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Updating betting for the convenience economy

Insight | Analysis

The company currently known as Onionsack exists to give bettors a voice – quite literally. It aims to use natural language bet processing to create a more streamlined and intuitive way of having a flutter. 

“It bewilders people, but they remember it. Everybody who has heard it once remembers it, and that’s what we wanted initially.” 

That’s Jonathan Power, founder and chief executive of Onionsack, on the company’s whimsical but soon-to-be erstwhile name. 

“Football commentators used to refer to the goal net as the onion sack. So when somebody scored, they’d say ‘Stuck it in the back of the onion sack!’”

“It’s worked well for us to date,” he adds. “But our board, recently bolstered by some sage counsel, has decided on an imminent rebrand. After all, a new name can help immediately identify our area of expertise in natural language bet-processing and point the way to the future of how we believe betting will increasingly be conducted for a more global market.”

Nevertheless, Power says the company fields more questions about the name now than ever before. Far less bewildering but just as memorable, though, is Onionsack’s influence on the sports betting industry. 

“We enable punters to speak or write their bet,” Power says. “That’s the way you browse the internet. You essentially type ‘this is what I want.’ It’s how you engage with Amazon, Spotify, or Wikipedia.”

Historically, users haven’t interacted with sportsbooks in that way. But Power and Onionsack are making it happen. 

Streamlined sports betting

“Think of it,” Power says, “If you’re reading a news article, you see a word you don’t understand, you click it and look it up in Google. Betting can be made that easy.”

The benefits of speaking or writing your bet are multifold, according to Power. First among those benefits is speed. 

“When you navigate sports betting the way you normally use the internet, you can place a bet in a fraction of the time it takes to find that same bet in a sportsbook app.”

Onionsack’s products, then, essentially transpose the sports betting process onto the intuitive actions we take online every single day. Just as you might visit Google for any daily to-do – find a plumber, track a package, buy a scarf – Onionsack allows sports bettors to use that same process, in essence, to place a bet. 

“Another thing it does,” says Power, “is make the more profitable bets the easier ones to buy. Parlays are the most profitable bets. They’re hard to place on a traditional sportsbook.”

Power emphasizes that a company’s most profitable product should be the easiest to acquire. 

Parlays are a prime example, but they’re one ingredient in the larger sports betting recipe. Onionsack and Power want to shorten the time from when a user thinks “I want to place a bet” to when that bet is placed. 

When inspiration strikes

Once, the internet was the digital wild west (the same comparison could still be made today, perhaps). Online giants vied for eyeballs. Power cites a particular 90s internet juggernaut.

“The way you navigated the internet with Yahoo! when it started in the 90s, you thought, ‘I want news or politics or sports.’ Then you scroll down, down, down until you found the article you wanted,” Power says. 

In a way, finding content on the internet once required a virtual treasure hunt. 

“Modern sportsbooks have grown up on that paradigm,” Power says. “Being able to speak or write your bet will mean you spend less time in the betting app and more time in the places that inspire a bet.”

Onionsack makes it possible for punters to place a bet when the idea strikes: Listening to a podcast, reading a pre-game injury report, or watching an actual match.

At a traditional sportsbook app, you have to endure what Power calls “quite a torturous journey to actually get that bet.” Navigating the menus, dozens of lines, and pop-up promotions can muddle the process, making a sportsbook more reminiscent of a mid-90s internet experiment than a high-tech betting platform. 

“What we want to do,” says Power, “ is allow punters to navigate to a simple widget to speak or write their bet. Then, they only really need to visit the sportsbook to complete it. You line up the whole thing by speaking to a widget, and then your betslip is already populated with everything ready to go.”

The easier the journey, the more people will be willing to embark. And Onionsack’s user journey can be particularly beneficial to in-play bettors. 

“At the moment, when you’re in-play betting, you’re either looking at your phone to find the market, or you’re watching the game,” Power says. “It’s actually quite difficult to do, and you can’t do both. You miss something if you’re trying to dig through menus on your phone.”

“The idea is, if you’re watching a game on a device, there’ll be a mic icon on that device. You click that and speak what you’re looking for, or ask a voice device for the price, which is then pushed to you straight away.”

Making the market work

In the UK, Onionsack makes it possible for punters to place wagers via text. Send a message to the sportsbook with your market and your bet, get a confirmation that your wager has been placed. 

When betting law doesn’t require punters to place their bets on the actual sports betting platform, that type of interaction becomes possible. From one market to another, then, Onionsack’s offering differs. 

“In the UK, you could have a media site, an affiliate, or a streaming site where you watch the game,” Power says. “As long as you’ve connected your betting account, you’re not legally required to visit the site to bet. You can place your bet right then and there.”

That capability can be embedded directly into a media network’s primary sports new site or a streaming platform. Onionsack makes it possible to offer a betting opportunity when and where fans are enjoying a game or sports-related content. 

Naturally, the US has its fair share of hurdles. Legislation by state may vary, but sportsbooks almost universally prohibit users from placing bets anywhere but the core sportsbook platform. It’s a product of the US’ piecemeal approach. Bettors must confirm their whereabouts via geolocation, which requires bets to be placed on the platform and nowhere else. 

Thus, Onionsack has to adapt the journey, if slightly, for US bettors. 

“The difference from a user point of view is the last step of that journey,” says Power. “Let’s say you’re preparing dinner, listening to a game, and a bet pops into your head. So ask Alexa or Google to give you odds on that bet. Next, you’ll get a push notification with a deep link to the betting app. That bet is now in your betslip.”

The bet may not be placed until you visit the app, but the functionality remains. 

Onionsack is working on delivering its products to the US and UK simultaneously. There’s a lot on the company’s horizon. 

To the future

As Onionsack looks to reshape the industry, major players do the same. And Power sees a few avenues to future success for the sports betting arena as a whole. 

“Not much will change in a year,” Power says, “It’s all about the state-by-state approach in the US. I think some brands will also look to move into Africa, which is an exciting market. That could happen in the next year. Meanwhile, the US is all about the next state to open and making sure you’re ready.”

Various brands are lined up, waiting for the drawbridge to drop and offer a path to the next US market. 

“I think some of them are going to try to get across that drawbridge using money,” Power continues. “They can afford the enormous costs of customer acquisition in the US. Others might try to make it across with a strong user experience, which I think is a cleverer way of differentiating.”

That’s a one-year outlook. But what about five years?

“The convenience economy will have to be brought to the betting industry.”

Power references rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft or food ordering apps such as Grubhub. Everything has become so easy; you can do it with a few taps of your screen. 

“Big changes happen every five years in the betting industry,” says Power. “15 years ago, the big change was betting in-play. Ten years ago, maybe less, it was Cash Out, which has been really popular. The most recent one has been in-game parlays.”

The throughline with all these massive changes is their ubiquity. Once a single sportsbook offers a new option like those he mentions, every competitor launches the same features within six months. 

“I think the convenience economy is going to be about speaking or writing a bet. I think in five years, there’s little chance you’ll be navigating sportsbooks the same way we navigated the internet in the 90s.”