It took a further four years before the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was struck down by the Supreme Court, in May 2018. 

But fast forward two more years and there are 19 states in which customers can bet on sports. This will grow to 20, once Tennessee takes its first bets on November 1, with Virginia, North Carolina and Washington also limbering up for launch. The November 3 elections could ratify plans in Louisiana, and push efforts forward in additional states. 

And as the industry grows and expands it is looking for new ways to promote its products and reach customers. The early days of “spray and pray” marketing, in which almost all revenue is reinvested in customer acquisition are slowly but surely coming to an end. 

They are being replaced by media partnerships aiming to tap into sports mad audiences; more meaningful link-ups between land-based businesses that leverage databases such as loyalty programs; and closer ties with teams. 

Where there is yet to be that wholehearted embrace of betting, however, is among the former athletes. For current players, there are inherent integrity risks, but retired players have the fan bases, the audiences from pundit work, and often strong regional appeal, based on the teams they played for at their career peaks. 

And if the NBA was the first major league to declare that it saw a role for sports betting, it stands to reason that its former players, will be the ones to take the first steps to join the betting ecosystem. 

However, to date personalities, whether they are former athletes-turned-media figures, have largely been restricted to (media) brand-led involvement. The Stars Group’s Fox Bet joint venture with Fox Sports, for example, highlighted the role of its pundits and anchors as a key element, but through leveraging the Fox brand rather than those individuals’ personal brands.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that it was an actor and singer, in Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, rather than an athlete, that was announced as the first national face of a brand campaign, for BetMGM.

Scott Rochelle, president and chief executive of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), admits that despite state after state regulating betting, there remained “a bit of apprehension” about the new industry. This, he said, meant that the key first steps was for operators, leagues and teams to figure out how to build partnerships – not an easy feat considering betting remained taboo until 2018. 

“The athletes had the same perspective, and wanted to ensure how and when they got involved went smoothly,” Rochelle says. “It was difficult for the retired players to see how they would fit in beyond promoting a new partnership or brand, though we’re very excited about being able to point out the opportunities.”

The fact that the NBRPA is taking a lead here, Jene Elzie of Athletes First Partners, a consultancy representing the NBRPA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), is driven by the NBA’s engagement with legal betting. 

“I think it’s really important to understand that the NBA whole took the lead, as they often do, in this space,” Elzie, a former vice president of international marketing for the NBA, explains. “Once again, the most innovative brand in sports put a stake in the ground in area that, until very recently, was very controversial in the US sports industry. 

“One of the reasons for this was they saw early on how powerful sports betting was, and the role it could play, whether it’s through NBA Legends or the league itself,” she says. “[There] really is an understanding that the league’s leading the way and it trickles down to those who have played the game.”

It’s this top-down buy-in, coupled with two years of legal wagering, that has allowed the NBRPA to understand just what role the retired athletes can play, Rochelle adds. He sees the initial engagement as coming through broadcasting or analysis. 

“Sports betting requires a different type of analysis, but as players become more attuned to that, the more they they can provide insight,” he says.

Rochelle in fact picks out Deion Sanders – known for a career that took in two Super Bowl wins in the National Football League and a World Series appearance in Major League Baseball – as the blueprint. He can be considered an ‘early adopter’ of sports betting punditry through his NFL picks, and in Rochelle’s view, it’s only a matter of time before basketball players make similar moves. 

This, Elzie points out, is a case of leveraging players’ personal brands rather than starting from scratch. 

“You [can] see that through fantasy sports and social media,” she says. “Fans have always passionately followed the league on every available platform and channel.  

“The NBA has well over 1bn followers over social media, with around 700m of those come from player pages, which shows the strength of the level of engagement.”

Social media, Rochelle explains, has given fans much greater access to players and their brands, giving fans a greater sense of who they are and what they’re thinking in real time. This allows them to build brands rapidly and directly. 

If they do this well, their fan base doesn’t drop off after retirement. The more they can opine on different topics when they are not restricted by teams’ social media rules means their fan bases actually grow post-retirement. 

But this engagement is not simply a cheaper way to acquire new customers for the operators, and Rochelle is keen to highlight the broader engagement opportunities, especially around corporate social responsibility efforts. 

There are examples of this already, through Rush Street’s Rivers Pittsburgh casino supporting former National Hockey League star Mario Lemieux’s foundation in Pennsylvania. This, he says, shows how the relationship can go beyond a marketing tactic to having a positive impact on the communities served by the brand – both the athlete’s and betting operator’s.

“No one wants to give money to a former player. They are seem as a super successful wealthy person, but if they come with a good cause, it all works together,” Rochelle says. “I see the two as a very good marriage.”

This in turn plays into the responsible gambling and ethical considerations of sports betting. The NBA wants to ensure responsible and ethical play, Rochelle notes, and former players, being able to associate with the betting brands, are the one that will be used to push that message out. 

The intricacies of allowing players – retired or current – is the key concern Rochelle has about developing the relationship between athletes and the industry, he adds. This is something that the NBRPA is still working out, even if he admits there haven’t been many “red flags” so far. 

That’s a key element that Rochelle brings up often during iGB North America’s interview – the industry, and therefore the involvement of retired players, is at a very early stage. This means other questions remain, such as whether athlete spokespeople act as a regional, or national, partner. 

Much of this, of course, hinges on star power. And there is ultimately only ever going to be a small number of players that have been “transcendent” in their careers, to achieve that national recognition. 

“[But] the regional pull will always be there for the players that haven’t been superstars but have performed well in their team and impacted their community,” Rochelle says. “There are three to five in that top tier, but many more will be known for their local impact.”

Ultimately the NBRPA sees itself acting as something of a ‘clearing house’ through with the operators coordinate relationships with players. 

“The anticipation is the brands will identify the players they want to work with to push their messaging and align their brands, and we hope and expect to be at the forefront of that,” Rochelle explains. “The conversations we are having, through our agency, Athletes First Partners, are exploratory, of what athletes are interested, and we’re constantly mining our membership to find the members that are eager to be involved. 

“They have had a good number of positive discussions with the brands and I am excited to start bringing that potential to life,” he adds. “The hope is that the companies will come to us, request data, and given them a roster of players to select. 

“And hopefully the working relationship starts immediately.”

The NBRPA will be one of Sports Betting USA Digital’s keynote speakers on November 13. Register here for a chance to hear from figures such as Scott Rochelle, who will be speaking alongside former NBA All-Star Caron Butler in a session moderated by Sports Innovation Lab CEO Angela Ruggiero.